Aberystwyth Noir: It Ain’t Over till the Bearded Lady Sings

45 min. BBC Radio play from 2013 written by Malcolm Pryce using the characters and milieu from his series of humorous detective novels. It’s a comic private eye mystery set in a kind off-kilter alternate reality of the Welsh tourist town of Aberystwyth, involving the drive by, gangland murder of a local carnival owner, with suspects ranging from the misfit entertainers to the local gangsters — The Druids (who’ve changed a lot since the days of Stonehenge).

The hero is Louie Knight (Phylip Harries) a crusty private eye who finds himself joined by a spunky young girl sidekick, Calamity Jane (Catrin Stewart) — who’s been taking correspondence courses in being a detective.

The joke is partly taking the traditional, hardboiled American private eye story and transplanting it to the (supposedly) incongruous and innocuous setting of Aberystwyth, with the folksy Welsh accents, and where the local watering hole isn’t a sleazy bar — but an ice cream shop! Except it is a noir-ish Aberystwyth, with crime lords and murder around the corners. Admittedly, one could see the joke being a bit patronizing (I’m sure Wales is just as capable of being a setting for a serious private eye tale as anywhere else) but nonetheless works as a quirky spoof of the genre, with engaging characters/actors (particularly Stewart whose character might not even be in the novels), witty dialogue, and eccentric twists, while wryly having fun with the conventions of the genres (voiceover narration using overwrought metaphors).

An enjoyable, and oddly atmospheric, romp, set in this parallel universe Wales.


Robert Harris’ novel was adapted for BBC Radio in five half-hour episodes in 1997. It’s set in an alternate reality where Nazi Germany won WW II (or at least conquered Europe) — and so the Holocaust remains a deep secret even into the 1960s (when the story takes place). It’s a conspiracy thriller as the mysterious death of a Nazi bureaucrat starts a German police detective (voiced by Anton Lesser) investigating, gradually discovering a cover up that leads to him uncovering evidence of Genocide.

I haven’t read Harris’ novel (which might more deeply explore this alternate reality) but the problem with the radio serial (and a TV movie which I saw a few minutes of) is that it’s a mystery where the audience knows the solution right from the beginning! Now that’s part of the point, of course, as we wait for the hero (and an American female journalist) to catch up…but it does make it kind of tepid in terms of surprises and revelations. Particularly as the plot itself, and the characters, are pretty generic and straightforward (as I say, maybe the novel fleshed things out more, but here it’s reduced to simple plot and events).

Lesser (a top notch voice actor) is very good as the iconoclastic hero (he’s anti-Nazi right from the start) and it’s a slick production…though even then, maybe leans a bit too far toward being like a movie soundtrack without pictures, as some scenes are a bit confusing trying to figure out what’s going on.

So a perfectly okay production just of a story that, to my mind, suffers from the fatal flaw of being a fairly cookie cutter plot structure building to a preordained revelation. (Funnily, I saw another Robert Harris-based TV program, Archangel, which was a similar idea of a generic conspiracy thriller plot uncovering a mystery that is pretty obvious early on — yet, to be fair, I actually kind of liked Archangel).

The Woman in White

There have probably been more than one audio adaptations of Wilkie Collins classic Gothic suspense-mystery (I think there was also a Canadian one done for CBC radio). This is a 2001 BBC Radio adaptation written by Martyn Wade and serialized over 4 hour-long episodes.

It should go without saying that a good adaptation should hold up regardless of your familiarity with the source — that is, I’ve heard (and seen) classic adaptations that receive much praise from fans of the source novel…but really aren’t that compelling (or even coherent!) if you don’t already have a predilection for the story. (I’m not saying an adaptation shouldn’t be true to the source, I’m saying it shouldn’t be a Cole’s Notes of the source). In this case, this is a superb, compelling drama, and I say that as someone who had never read the novel or knew the plot (obviously Collins’ novel deserves the credit, but they bring it to life brilliantly).

It’s a mix of mystery and suspense (and Victorian romance!) yet isn’t simply a “body in the library” type whodunit? but a more complicated tale of characters with mysterious secrets, shrouded pasts, and ambiguous agendas, full of chance encounters (beginning with Walter meeting the eponymous Woman in White at the beginning) and coincidences, and where you’re not really sure where certain things are headed — but you’re interested in finding out. It’s deeply atmospheric (and benefiting from Elizabeth Parker’s musical score), well-paced, and with strong performances, where the heroes are sympathetic, and even some of the villains interesting and even charming (notably Philip Voss as Count Flosco). And it nicely straddles being both a “smart”, refined drama and a pulpy, entertaining romp. And also drawing upon the usual themes of Victorian-era Gothics (including the limited rights of women!) without being incessantly unpleasant or aggravating — that is, I sometimes find these sorts of tales less than “fun” simply because the protagonists are simply forced to suffer an unending stream of cruelties and iniquities till the climax. But this strikes a balance, perhaps because the villains are initially more sly, and the menace more implied.

The story concerns two sisters, Marian (Juliet Aubrey) and the beautiful Laura (Emily Bruni), the latter entering into an arranged marriage with a sinister nobleman, and the private tutor, Walter (Toby Stephens). who loves Laura. Funnily, Marian (particularly as voiced by Aubrey) is the more interesting, strong-willed sister (Laura is more a romantic paragon). Marian is supposed to be the ugly — but kind-hearted — one, but you can’t help thinking Walter should ultimately fall for her instead (but he doesn’t, of course).

Top drawer stuff.

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 Legend of Robin Hood

90 min. BBC radio drama from 1992 of the Robin Hood story, which may well be one of the few — or only — attempts to feature the character in radio (other than the occasional one off story in an Old Time Radio anthology). It stars John Nettles, Gerry Hinks and Carolyn Backhouse and was scripted by John Fletcher (which, let’s face it, is the bestest name ever for a guy writing a Robin Hood story!)

Unfortunately, it’s disappointing — even annoying, suffering from an acute case of self-importance. Instead of telling a Robin Hood movie in audio (with character development, and a linear plot) it, as the title “legend of…” implies, spans years and is episodic, comprised of little vignettes (no less than two captured-by-the-sheriff-and-rescue sequences within a few minutes of each other) and presumes we already know the story and uses that as a crutch so it doesn’t really develop the characters or relationships.

Then there’s a lengthy mid-story sequence with Robin and Little John off on the Crusades which, though part of some versions of the legend, doesn’t really feel like a “Robin Hood” story (almost as if Fletcher had wanted to write a play about the Crusades but could only interest a producer if he inserted Robin into it)…and still is more just a collection of moments and voice overs as opposed to gelling into a “plot.” Presumably part of the point was to try a certain historical realism, Fletcher having researched the period (and descriptions of the Holy Land), and with a greater emphasis on Robin’s Christianity (not — necessarily — in a proselytizing way, but simply for authenticity), yet also nods to paganism (strangely, I half wondered if Marion was supposed to be a mystical wood nymph or something at first, her initial scenes are so odd) and with evocative period music.

It feels pretentious. Full of voiceovers, poetic monologues, reflections on Christianity, and disjointed incidents, without really gelling into an actual plot about characters we like or care about. I’ll admit, Robin Hood is one of those iconic characters I have a great fondness for…yet rarely have I found a Robin Hood movie/book that really captured what I’m looking for in a telling of the tale. The swashbuckling Adventures of Robin hood (with Errol Flynn) and the bittersweet Robin & Marion (with Sean Connery) being my two favourite Robin Hood movies.

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.


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.