PAUL TEMPLE

Paul Temple appeared in novels and a series of popular radio serials by Francis Durbridge decades ago. In some respects they seemed like the ideal marriage of the kind of breezily sophisticated manor house mystery, ala Lord Peter Wimsey and the like, with a more pulpy, action flavour ala, say, Bulldog Drummond, the stories involving a little more shooting and cliff hangers than the simple arm chair detective mystery.

Paul Temple and his wife Steve are the usual upper middle class sophisticates (with a butler, yet!) — he writes mystery novels, but also acts as a consulting detective and is friends with the Police Commissioner. Many of the old serials are still rerun on BBC Radio and available on CD (with various actors essaying the role, though Paul Coke is often regarded as the definitive Paul). As well, in 2007-2009, the BBC decided to re-do some old serials for which the original recordings were lost. So they used the old scripts, but with new actors (and apparently, even restricting themselves to technology that would’ve been available at the time) with Crawford Logan as Paul and Gerda Stevenson as Steve.

I’ve listened to a few (both the old and the modern-era recreations) and they’ve all been eminently enjoyable, well produced and well acted. Usually eight half hour episodes per mystery, they’re full of twists and turns, mysterious clues and red herrings, that’ll keep you interested (though sometimes off-puttingly violent with them finding the bodies of people beaten to death!) — mixing, as I say, Agatha Christie whodunits with more of a gritty, pulp fiction aspect (there’s often some mysterious master criminal or gangster lurking behind the crimes, as opposed to the crimes being motivated by passion or personal larceny). Granted, they do tend to blend into each other, the stories recycling similar themes and formulas (often involving an early clue being a name scrawled in a diary, or on a memo, that no one can account for, and the search for some mysterious gang lord whose identity is revealed in the end) — but that maybe makes them better for repeated listens since you‘re unlikely to remember how the story plays out because you’re probably muddling it with the others! The constant twists and revelations (or revelations that the previous revelation was a lie!) mean that it can be a bit silly…but that’s part of the fun.

I have a particular fondness for Paul Temple and the Madison Mystery, but that may simply be because it was the first one I ever heard — but I also liked the atypical idea (for a crime story) that the initial death is entirely natural. A man dies of a heart attack on a cruise…but his death triggers a chain of criminal events.

There are also audio books of some of the novels (as opposed to full cast serials) but that’s less of my focus — I’m not sure if there’s much overlap (ie: a full cast serial and an audio book of the same story). The series overall is definitely highly recommended.

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.

Insp. Adam DALGLIESH

Insp. Adam DALGLIESH, P.D. James’ laidback, erudite police Inspector has come to BBC radio in a couple of forms in (to date) 4 productions — all adaptations of published novels, serialized in multi-episode forms. Robin Ellis played the character in Cover Her Face and Devices & Desire and Richard Derrington played him in The Private Patient and A Taste for Death.

Vocally, Ellis is evocative of Roy Marsden who played the character on TV in the 1980s, leading one to wonder if that was a factor in the casting (though funnily I think P.D. James suggested she wasn’t entirely happy with Marsden’s casting — not a mark against him, I don’t think, just that he wasn’t how she imagined the character). Still, if you were familiar with and liked Marsden’s performance (as I did), it’s easy to adapt to Ellis’ radio version. Derrington sounded a bit older, seeming more like, well, a real police inspector.

And while the two Ellis productions were full cast plays, the Derrington productions seemed more like a cross between a full cast play and an audio book, with a heavy use of narration (switching between different actors/perspectives), even narrating entire scenes as opposed to dramatizing them. I don’t know how much it was a creative choice, and how much a budget decision, the mix of narration with full cast scenes obviously cheaper than an entirely dramatized production. Part of the problem is that Derrington and the others are essentially narrating the scenes in character, so they can’t really slip into character voices, making the narrated scenes a bit dry. I found A Taste for Death a bit uninvolving as a result, with even the dramatized scenes feeling a bit too much like actors reading their lines. Though The Private Patient I recall finding interesting enough.

Still, all are perfectly decent mysteries though maybe with a caveat that James’ stories may almost be too convoluted and twisty for radio! That is, moreso than other mysteries-adapted-to-radio (Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, etc.) I did find it a bit hard to keep track of who and what — maybe because James’ stories employ large casts which can be confusing in radio (where you’re trying to keep track of character names and whose voice is who). Though equally that’s the appeal of the stories — they can seem a bit bigger and more literary than just a dime novel whodunit? And though a popular character, it could be argued Dalgliesh isn’t that distinctive — you might not realize Ellis and Derrington were playing the same person (without them being radically different either). Probably my favourite was the fully dramatized Cover Her Face. Trivia note: Hugh Grant plays one of the suspects in Cover Her Face — presumably before his stardom.

Inspector MORSE

Colin Dexter’s cantankerous, hard drinking police inspector whose beat is the halls of academia in Oxford, England has enjoyed success in print and on TV (played by John Thaw, and even leading to the successful spin-off, The Inspector Lewis Mysteries, wherein his sidekick is promoted and takes centre stage while utilizing the same milieu).

And on BBC Radio  some of the novels have been adapted into at least three feature length plays (some serialized in half-hour or 45 minute instalments). John Shrapnel is superb as the caustic, impatient anti-hero — obviously he’s working with an established, popular personality, but his delivery nicely captures the sense of a hard-to-like character who you do, nonetheless, like. And Robert Glenister is understatedly effective as his long-suffering sergeant, Lewis. And the performances in general are top notch, as is the sense of environment.

Of the three 90 minute productions, The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1996) is perhaps the most conventional detective-mystery, investigating an initial murder (of a deaf teacher/professor) and drawing upon the world of academia that’s at the heart of the series. While Last Seen Wearing (1994) has a more atypical hook, involving Morse and Lewis taking on, not a murder, but a missing person cold case that had been a private obsession of a recently deceased detective. Murder does eventually result, but it allows the story to unfold in a slightly different way. Both productions are enjoyable and compelling, with twists and turns, mixing mystery, drama, and wry humour, but I’d argue Last Seen Wearing stands slightly ahead.

The Wench is Dead (1992) is a deliberately atypical tale (funny, given it was the first they adapted). In it Morse is laid up in hospital and, simply for a hobby, begins re-examining a controversial murder case from over a century before. I think the novel itself was the most critically acclaimed of the Morse books, and was, one suspects, meant as an homage to Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, which was also about a hospitalized detective playing arm chair detective with a historical mystery — though in that case, using real history (there‘s an effective reading of it by Paul Young produced for BBC Radio, and I think there may be a version read by Derek Jacobi). The Morse story is almost two tales — one is more a character drama of Morse laid up in hospital, and the other is the mystery (with flashback scenes). I enjoyed it more a second time through, buoyed by Shrapnel’s compelling performance, but didn’t find the mystery as twisty as in the other stories. So, still decent — but probably the lesser of the three plays.

But overall, the Morse radio dramatizations are top drawer.

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 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.”

V.I. Warshawski

V.I. Warshawski, Sara Paretsky’s tough talking Chicago female detective/lawyer, had been featured in a series of successful mystery novels when she was portrayed by Kathleen Turner in an ill-fated, ill-reviewed Hollywood motion picture. But though the movie bombed, it may’ve succeeded in boosting the character’s profile, because shortly thereafter BBC Radio did some multi-episode adaptations of Paretsky’s novels. Two — Deadlock and Killing Orders — featured Turner again (despite the movie’s bad reviews, most felt Turner herself was well cast in the role) with a British cast (adopting American accents) and another — Bitter Medicine — has Sharon Gless taking over the title role (though with the same supporting cast and bluesy theme music indicating the BBC saw it as part of the same series). A fourth was, I gather, just a dramatic reading by yet another actress.

The full cast productions are decent, though uneven, with some broad supporting characters (as performed and written) and though the liberal/political undercurrents are actually kind of refreshing in a detective genre that’s usually more A-political or even conservative (the stories make points about religion, medicine, abortion, feminism, etc.) it can seem a bit stridently over-the-top — pedagogical pronouncements rather than stemming from natural conversations.

The first I heard was KILLING ORDERS (6 eps) as Warshawksi investigates when an aunt she hates is, nonetheless, implicated in a counterfeit stock crime, which leads to powers in the Catholic Church and attempts on Warshawksi’s life. Kathleen Turner is good, and the serial decent enough — though a bit uneven, whether as a fault of the novel itself or an occasionally clumsy attempt to turn it into six half hour episodes: emotions can ping pong around in a given scene, awkward expository dialogue is crammed in, even the basic plot can be a bit confusing (dealing as it does with a mixture of corporate crime and mob hits). Still, holds your interest, and with the largely British cast (other than Turner) doing credible American accents. Turner does the voiceover narration in a kind of quirky, breathless way — almost as though muttering to herself under her breath more than the “narrator voice” way such pieces are usually read/played by actors — for an interesting effect. DEADLOCK involved her investigating an ex-hockey player cousin’s mysterious death while he was working on a loading dock, leading her to uncover maritime malfeasance.

BITTER MEDICINE (6 eps) involves death and corruption at a ritzy hospital, and has some similar problems of a tendency for characters to erupt emotionally with little provocation (particularly her love/hate relationship with a blustering cop) but the plot maybe seems a little smoother developed. Sharon Gless is certainly good and seems comfortable with the audio format. But though I can’t put my finger on why, she’s maybe not quite as compelling as Turner was in the role.

Admittedly, my mixed feeling toward all three serials may stem from the source books (few of which have I yet read). Like a lot of detective novel heroes, there’s nothing here that really makes V.I. — or her cases — stand out from any other hero/heroine.

PERRY MASON

Earl Stanley Gardner’s lawyer-detective first came to audio life in a 1930s radio series — though with curious results, as it was done as basically a soap opera, with Mason — and the crime element — present, but apparently not always dominant. When it morphed into a TV series, Gardner even refused to allow them to continue using the name, and it became…The Edge of Night (a long running soap opera). That seemed to be it for decades as far as “official”* audio productions (*more on that in a moment) until:

2010 when the Colonial Radio Theatre started producing full cast, feature-length adaptations of the original novels. Though faithful to the books, fans of the popular (and arguably character defining) 1950s-1960s TV series with Raymond Burr might be a little surprised at this version of Perry — he’s flintier and more hard-boiled, and even more willing to bend the law. But they’re actually being true to the original books. And in other respects — fans of the TV series will feel right at home (same sort of cases, same supporting cast of Della Street, Paul Drake, etc.) as should fans of Gardner’s books.

They only made five (so far) which is too bad –’cause they’re highly enjoyable! That’s thanks, obviously in part, to simply sticking to Gardner’s original stories, with twists and turns, and also to a rapid fire pacing that never allows it to get dull (without feeling rushed or like the story is getting muddled by cramming it into the running time). And the lawyer-angle — as opposed to the hero being a cop or detective — gives the mysteries an extra twist, the cases often nicely convoluted, not just beginning with a body-in-the-library sort of thing.

Admittedly, at times the performances can seem a bit like actors in a community theatre — a talented community theatre, but still not quite top drawer stuff. Though Jerry Robins — who also directed — was effective as Perry. But although I’m saying some of the performers were a bit uneven…it was still perfectly good and despite a hard boiled Perry, equally evocative of the TV series (with the audio Paul Drake even sounding like TV‘s Drake). They CDs are well worth tracking down. The plays: The Case of The Sulky Girl, The Case of The Howling Dog, The Case of The Luck Legs, The Case of The Velvet Claws and The Case of The Curious Bride.

There’s one final — unofficial — addition to Perry Mason-in-audio: a few audio tracks of the popular, seminal TV series starring Raymond Burr sometimes float about the internet, popping up on Old Time Radio sites, though not official “audio” productions. The ones I’ve come across are The Case of The Angry Mourner, The Case of The Silent Partner, The Case of The Drowning Duck and The Case of The Restless Redhead. Because these are just the TV soundtracks, some of the action will be a bit confusing (as dramatic music plays and you aren’t sure what the actors are doing) but the talky nature of the Mason scripts means they still work surprisingly well, benefiting, of course, from the good scripts and from hearing the signature and fondly recalled actors in the roles. The Silent Partner perhaps suffers the most from the lack of visuals (a few scenes where action is occurring) but even it you can follow, and the others are surprisingly effective as audio dramas.

Inspector ALLEYN

Inspector ALLEYN, Ngaoi Marsh’s early/mid 20th Century police inspector, has appeared in four BBC radio adaptations (between 2001 – 2006) as hour long mysteries, starring Jeremy Clyde.

Eminently enjoyable and well produced…albeit largely interchangeable with any other similar series, Alleyn himself of the familiar “gentleman” detective archetype and not especially unique or anything. The fact that they seemed to be produced by the same people (such as scripter Michael Bakewell) behind various Agatha Christie radio adaptations and similar things perhaps furthering the familiar vibe. But as I say: briskly paced and quite enjoyable, often appealingly ensconced in archetypal, almost cliched, English mystery milieus — one about a murder during a “murder game” at an English estate (A Man Lay Dead), another about back stage at a theatre (Opening Night), another involving a quirky family of quasi-nobility who live like the idle rich…even though they’re broke (A Surfeit of Lampreys)! The fourth takes place amid tourists in Italy (When in Rome).

The fact that these are novels shoe-horned into hour long plays might make purists balk, but whatever is excised in the translation, they work well in that format, well paced and well performed. Of course the fact that so many seem to revolve around a set location with a limited cast (even When in Rome, with Alleyn on assignment in Rome and getting caught up in murder involving a tour group) actually means they lend themselves to the format quite well — almost as though written to be turned into plays!

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett’s seminal detective novel, has had a few audio versions, all pretty faithful within the limits of their respective running times (including an hour long one for Lux Radio Theatre in 1943 starring Edward G. Robinson, a lengthy 2008 American version, a 90 minute adaptation in 2009 for BBC radio starring Tom Wilkinson…and hero Sam Spade was featured in a 1940s weekly radio series called The Adventures of Sam Spade).

The 2008 version from Hollywood Theatre of the Ear and Blackstone Audio starred Michael Madsen, Sandra Oh, Edward Herrmann, Armin Shimerman and others. It’s mainly an audio play, but does a quirky technique where the actors will read some of the text description where needed to introduce a character or clarify the action. At first, it’s a bit distracting (particularly as they read it in the third person, so Madsen both plays Sam Spade, yet will also read a narration saying how “Spade crossed the room”) — yet it actually becomes effective, too, with the added gimmick that the various actors read the narration that relates to their character, and generally remain in character while they do it! Madsen is suitably world weary as Spade and Herrmann steals the show as Casper Gutman — doing a dead on Sidney Greenstreet impression (the actor who played the role in the Humphrey Bogart movie version).

In general, a very nice, very faithful (it clocks in at around 3 ½ hrs), very witty (I hadn’t remembered how witty some of the banter is) very evocative presentation (great use of music and ambient sound) of a story that is so seminal and archetypal…even if you’ve never read or seen it, it’ll probably trigger feelings of déjà vu (in a good way). They pull off the trick — that a lot of such projects try, but with less finesse — of being both a serious, straight-faced drama, while also being slightly hammy and tongue-in-cheek, as much a fun homage to the hard boiled/film noir genre as a mystery for its own sake.

The 2009 BBC Radio version was adapted by Michael Bakewell and starred Tom Wilkinson as Spade (when British actor Wilkinson adopts an American accent he sounds a bit like Jack Nicholson, which might have been deliberate casting — Nicholson having starred in the classic PI movie, Chinatown). It’s a perfectly good, perfectly agreeable version — and also remains faithful to the source material (albeit, at less than half the length of the other, and without lifting descriptive passages from the book). It also goes for a broad/evocative style (jazzy score, and the announcer introducing the story is deliberately meant to sound like something out of 1940s radio) without sliding too much into camp.

But it ultimately is a bit too broad at times, some of the actors seeming too much like they are playing archetypes (particularly Bridgitte, as played by Jane Lapotaire) or, in the case of Wilkinson, playing it real, but without quite putting his own stamp on the role. Peter Vaughn as Caspar Gutman is arguably the most effective (I guess it‘s just a good part!) — in this case, precisely because he doesn’t sound like Greenstreet so makes the part his own.

Ultimately the BBC Radio version is an entirely sound production, but maybe does feel a bit like a respectable go round with a classic novel, whereas the 2008 American version is more atmospheric and feels like a production for itself alone. Admittedly, it has the advantage of length, and that I heard it first!