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 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 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.”

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.

A Doll’s House

There have probably been a few radio adaptations of Henrik Ibsen’s classic, proto-feminist play. This one is a 2 hr production done for BBC Radio in 2012 adapted by Tanika Gupta, relocating the story to colonial India (while still being faithful to the scenes and much of the dialogue) with Niru (ie: Nora) a naive Indian woman married to the seeming loving but condescending Englishman Tom (ie: Torval) and what happens when secrets and Niru’s past misdeeds start to come back upon them. Indira Varma plays Niru and Toby Stephens Tom.

It’s an effective, well-made production, with strong performances particularly from Varma (appealing despite the, initial, flighty nature of the character) and Stephens (the latter a popular actor on British radio but one I’ve sometimes been mixed on — not that he isn’t always good). The play itself is effective just as a kind of pulpy potboiler (with twists and revelations and tension) even beyond the “message” — indeed, the last scene is among the most awkward as it feels like a lecture (and some of the earlier twists and surprises can be a bit contrived in their coincidence!) But, as I say: a very good, quite engaging production.

The transposing of the story to India effectively adds a nice, rich sense of atmosphere (though was the term “item” used to refer to a romantic pairing back in the 19th Century?)

BUT…any added political subtext is, perhaps, more awkward. By seeming to want to graft on a theme about colonialism it can feel like an odd fit. Does Gupta want us to infer the events would’ve been different if Niru had married an Indian man? ‘Cause, um, it’s not like India had anything to learn from the English about sexism or class prejudice. Indeed, the fact that A Doll’s House can be performed all over the world, and has been re-imagined in different cultures and time periods, perhaps makes a point about how similar people are. But as I say, a good, entertaining version of the story.