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!)


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.


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).