Test Drive

Sometimes it can feel like the editorial attitude taken toward radio drama in Canada (specifically at the CBC) over the years was that it should deliberately be the un-TV sort of programs…that is “low-key” concepts that probably wouldn’t last six minutes, let alone 6 episodes, on TV (unlike, say, British radio series which are often very much the kind of high concept, high drama things you’d do for TV). Not that this was always the case at the CBC, as it certainly produced some good thriller and sci-fi series. But this deliberately low-key vibe does seem to crop up from time to time — detective series about small scale crimes, mild comedies that are more just light-hearted. And case in point is Test Drive, a six episode “dramedy” written by Dave Carley chronicling the unassuming life of a Toronto car salesman from the 1950s to circa 2000 (the series aired 2003-2004).

The whole point in the various episodes (set sometimes years apart form each other) is to be kind of slice of life (the appropriately-named narrator, Earl, even self-deprecatingly remarks on how “ordinary” he is). Indeed, probably the best episode is among the most flamboyant…when he decides to run (unsuccessfully) for parliament.

The result is a series that is kind of too unassuming at times…yet with that said, it does grow on you. It’s a comedy-drama…though the “comedy” is often more just “light-hearted” and has a slightly broad, campy delivery at times. Gordon Pinsent narrates throughout in a kind of self-consciously “bumpkin-y” voice, though when he assumes the role proper in the final two episodes, he’s exceptionally good (Geoffrey Bowes plays the character in the scenes in the first four episodes).

Part of the point of the series is to chronicle not just Earl’s life (growing older, his kids aging, etc.)…but the changing world around him through the decades, and in that sense its very “Canadianess” is part of the appeal, making period references throughout (from a Toronto flash flood in the 1950s to Robert Stanfield’s political misadventures in the 1970s). So, not exactly riveting but, if you stick with it…mildly appealing. Others in the cast included Catherine Fitch and Andrew Tarbet.

Playing for His Life

45 min. BBC Radio drama from 2011 about mid-20th Century German tennis champion Gottfried Von Cramm (Geoffrey Streatfeild) whose fame and success allowed him to rebuff efforts to make him join the Nazi Party, and made the Nazis turn a blind eye to his friendship with Jews and his homosexuality — but such freedom was incumbent only upon his propaganda value and his continued international success on the tennis court!

Very well acted and an effective look at a historical figure, and a time, and an intriguing dramatic tension (winning or losing a match could have serious consequences for him personally) without maybe being more than a look at a historical figure and a period well-mined by dramatists over the years. Based more-or-less on fact (funnily, I think Von Cramm was married a few times, so I’m not sure whether it‘s known he was gay — or just speculation) but as such it’s not like it can veer off into unexpected directions, or offer surprise plot twists.

So — a solid, if modest, drama. In a sense, plays in a similar sandbox as another BBC Radio drama, Theremin — both about real people from the “other side” in a conflict (WW II or Cold War), but with Theremin the more compelling (perhaps because it was the more fictional!)

She

BBC Radio adaptation from 2006 of the classic, Victorian fantasy novel by H. Rider Haggard, adapted by Hattie Naylor and directed by Sara Davis. A trio of Englishmen set out for the African interior to investigate stories (part of one character’s family legends) of a tribe ruled over by a mysterious — and immortal — white woman. Tim McInnerny stars as Holly and Mia Soteriou as Ayesha (“She”) with Oliver Chris, Howard Coggins, Ben Onwukwe and Janice Acquah.

I’ll admit, I have some ambivalence to the source novel (which I read years ago). Although a genuine classic of fantasy fiction, it’s kind of an odd story in that, though technically an “adventure” — it’s not really very exciting, being slow moving and more about the characters than the cliff hangers…without the characters necessarily being as well rounded as they need to be. So in that sense, I can’t fault the radio version for its presentation of the material (although the initial quest does seem a bit perfunctory as dramatized here, the characters seeming to find this “lost” civlizxation rather quickly).

McInnerny is fine as the lead character and narrtror, but some of the supporting roles aren’t as memorable (including Leo who, in a sense, is the more stereotypical handsome leading man role) — but, again, I think that relates to the novel as much as the tradio versiopn. And I’ll admit I didn’t feel Soteriou quite evoked the presence of She (admittedly, in a radio version, I’m not sure what sort of voice I’d want — though funnily I think Janice Acquah brought more personality to her supporting role). Bottom line: it’s suitably atmospheruc and a perfectly respectable, perfectly competent adaptation of the novel, and faithful within its time and format. And I suspect it’s a hard story to dramatize as there have been a few movie versions over the years — but few are well regarded.

The Ghost Train

90 minute BBC radio adaptation from 2008 of Arnold Ridley’s vintage 1923 stage play that mixes mystery, supernatural, and comedy with a story of passengers aboard a train who get marooned at a desolate train station for the night…where local history warns of a mysterious ghost train.

It’s a decent production, lively, and well acted (in a slightly fruity, OTT way) though some of the voices are hard to distinguish from each other. But the play itself is…problematic. For one thing, we’re probably half way into it before we even get to the spooky stuff (the first half more just introducing the passengers on the train) and, though it might have been more surprising when first written, nowadays kind of comes across as a predictable Scooby Do episode — as such, doesn’t quite succeed as being too scary/spooky (and even though it’s light-hearted…isn’t that funny). Still, an agreeable enough way to kill 90 minutes.

Ring for Jeeves

P.G. Wodehouse’s comic/satire stories of the British upper classes, as personified by oblivious Bernie Wooster and his smarter, but reserved, butler Jeeves, have seen a few audio/radio versions (as well as TV). The novel Ring for Jeeves (itself I believe based on a play, Come On, Jeeves) was adapted into 2 one-hour episodes for BBC Radio in 2014. It’s a little atypical in that Jeeves has been lent out to another oblivious gentleman, Bill, so it’s not about Wooster — the only Jeeves story not involving Wooster (though Bill is essentially the same character type, so perhaps the switch was to allow more plot freedom since the status quo doesn’t have to be maintained by the end of the story).

It’s a manor house comedy full of exaggeratedly typical British gentry (tally ho!) living on the cusp of the end of the Age of Aristocracy (here the 1950s) as they are having to get real jobs and deal with dwindling fortunes. Bill is in the process of trying to sell his estate (possibly to a wealthy American woman) while also dealing with the misadventures resulting from an ill-fated foray into being a racing bookie (after he ends up owing more money to a winner than he actually has). And there is a bit of a “play” vibe to it, as most of the action takes place on the estate over just a few days.

Perhaps the curious thing about it is that some of the actors are often associated more with drama, yet the story itself is pure light-hearted farce. But that results in a mixed effect. On one hand, you could argue the characters and dialogue demand a little more camp and OTT…on the other hand, maybe it lends the characters and situations a little more grounding, so that the whole doesn’t float away on a cloud of total frivolity. By that I don’t mean that the actors aren’t playing it as comedy — they are! — it’s just the characters can still seem a bit like, well, people, too. As such, maybe not as funny as it could be, but it’s maybe more slyly amusing and engaging than you might expect it to be. And where you have to pay attention to the dialogue to get the jokes.

Martin Jarvis stars as Jeeves and Jamie Bamber as Bill, with Rufus Sewell, Joanne Whaley, and American actress Glenne Headly in the cast. It’s a good cast, with Sewell in particular delightfully atypical as an aging, oblivious, aristocrat. Of course, I can’t say I’m a devoted fan of the Wodehouse/Jeeves stories in general, but I did enjoy this as a kind of breezy, amusing romp.

The Adventures of JAGO AND LITEFOOT

Big Finish’s Doctor Who plays have proved enormously successful…but the company has had more modest success with other franchises, leading to them to occasionally look to Doctor Who for something that will tie into the franchise…even as it allows them to stretch creatively. Which led them to…Jago & Litefoot. A couple of characters first — and last — seen in the perennially well-regarded 1970s TV serial Dr Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

Set in an archetypical Victorian London of fog and back streets, Professor George Litefoot (Trevor Baxter) is a police forensic pathologist and Henry Gordon Jago (Christopher Benjamin) a bombastic theatre impresario with an amazing ardour for alliteration who aided the Doctor and Leela on that adventure. On a whim, Big Finish reunited the actors for one of their Companion Chronicles enhanced audio books (The Mahogany Murders)…and were so struck by the potential, and the genuine chemistry between the actors, and how easily they re-inhabited their roles (after 30 years!) that they decided to launch them into a series of full cast audio plays, with the unlikely duo investigating strange events and mysterious goings on — from werewolves to psychics.

Funnily, despite the inherent humorousness of the characters — particularly Jago (Litefoot is played more straight) — leading one to think they were intended as an answer to the popular audio comic-thrillers of The Scaryfiers (which BF had begun distributing for Cosmic Hobo Productions) the plots are actually serious. There’s lots of humour and comedy, but basically arising from the characters and to leaven the drama, rather than as an out-and-out parody. And it works tremendously well, succeeding as being both like Dr. Who (in that they are thrillers involving steampunk sci-fi and the supernatural) yet with their own tone and flavour, most notably because the heroes are more “everymen.” The lead characters are the stories’ anchor, delightfully realized and exceptionally well performed by Benjamin and Baxter who you really would assume have been playing these roles for years, they seem so comfortable with them and with each other (indeed, their performances are even better than in the old TV serial!) The humour is well captured, the Victorian flavour (in themes, dialogue and period detail — Oscar Wilde even guest stars in one story) nicely evoked, and the plots interesting enough to keep you listening. An unexpected success.

BF has presented them in a series of “series” (or seasons) each of generally 4 one hour dramas, sold as boxed sets, each series usually made up of relatively stand alone adventures linked by a sub-plot/recurring nemesis to form arcs of four episodes. At this point I’ve heard Series I, Series II, and Series IV and all are generally highly enjoyable. I also listened to Dr. Who: The Companion Chronicles: The Mahogany Murders, which is more an enhanced reading by the actors as opposed to a full cast dramatizations (though acts as essentially the first episode in the Series I arc). The characters have also guest starred in some of BF’s Dr. Who audio plays, including the 6th Doctor stories Voyage to Venus and Voyage to the New World — both quite good, though with Voyage to Venus getting the nod as the more fun, while Voyage to the New World boasts the more ambitious plotting.

The Man in the Wooden Hat

75min long BBC Radio adaptation of the novel by Jane Gardam (also presented in 5 x 15 min instalments) written by Pete Atkin and directed by Martin Jarvis. It’s a decades spanning tale beginning post WW II involving a woman (Olivia Williams) and her somewhat polite marriage to a staid English lawyer, affectionately nicknamed “Filth” (ie: Failed In London, Try Hong Kong), played by veteran actor Michael York. Their lives together taking them back and fourth between England and colonial Hong Kong (where they are both from, though they are ethnically British).

It has a good cast, including Williams and York, and with Jarvis providing the narration. But at a bit over an hour, it frankly comes across as a synopsis of a story that might have been interesting in its entirety. But here it just leaves you feeling you‘ve missed out on whatever it‘s selling. Important, motive-defining relationships are presented in just a few episodic scenes, some set years apart, and with the story relying heavily on the narration to basically just tell the story (and explain motivation) rather than because it’s conveyed in the scenes. I mean, maybe I’m just dense, or wasn’t paying attention, but the title of the story seems to refer to a supporting character who is introduced at the beginning, referenced only in passing later, and then hinted at toward the end — but for the life of me I can’t figure out why he was seen as so significant to the title!

Maybe the flaw is Gardam’s source novel (though I believe it was well regarded). For that matter, this is one of two or three interconnected novels (the previous one called Filth — the name of York’s character) which might further explain problems as perhaps you’re supposed to bring some extra understanding to it (but I’m not sure the previous novel has been dramatized). But ultimately I’m putting this mainly down to the difficulty of trying to squeeze a novel into 75 minutes. Maybe because it covers such a long period, and is deliberately episodic, it was hard for the adapters to simply pare it to the bone and figure out what to focus on. The result is the good performances and nice sense of period & place aside, it feels like it’s missing a lot of scenes that would make the existing scenes make more sense.

The Highly Probable Noel Coward Mysteries

This was the umbrella title (or came to be the accepted title) for a 5 episode series of one-hour BBC Radio dramas from (I think) 2007 — whether they hoped to do more, or whether the one batch was all that was intended, I‘m not sure. Since the episodes go from the 1930s to the 1960s it‘s entirely probable they only intended these five. Anyway, writer Marcy Kahan imagines real life writer, actor, and bon vivant Noel Coward (played by Malcolm Sinclair) also acting as an occasional amateur detective and even spy (Coward did, apparently, do some work for British intelligence during WW II — though presumably nothing so dramatic). It’s all highly fictional, of course, but it’s obviously aimed at Coward aficionados, with supporting players like his assistants Lorn Lorraine (Eleanore Bron) and Cole Lesley (Tam Williams) and guest star characters often drawn from Coward’s real life circle of artists and celebritiy acquaintances.

Well performed by all and Kahan does capture a Coward-esque flavour to the milieu and the banter (even the opening credits tongue-in-cheekily introduce characters as Coward‘s “devoted” this and that). At the same time, like Coward’s work itself, it can often be clever…but that doesn’t mean it’s always laugh out loud funny. Of course that’s partly because, witty repartee aside, these are still mainly dramas. And the mysteries themselves, though perfectly okay, are unexceptional — often seeming as though the real point is just to hang with this (fictionalized) Noel Coward & friends and with the plots almost a secondary aspect!

Although essentially dramas (well, witty dramas) it might actually have benefited from a live audience who could chuckle at the dialogue…further evoking the sense of a Coward play.

For my money the best of the batch is the final — Our Man in Jamaica, with guest characters including Ian Fleming and Marlene Dietrich, and with Coward getting caught up in a plot with James Bond overtones. It’s the most fun because it deliberately takes itself the least seriously — more clearly a comic romp than the others which were more straight mystery-dramas but with Coward-esque badinage.

Ultimately a likeable, perfectly decent — and certainly well executed — series, but Coward fans are more likely to appreciate it than non-Coward fans (such as myself) for whom the characters and settings will have less resonance. The episodes include: Design for Murder, Blithe Spy, A Bullet at Balmain’s, Death at the Desert Inn. But, as I say, the one that most succeeded as an amusing romp was Our Man in Jamaica.

The Red Badge of Courage

Stephen Crane’s classic American novel about a novice soldier during the U.S. Civil War has probably been adapted to audio more than once, but the version I heard was a feature length production from 2010 by The Colonial Radio Theatre. It’s a faithful, deliberately respectful version (according to the intro intentionally trying to maintain much of the language of the book — and utilizing the first person narration).

Admittedly, despite being a classic — or more likely, the reason it is a classic — is because it is a pretty straightforward story, about a young man experiencing the crucible of war, wandering through battles and the aftermath of battles, and less a “plot” with story twists and turns. And philosophically, it’s a brutal, unsentimental look at war without, quite, going so far as to be an anti-war story. Still, probably as good an audio production of the tale as you could want, with performances restrained enough to be effective, but with a slightly theatrical flavour, giving the thing an (appealing) Old School vibe, like watching some 1950s teleplay.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Funnily, I’m not sure there have been many other (or any other!) radio adaptations of the story in the modern/post-OTR era (other than talking books). So this is an hour long BBC Radio drama from 1985 and scripted by Glyn Dearman. It takes an unusual approach to the classic horror/mystery story by Robert Louis Stevenson — by actually sticking close to the source novel!

That is, though the story has been filmed and staged innumerable times over the years, usually the focus — logically enough — is on Jekyll/Hyde. But the original novel was actually written as a mystery, with another character, Utterson (here voiced by Bernard Hepton), as essentially the main hero, who finds himself investigating the strange events surrounding the sinister Mr. Hyde and trying to fathom the man’s connection to the respectable Dr. Jekyll who seems to be covering for him. It’s not really until half way through the novel that the solution is revealed — and then it retells the events from Jekyll’s perspective (such spilt-perspective mysteries were not uncommon in the 19th Century, including some Sherlock Homes novels).

So this radio drama decides to go back to basics, and tells the story as a mystery (though with the revelation serving as the climax of the story, as opposed to then launching into an entire second half detailing it). And even knowing the solution (as most people will) it’s an effective, intriguing approach (if only just as something different from the standard Jekyll/Hyde movies) — much as I found it intriguing when I first read the novel. And the production itself is well done, and briskly-paced. Obviously, the fantasy/horror aspect is less pronounced (since it only comes into play toward the end) but compelling nonetheless — and an interesting chance to perceive the story as Stevenson originally intended it, as a “mystery.”