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!)

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.