Slipstream

BBC Radio science fiction serial from 2008 in 5 half hour episodes by Simon Bovey about a British team that goes into Nazi Germany to investigate a mysterious new German plane…that’s far beyond normal technology.

Well enough acted (by Tim McMullan, Rory Kinnear and others) and put together, but I never found myself interested in, or caring about, the heroes. And ultimately the story is too simple. Briskly-paced, to be sure, but more like an action movie broken up into segments rather than a story that unfolds and develops over its 5 chapters. The core plot is straightforward, lacking any real stand out action scenes or twists, and with the basic premise pretty obvious (the fact that the German’s are using alien technology isn’t much of a twist — it’s pretty much given away in the synopsis!) But instead of that being the beginning of the story…that IS pretty much the story as we never really learn much about the source of the technology or anything. (Even though the technology has sentience).

Plus…there’s just a kind of moral sordidness to the story (which I kind of associate with some British stuff). Even though the story purports to have a kind of liberal anti-war undercurrent, one of the central characters (the leader of the operation) is basically a suave-but-amoral “ends justifies the means” sort of guy (the sort of guy who will liberate a Nazi work camp…then force the prisoners back to work for his agenda!) And though other characters criticize him…the obvious subtext is that he’s supposed to be kind of cool. In other words, it’s an action-thriller about battling fascists…that kind of sends mixed signals about the appeal of fascism!

So ultimately, though not boring, per se…the story could’ve used some beefing up beyond the obvious, and the character/human drama doesn’t really pick up the slack.

Scramble

3-part (half hour episodes) BBC Radio SF/fantasy serial from, I think, 2008. It’s set in a fascist future where music has been outlawed (in addition to other oppressive measures). A loyal government scientist, involved in their central computer project, finds her loyalties shifting after her estranged father — a musician and rebel –is killed by the authorities, and she learns that the government is involved in some mysterious weapons project using sound, which her father was trying to stop.

Often the advice to writers is “write what you know” — but the addendum to that might be “with moderation.” In this case, scripter Martin Kiszko is primarily known as a musician and composer (this may in fact be his only scripted drama) and one can certainly see that influence in a story about outlawed music and which revolves around sound and harmonics. Unfortunately, the result’s a bit muddled. Kiszko throws in everything but the kitchen sink involving an Orwellian police state, the “ancients” who built Stonehenge, and cosmic mumbo jumbo involving — literally — the music of the spheres. It can all feel a bit weird and New Age-y, which might be fine if the telling matched it and was a wild ride with clever scenes and quirky dialogue.

But it’s fairly straightforward, generic telling, with characters that don’t entirely engage (there’s supposed to be some emotional aspect to the heroine having been estranged from her dad, without really being that deep or even convincing) as if Kiszko’s main interest was in the technobabble, with a lot of scenes of characters discussing harmonics and adjusting sound levels which might be interesting if you’re a studio sound mixer but is a bit dull if you’re not (particularly as it’s in service of a story where the science is a bit tenuous anyway). The cast includes Clare Corbett, Christian Rodska, David Collins, and others. Funnily, Corbett was also one of the stars of The Voice of God (which I’ve also reviewed) — another sci-fi radio serial which tried to meld a sci-fi/technothriller with more mystical New Age stuff, and revolving around a sound weapon!

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.

Fatherland

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 Blade of the Poisoner

BBC radio adaptation from 1991 of the fantasy novel by Douglas Hill adapted in four half-hour episodes by Wally K. Daly. It’s about a 12 year old boy, Jarral, with magical powers in a fantasy world, on the run with some adult protectors (also with unique powers) from an evil king/sorcerer — or, more accurately, running toward the evil king (the king has marked the boy with a poisoned blade that will kill him by the next moon cycle if they don‘t kill the evil king first and destroy the blade).

I’m assuming the novel (and by extension this dramatization) was youth-aimed — not that it’s especially childish (there is murder and death) but it feels a bit perfunctory, like a simplified version of a fantasy epic (and with some central characters younger). As such, I may not be the ideal audience — but that may also influence how they approached it, and what effort they expended.

The script is too expositional (explaining the world and the situation in basically blocks of “info dump”) and though the characters have personality — they’re rather one note personalities, not exactly demanding a lot of nuance from the actors. There’s a certain production weakness — it’s funny to say about a radio drama, but it feels low budget. And it feels like a radio drama, where you can picture the actors cold reading their lines, script in hand, rather than truly immersing you in a 3-D world and a “movie in your mind.” Likewise the actors are fine, but neither the performances nor the dialogue, really makes the characters come alive (Ben Onwukwe as the blind knife thrower comes across best), and the plot itself is pretty rudimentary and perfunctory (maybe a flaw of the adaptation, maybe of the source novel).

As I say, I suspect it’s more seen as a “young adult” story so I may just be getting too long in the tooth to appreciate it. Although the fact that it ends promising further adventures (they defeat the king, but not the evil behind him) but didn’t, to my knowledge, do any further radio adaptations, suggests it didn’t exactly win over a large audience.

The Owl Service

90 min BBC Radio drama from 2008, it’s a sort of supernatural drama involving Welsh characters in modern times (more or less) but with its roots in old mythology. It’s a hard story to describe because, honestly, it’s hard to really get a grip on it, some of that relating to the material (it’s supernatural, with strange things occurring and people acting oddly — but I don’t think it’s really meant to be “spooky” or “scary” per se, more a soap opera/character drama with a subtext about class) but also to how it’s told, being kind of confusing (there’s a number of characters interacting but it took a long time to really figure out their relationships to each other, and even the age of the characters is unclear at first). The time span between scenes can be vague, and characters act odd and erratically, sometimes because of the supernatural stuff (maybe) and sometimes just because the writing seems inconsistent.

I had assumed the protagonists were adults but then, as the story progresses and they seem answerable to their parents and talk about school, I realized they were presumably teenagers (in radio you can’t see actors, so you’re just going by voices and clues in the dialogue).

Apparently it’s based on a 1967 young adult novel by Alan Barnes (knowing that, it makes the age of the characters more clear, and maybe explains the mildness to the supernatural stuff) which itself had been turned in to a TV mini-series decades ago. And maybe in a long form presentation, where you have time to get to know and like the characters, it works better. But here it was just something where, as I say, initially I was having trouble deciding what type of “genre” it wanted to be, and who the characters were…and then, once I had a better sense of all that, I realized I just didn’t care!

The Gibson

6 half-hour episode BBC Radio SF/thriller by Bruce Bedford from 1992 about a family man in the town of Bath who gets embroiled in an ancient conspiracy involving two factions — one good, one evil — and an evil power buried beneath the town.

An enjoyable enough story, albeit where a lot of it can feel a bit like a coat of paint thrown over an old house to disguise how generic it all is. Although a thriller, with danger and death, it’s actually funny at times — which though a nice touch, equally can diffuse tension too much, almost coming across as too light-hearted. And it does have some quirky ideas. But, as I say, the foundations are kind of generic — and vaguely so. The “evil power” beneath the town is never really quantified or explained, nor the motives of the cult seeking to unearth it.

The story is deliberately made weird by jumping about in time periods. The main plot takes place in modern times, but we keep cutting back to a scribe in the Middle Ages who is actually writing out a chronicle of what will happen in modern times…while the story is introduced by a voiceover from somewhere in the distant future — all very weird and intriguing. Except, um, I’m not sure it’s ever really explained how or why (unless I drifted off for a few minutes). Weird and quirky is good — but weird and quirky simply for the sake of seeming weird and quirky at the expense of logic, not so much. It’s a bit as if the writer was charged with writing a generic SF thriller (perhaps to commemorate the city of Bath since the story takes place during a city celebration!) so tried to give it a more sophisticated sheen (and some wit)…without actually beefing up the substance. Even the characters never quite become more than likeable but vague characters.

So as I say, it’s an enjoyable enough story but, strangely, when it’s done it can still feel like what it was obviously trying not to seem like — a fairly generic version of an old cults-and-ancient-evil story. It stars Robert Glenister, Freddie Jones and others.

Neverwhere

2013 BBC Radio adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s urban fantasy saga, told in 3.5 hrs over six episodes (the first ep. 1 hr long, the rest ½ hr long). I’ve often thought radio dramas are a good place to tell stories that would be hard to film, yet funnily a lot of BBC Radio series and plays often have already been done for TV or as movies (perhaps dating from the days when the BBC would sometimes re-do popular TV shows for radio and LP records at a time when a large portion of the population didn’t have TVs). In the case of Neverwhere it actually began as a TV mini-series in 1996, then became a novel, with an accompanying single voice audio book, a play and a comic book.

Still, with all those versions — this remains an excellent, engaging presentation (and there was some suggestion the TV series, which I haven’t seen, and though well regarded, suffered from the to-be-expected budget problems).

It’s adapted by Dirk Maggs, a radio producer whom I tend to be ambivalent about, as his productions often tend toward camp and pacing that can border on frenetic — but maybe here it was tempered because although he wrote the script and handled the sound design, it was actually directed by its producer, Heather Larmour. And it boasts a great cast, including James MacAvoy, Natalie Dormer, David Harewood, Anthony Head, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sophie Okonedo, Bernard Cribbins, Christopher Lee and others.

Richard (voiced by MacAvoy), a mild mannered Londoner, discovers a mystical world beneath the city streets — part refuge of the homeless, part mystical land of sentient rats, fallen angels, monsters and magic — a world of which no one in “London Above” is aware, and once Richard is drawn into it, he finds he’s literally become invisible to those he used to know. He ends up going on a quest with the Lady Door (Dormer) and various other eccentric characters, to discover why her family was murdered and why the killers are after her — and also in the hopes that Richard can return to his old life above.

It’s a deliberate mix of comedy and whimsy with danger, suspense and horror, and is both wildly imaginative and dreamlike at times — even as, at other times (for such a clearly successful property, given all its different media incarnations) it’s fairly obvious and clichéd in terms of concepts and ideas (from the somewhat contrived “quest” template, to referencing Lost Atlantis, to the comic-creepy villains who use big words and talk in mock formality, addressing each other as “Mister __”). But clichés are clichés because when done well, they work — and they’re done well here. Indeed, one could argue the familiarity of some aspects is part of the appeal.

As well, I suspect a part of the point of the story was to Romanticize London itself, scenes taking place in (or referencing) real London locations (or fantasy versions of them).

Ultimately, engrossing and atmospheric — the sort of story that, given the required sets and effects, and TV version accepted, is well suited to a “movie in your mind” presentation.

Rendezvous With Rama

2009 two-hour BBC Radio adaptation (aired in two parts) of the classic Arthur C. Clark novel about an expedition sent to investigate a vast, mysterious space craft that has entered the solar system. Decently acted, with a cast that includes Richard Dillane and Archie Panjabi, and when the script sticks to the crew investigating the vessel, it’s moderately effective (even if it requires a lot of dialogue describing the awesome things they see).

But cutaways to the surrounding political/religious stuff just feels drily academic, as does a framing sequence where it’s being told years later by the characters reflecting back on the events for a documentary — which means it can feel like you’re well into it before the story proper even starts! Plus, like a lot of these kind of SF stories, it’s more a procedural than a human drama (the characters are likeable, but not well defined, or given any soap opera-y plot threads) and despite all the build up, with the characters reflecting back on the events, and cryptically suggesting the whole truth has never before been told…it builds to a predictable and rather Shaggy Dog ending.

Some of these may be attributable to the source novel, some to Mike Walker’s adaptation, but the result is mixed…and better in the second half than the first. I haven’t read the source novel (but I did read a bit about it) and certainly some criticisms of the novel seemed to be it was largely a procedural, devoid of much real characterization.

My impression is this adaptation stuck close to the book in some respects but — and somewhat atypical for a radio dramatization — re-imagined the story in other ways, perhaps to make it seem more relevant to the modern world. The emphasis on political in-fighting among the planetary governments (analogous to U.N. squabbles) and heavy emphasis on religious vs. secular debates may’ve been added to the radio story (adapter Mike Walker also wrote the original SF radio drama, Alpha, which likewise put a heavy emphasis on religious/secular debates — I’ll be posting a review of that shortly, or might already have done so depending in when you’re reading this). Obviously, one can sympathize with a scriptwriter, charged with adapting a novel that may have inherent weaknesses. But all the bells and whistles of the radio version (political/religious talk, the documentary framing) seems like it’s just an attempt to distract from an inherently weak narrative — without actually improving it.

Much of the scenes and dialogue (including banter among the crew) is repetitious and just feels like it’s stuck in to pad the running time, or to add to a sense of cinema verité “realism”, rather than because it contributes to the story or emotion. And the philosophical/political talk just feels like a place holder for political/philosophical talk, rather than because it’s truly insightful or provocative or offers anything fresh (First Contact stories are kind of bread and butter in SF). The characters may spout on about religion and politics — but that doesn’t mean the scriptwriter is actually grappling profoundly with these ideas.

Ultimately, without characters (and relationships) to engage us, without a human connection, all you’re left with is a pretty basic story of astronauts finding a derelict vessel, wandering about and ooh-ing and awe-ing at a few mysterious-but-never-explained sights, and then it ends without even a token twist or significant climax.

Chocky

There have been a few BBC Radio versions of John Wyndham’s novel about a 12 year old boy, Michael, whose parents begin to wonder if his precociously curious imaginary playmate…might not be imaginary after all. The presence in his head seeming to understand concepts far beyond the grasp of a 12 year old! Even with the internet, it’s hard to track down the right info (at least, casually — like I’m doing). I’m not sure of the plot’s genesis as the novel was apparently published in 1968, but according to some references the first radio version was 1967 — maybe Wyndham first published it as a short story, or pitched it as a radio play before turning it into a novel. And I’m not entirely sure of the number of adaptations, or when they came out (or whether some might have used the same script, but with different actors).

Of the two I’ve actually heard, one was I think the original, hour long one done in 1967 (scripted by John Tydeman, starring Eric Thompson, Sheila Grant, J. Bennett), and another was a later 90 minute version (scripted by John Constable and starring Owen Teale, Cathy Tyson, Sacha Dhawan, and a young Holly Grainger as Michael‘s sister, Polly) — but there may have been others (the 90 minute one I heard was, I think, done in 1998).

Anyway, the two I’ve heard are well done, partly as a reflection of the productions themselves, partly as a reflection of just the inherent effectiveness of the material itself — which is almost more a sci-fi drama with aspects of suspense than a conventional suspense story (it can feel a bit anti-climactic by the end), but moody and compelling nonetheless. They both follow the material fairly faithfully, though with some cosmetic differences (in the 1967 play Michael creates some weird paintings, in the later one — perhaps more tailored to the audio format — it’s weird music he composes; and Polly is referenced but not portrayed in the shorter play) and maybe not-so cosmetic (in the 1967 version, Chocky is not really heard, but she/he is a voiced character in the later version).

Another change maybe reflects changing attitudes toward what’s “appropriate” — in the later version, there’s a pivotal scene where young Michael tries to cross a frozen lake, leading to a mishap…but in the 1967 version, Michael ends up in the water by accident…and (depending on which version was in the novel) one could well imagine radio producers initially being uncomfortable with a scene that might be seen as encouraging young people to do something as reckless as to try to cross a frozen lake!

Both versions are well acted. Though about a kid, it’s not actually a children’s program (the main character is as much, if not more, the father than young Michael)…though it’s certainly family friendly. Ultimately the later Teale/Dhawan version is the better version — less as a knock against the 1967 version which, as I say, is quite good, but simply by virtue of being longer, the story can develop a bit better, with the 1967 occasionally feeling rushed or abrupt.

Indeed, the 90 minute play is among my favourite radio plays — it’s atmospheric, and intriguing, and dramatic — and I’ve listened to it a few times over the last few years.