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.

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.