Theremin

1 hr BBC Radio drama from 2009 written by Melissa Murray, starring Tom Hollander and Kate Ashfield. It’s an odd drama in that it’s a mix of espionage and character drama, about real-life Russian inventor and musician, Leon Theremin. In 1929 London he’s acting as a spy for the Soviet Union but finding himself increasingly caught in the middle between his Soviet masters and British and American authorities — and of his strained relationship with an English girl and musician who both loves and hates him.

An effective, interesting drama, well acted, with a nice sense of period and its mix of (low-key) suspense and human drama. But I describe it as “odd” simply because I’m not really sure how much (or if at all) this is based on any sort of factual history! And if entirely fictional, seems like an odd premise (Writer: “Hey, let’s do a drama where Leon Theremin is actually a spy!” Programmer: “Um…who?”) Still, as I say: quite effective and compelling in a kind of Graham Greene sort of way.

The Psychedelic Spy

An original-to-BBC Radio spy thriller (told in five 45 minutes episodes) first aired in 1990, this espionage serial by Andrew Rissik seemed as though it was meant to be a deliberate melding of James Bond with the cynical fatalism of John LeCarre…with an even more nihilistic edge. The story has a burned out British spy (James Aubrey), trying to settle down with a nice girl, coerced back for another job — but he’s not just a spy, but an assassin (that is, James Bond may have had a license to kill…but this guy, that’s one of his main job descriptions). It’s the 1960s and he’s sent to investigate goings on at a joint UK-US tropical research base where nothing is quite what it seems.

So, as I say, very James Bond-y (British agent on a tropical island investigating a top secret project — even the score seems to be lifting melodies from frequent Bond composer John Barry, as well as using heavily evocative 1960s psychedelic pop rock) yet married with a bleak, angst-riddled fatalism. Unfortunately…it just struck me as all dressed up with nowhere to go!

It’s a great, moody production, the use of (evocative) music is effective and the ambient sound really does make you feel the beach and other locations (as opposed to seeing the actors in a sound booth), and with good performances (some with spy movie antecedents, like Joanna Lumley of The New Avengers, and Charles Gray, who played Blofeld in a Bond film). But like a few similar espionage stories over the years, they’re intent on the kind of story they are trying to evoke (a bleak, cynical spy story of grey shade morality and murky motives) but unsure how to do it. It’s not so much murky…as muddled and vague, with clues and suppositions we’re just supposed to accept on faith, but where nothing really holds up to much scrutiny, and the amorality is just too over-the-top (the hero is supposed to be disgusted by his job…yet he’s the one who then proposes assassinating an innocent person!) Part of the story involves a disappearance in the Bermuda Triangle…without really creating an eerie, supernatural vibe.

Above all — it’s just too long and thinly plotted. Conversations ramble on, and the characters repeat themselves seeming just to boost the running time (for a radio drama with boundless potential…it can come across as a budget-restricted TV movie). As a tight, 90 min. or 2 hr play it might’ve worked better. Ultimately, I listened to it twice (a few years apart) and found it more aggravating than entertaining both times. A real shame, ‘cause as I say, as a production, in terms of sound design and performances, quite effective.

The Ipcress File

90 minute (or closer to 84 min) BBC adaptation (from 1994) of the Len Deighton spy thriller featuring his “unnamed” working class spy hero (kind of the anti-James Bond, being working class and on a limited expense account) given the name of Harry Palmer when The Ipcress File and other novels were adapted into movies starring Michael Caine in the 1960s.

Ian Hart stars as the hero.

Spy stories are often supposed to be murky and cryptic…but frankly this just comes across as disjointed and even incoherent, as if in squeezing the novel into 90 minutes, scripter Mike Walker just kind of left out scenes (and information) that would make the other scenes make sense. Yet it is primarily plot driven — so it’s not like you can forgive the narrative short comings because it works as an emotional/character drama. It’s episodic, so it’s almost hard to even describe the core plot (though a recurring thread involves kidnapping and turning agents).

Ultimately…I found it annoying more than entertaining, despite decent enough performances. Like some other spy stories (radio and TV) it can feel like it’s trying too hard to evoke its milieu of shadowy motives and double crosses (including hardboiled dialogue and narration that can almost border on camp) but focuses on the style more than the substance.

I haven’t read the book, and it’s been years since I saw the movie, but the radio play veers somewhat from the movie (while still being the general plot) but that may be because the movie was less faithful to the book, perhaps for budget reasons (the movie took place largely in London, the radio play is a little more globe-hopping) or maybe because the plot is episodic and they decided to prune it to its core essence for the film.

MODESTY BLAISE

The female James Bond, Modesty Blaise began life as a newspaper strip, was spun-off into a series of novels by her creator, Peter O’Donnell, and has appeared on screen occasionally…in, unfortunately, usually lesser efforts, poorly regarded. Her radio adventures have likewise been Spartan (including a single voice reading of the Willie Garvin focused short story, “My Date With Lady Janet”). A 1978 radio serial of six half-hour episodes based on Last Day in Limbo starring Barbara Kellerman as Modesty and James Bolam as her sidekick Willie Garvin. And then in 2012 came an adaptation of the novel A Taste for Death.

Looking at the most recent first, A Taste for Death runs approximately 75 min (initially serialized in fifteen minute chapters, but the whole runs together smoothly enough). Although faithful to the source, it was a little underwhelming. How much that’s a problem with the adaptation, and how much the source novel (which I haven’t read) I’m not sure. Perhaps the biggest problem up front is that if you didn’t know it was called a Modesty Blaise adventure…you might not realize Modesty was the main character! One of the principle characters, sure — but not the “main” character. It’s hard to even judge Daphne Alexander’s performances in the role, because she is given so little to work with (and in audio, it’s important to remember even if a character’s in a scene, if she doesn’t speak…she’s not really “in” the scene) — likewise sidekick Willie Garvin. I don’t know if that’s because they thought it would be neater to play up the mystique of the lead characters by viewing them through the eyes of others, or whether turning a novel, where you could internalize the action, or follow Modesty in solo action scenes, into a radio series meant the characters were short changed. Or whether it was simply the problem with squeezing it into 75 minutes! Likewise, the plot itself just wasn’t that exciting, or offered much intrigue (the villains are simply after buried treasure…a rather mundane goal) — again, though, that might have been a problem with turning an action story into audio…there were scenes where the action/adventure stuff took place off stage and we’re just told about it. When you have a scene of Modesty discussing building a pool on her estate but only get a verbal recap of some action scene…there’s a problem! Still — it’s certainly not bad, with decent performances and a nice music score that evokes a 1970s spy movie, and you certainly get a better feel for the character from this than some of the movies. But it just feels a bit lacklustre.

Much, MUCH more effective is the 1978 Last Day in Limbo — and a shame that it currently seems to have fallen out of circulation (I heard a rather scratchy bootlegged version, but you can look around for it on the internet). Totalling app. 3 hrs. which means it can take its time, letting the story unfold, the characters and their motives develop, and it can indulge more in dramatizing the action scenes and creating suspense. And there’s no doubt Modesty and Willie are the principal characters, at the centre of most of the scenes. And though it’s something where the audience knows what’s going on long before the heroes (as we keep cutting to the bad guys) it actually works to create suspense, as we watch the heroes slowly piece it together, making deductions that we know are closer to the truth than they can imagine, etc. — contrasted with the villains only gradually waking up to the danger they face having landing on Modesty’s radar! The score is mainly used just to bridge the scenes, but like with A Taste for Death, is evocative (including a few bits that sound a lot like something borrowed from the 1960s TV series The Prisoner…perhaps deliberate since the plot involves a colony of kidnapped people!)

Funnily, though Last Day in Limbo was recorded years before A Taste for Death (and by completely different creative teams), in terms of the character’s chronology, it takes place after, with supporting characters in Last Day in Limbo having first appeared in A Taste for Death. It’s not necessary to following either story, but is kind of neat if you end up hearing them, as I did, A Taste for Death first and then Last Day in Limbo. Of the two, Last Day in Limbo is the superior, both in terms of simply being a suspense-adventure story, and in terms of capturing the quirky relationship of the lead characters…and certainly shows that done right, Modesty Blaise can make a credible leap to audio. Though A Taste for Death certainly isn’t terrible.