Insp. Adam DALGLIESH, P.D. James’ laidback, erudite police Inspector has come to BBC radio in a couple of forms in (to date) 4 productions — all adaptations of published novels, serialized in multi-episode forms. Robin Ellis played the character in Cover Her Face and Devices & Desire and Richard Derrington played him in The Private Patient and A Taste for Death.

Vocally, Ellis is evocative of Roy Marsden who played the character on TV in the 1980s, leading one to wonder if that was a factor in the casting (though funnily I think P.D. James suggested she wasn’t entirely happy with Marsden’s casting — not a mark against him, I don’t think, just that he wasn’t how she imagined the character). Still, if you were familiar with and liked Marsden’s performance (as I did), it’s easy to adapt to Ellis’ radio version. Derrington sounded a bit older, seeming more like, well, a real police inspector.

And while the two Ellis productions were full cast plays, the Derrington productions seemed more like a cross between a full cast play and an audio book, with a heavy use of narration (switching between different actors/perspectives), even narrating entire scenes as opposed to dramatizing them. I don’t know how much it was a creative choice, and how much a budget decision, the mix of narration with full cast scenes obviously cheaper than an entirely dramatized production. Part of the problem is that Derrington and the others are essentially narrating the scenes in character, so they can’t really slip into character voices, making the narrated scenes a bit dry. I found A Taste for Death a bit uninvolving as a result, with even the dramatized scenes feeling a bit too much like actors reading their lines. Though The Private Patient I recall finding interesting enough.

Still, all are perfectly decent mysteries though maybe with a caveat that James’ stories may almost be too convoluted and twisty for radio! That is, moreso than other mysteries-adapted-to-radio (Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, etc.) I did find it a bit hard to keep track of who and what — maybe because James’ stories employ large casts which can be confusing in radio (where you’re trying to keep track of character names and whose voice is who). Though equally that’s the appeal of the stories — they can seem a bit bigger and more literary than just a dime novel whodunit? And though a popular character, it could be argued Dalgliesh isn’t that distinctive — you might not realize Ellis and Derrington were playing the same person (without them being radically different either). Probably my favourite was the fully dramatized Cover Her Face. Trivia note: Hugh Grant plays one of the suspects in Cover Her Face — presumably before his stardom.

Inspector ALLEYN

Inspector ALLEYN, Ngaoi Marsh’s early/mid 20th Century police inspector, has appeared in four BBC radio adaptations (between 2001 – 2006) as hour long mysteries, starring Jeremy Clyde.

Eminently enjoyable and well produced…albeit largely interchangeable with any other similar series, Alleyn himself of the familiar “gentleman” detective archetype and not especially unique or anything. The fact that they seemed to be produced by the same people (such as scripter Michael Bakewell) behind various Agatha Christie radio adaptations and similar things perhaps furthering the familiar vibe. But as I say: briskly paced and quite enjoyable, often appealingly ensconced in archetypal, almost cliched, English mystery milieus — one about a murder during a “murder game” at an English estate (A Man Lay Dead), another about back stage at a theatre (Opening Night), another involving a quirky family of quasi-nobility who live like the idle rich…even though they’re broke (A Surfeit of Lampreys)! The fourth takes place amid tourists in Italy (When in Rome).

The fact that these are novels shoe-horned into hour long plays might make purists balk, but whatever is excised in the translation, they work well in that format, well paced and well performed. Of course the fact that so many seem to revolve around a set location with a limited cast (even When in Rome, with Alleyn on assignment in Rome and getting caught up in murder involving a tour group) actually means they lend themselves to the format quite well — almost as though written to be turned into plays!