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 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.

8

L.A. Theatre Works production recorded in 2012 of the play by Dustin Lance Black about the 2008 California court case involving Proposition 8 — a referendum proposal to ban same sex marriage (or more to the point: to strip that right that had previously been granted).

Part of the impetus for the play was that those arguing in favour of Equal Rights had wanted the trial broadcast to the public (as is often done in the U.S.) but the side arguing against gay marriage refused to agree (leading the makers of the play to present this as the story the anti-gay marriage side didn’t want the public to hear). The play is less a fictional dramatization than it is a recreation of key scenes and arguments, to essentially provide a public record of the trial (albeit trimmed to 90 min).

Initially intended both as an education in civil rights struggles and a fund raiser for Same Sex marriage rights, it was produced with all-star casts in New York and L.A. with this a recording of the L.A. show. Directed by Rob Reiner — yes, Rob Reiner — it’s a pretty heavy weight (all volunteer) cast, including George Clooney, Martin Sheen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Bacon, Brad Pitt, John C. Reilly, Jane Lynch (as well as her fellow Glee castmates Chris Colfer and Matthew Morrison) and others. Because it‘s a recording of a stage performance, the audience will sometimes cheer or applaud when the actor comes on — but you have to wait till they speak to know what famous actor the audience is responding to! (Or to pick up on the “in joke” — the audience laughs knowingly when the character of the virulently anti-gay activist Maggie Gallagher appears, but it’s only when you realize the openly gay actress Lynch is playing her that you get the deliberately ironic casting).

Admittedly, given the nature of the script, a lot of the actors don’t necessarily get to shine in performances. Though with stand outs including Sheen, Bacon and Reilly, the latter two in essentially “villain” roles, so getting more colourful — and ultimately humorous — parts, with Bacon, as the lawyer against marriage rights, stumbling and stammering over the dubious logic of his own argument, and Reilly playing a particularly eccentric witness.

Of course the play has a bias (it was intended as a fund raiser, Reiner and others were actually involved in funding the court case the play is portraying, and the audience applauds vigorously at key speeches) and is most appealing for those who already support equal marriage rights. Yet if you’re on the fence, but open minded, the play is an interesting chance to hear the arguments (or lack thereof) made on either side. And as an example of civil rights trial theatre (think Inherit the Wind or 12 Angry Men) it’s fairly compelling — with some good dramatic moments, good emotional moments, and good funny moments. Though since based mainly on the court transcripts and ancillary interviews, it’s not like there are character sub-plots, or even closed door negotiations to be revealed. But ultimately, tightly paced and an effective court room drama.

The CD contains probably an hour of extras, including interviews with some of the cast, Black and Reiner, and the real life lawyers who argued for same sex marriage rights — and against Proposition 8 — David Boies and Theodore B. Olson.

Theremin

1 hr BBC Radio drama from 2009 written by Melissa Murray, starring Tom Hollander and Kate Ashfield. It’s an odd drama in that it’s a mix of espionage and character drama, about real-life Russian inventor and musician, Leon Theremin. In 1929 London he’s acting as a spy for the Soviet Union but finding himself increasingly caught in the middle between his Soviet masters and British and American authorities — and of his strained relationship with an English girl and musician who both loves and hates him.

An effective, interesting drama, well acted, with a nice sense of period and its mix of (low-key) suspense and human drama. But I describe it as “odd” simply because I’m not really sure how much (or if at all) this is based on any sort of factual history! And if entirely fictional, seems like an odd premise (Writer: “Hey, let’s do a drama where Leon Theremin is actually a spy!” Programmer: “Um…who?”) Still, as I say: quite effective and compelling in a kind of Graham Greene sort of way.