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Afghanada and Other Radio Dramas:
... Reflections on the highs and lows of recent Canadian radio plays


I've written earlier pieces about radio drama and since such productions don't get much notice in the major media, I figured I'd revisit the topic, this time a little more in-depth, reflecting on some recent CBC Radio productions. Ready? Okay, let's get started...

Afghanada is a series about Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan -- talk about yanked from the headlines! Though Afghanada is selling its "cutting edge" relevancy, there can be a problem with such immediacy. TV's M*A*S*H aired during the Vietnam War, but was set during the Korean War, allowing the filmmakers to deal with the contemporaneous war through the metaphor of a previous war. Working with current material, the writers may be a bit hobbled, not having the perspective of history to work with.

A problem with Afghanada is the characters -- personally, I don't really care about them. The writers try too hard to evoke their "grunts in the trenches" notion, so the characters are kind of crude and, well, dorky. In the first episode, an Afghan character refers to one of our heroes as an American and the soldier quips that if he makes that mistake again he'll shoot him. Uh...? I dunno, but in a volatile situation like Afghanistan, having a soldier "joke" that he'll shoot a civilian I would think warranted a court martial -- or at least a public flogging. ("Nah, sarge, I don't know why the villagers are shooting at us...oh, unless it has to do with that joke I made about killin' 'em all. My bad.")

Afghanada alternates which character narrates each episode but, to be honest, the characters offer very little difference of perspective. There's also a problem with the voice casting -- too many of the actors sound similar. I would think casting a radio drama would require casting an actor in relationship to the other actors, to make sure there won't be any confusion. I believe in operas it's standard to set aside certain parts for the tenor, the bass, etc. Maybe radio dramas need to think the same way ("we've got medium voice here, so we need a deep voice for this character")

And maybe part of the reason I'm not grooving to the characters is because they don't really seem to groove to each other -- they bicker, and snipe, and so on. When one character is wounded and shipped home, he laments that doesn't know how he'll get along without the others. But I just didn't really buy it.

And, as stories, I'm not really picking up on a clear focus -- are they adventure stories? Are they human dramas? Are they socio-political analyses? They're a little of all three, but not enough of any one.

Afghanada isn't a bad production, but I just haven't got "in" to it. Clearly the CBC brass figures they've got something, though -- they air it twice a week, and even three times at one point, and there is talk of summer reruns. But whether that's because it's a big hit, or just because someone in the programming office has read the entrails that way, I dunno. Canadian TV programming decisions are wacky enough -- radio? Who knows?

As you can see, I'm not writing this just to praise radio drama -- but I'm not trying to bury it either. Rather, I'm trying to direct the same critical assessment at the medium I (or you, or anyone) would at TV or movies. Believe it or not: I'm showing my respect by being disrespectful.

Radio dramas in Canada date back years, and have produced some noteworthy efforts. In the 1950s, the satirical play, The Investigator, about a Joe McCarthy type demagogue who gets into heaven and starts purging "undesireables" holds up, all these years later, as a funny, and pointed comedy. And in the 1980s the CBC did a great series based on American novelist Rex Stout's detective, Nero Wolfe. While years ago, a CBC Radio series based on W.O. Mitchell's Jake and the Kid was, apparently, instrumental in bolstering the popularity of those characters (unfortunately, I've never head a chance to hear the Jake and the Kid stuff -- no one's released it to tape or CD, that I know of, and the CBC doesn't rerun it).

Some recent CBC productions that I dug?

I'm just going to give one more hearty halloo to Monsoon House, the sitcom about a struggling Canadian publishing house. It was just one of my favourite productions -- radio, TV, what have you -- of the last 12 months or so.

Funny Boy was an effective, sometimes funny, sometimes serious, drama set in Sri Lanka, about a child observing a star crossed romance threatened by racial tension. It also highlights the advantage to radio -- a period tale set in an exotic foreign country, it would've required a lot of money to mount as a filmed production. Likewise, a nice, epic adaptation of Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance was a sprawling tale set in 1970s India...but was just recorded in a Vancouver studio!

Another entertaining production was Hearts of the World, about movie star Mary Pickford. The CBC maybe put a little more money and effort into it, with original music and such, giving it a slightly cinematic feel (many radio dramas are done without music, like stage plays). The narrative was a bit choppy, but it was sprightly, with a slightly heightened feel of an old-style Hollywood drama, and succeeded as a look at the birth of Hollywood and an effective character drama focusing on Pickford and her tumultuous relationship with controversial director, D.W. Griffiths.

But an appeal of Hearts of the World for me is, I'll admit, a problematic one. It starred Stephanie Morgenstern and Ben Hecht. And I happen to like Morgenstern (and Hecht too, for that matter). Just as visual productions often rely on a familiar face to boost viewers' interest, radio dramas can get a boost from a recognizable presence. Now this is problematic because that's not usually the thinking with radio drama -- looking at the listings for various CBC Radio productions, the actors are rarely mentioned.

And I realize the irony of my making this point, because quite a few people are going to be saying: Stephanie Morge-who? But the fact of the matter is, when I turned on Hearts of the World, trying to decide if I'd listen, the deciding factor was when I realized who was in it. Call me shallow, but there you go.

Of course, an unknown cast can be effective, too, better allowing the characters to be the characters. And, the flip side is, a "name" cast made of actors who don't appeal to me can be its own problem.

Moving on...

A number of CBC Radio productions can seem a bit too...earnest. Their self-importance swamping the drama. Even the guidelines for submitting scripts demands to know why the story is "important" to the writer. Presumably saying: "'Cause I thought it'd be cool to write about dinosaurs rampaging through Parliament Hill," won't get you a call back. But first and foremost, a radio drama should have to follow the same rules as a movie or TV show -- telling a story, creating characters, conflicts, etc. To be honest, sometimes scanning the listing for up-coming CBC productions, I often find myself not really being interested or intrigued by the staid scenarios.

Likewise, I've turned on a couple of productions...and turned off again after ten minutes. Not because it was terrible, but just because it wasn't offering me any incentive to stick around. Moreso than movies and TV (and they need to do this too) you have to establish your story pretty quick -- particularly on radio where a lack of publicity and promotion means the listener might have no idea what they're tuning into. So if it's a thriller...make it thrilling right up front; if it's a comedy, start us laughing. If it's got a plot -- as it should -- give us some inkling of that plot early. I've listened to a few productions where, half-way through, I still wasn't even sure what genre it was supposed to be!

A recent umbrella theme for some plays explored the Italian-Canadian experience. Look, I'm all for imbuing stories with ethnic diversity, but as something to enrich and embellish a narrative...not as the narrative itself. So it seemed like a vague -- and terribly earnest -- theme. Listening to three of them: Shades of Mussolini was a period thing involving a star-crossed romance or something -- honestly, I think I snoozed through a bit of it. But it just didn't seem to be a story that involved, the characters spouted lines, but it wasn't really about the characters -- it didn't feel like a human drama. More recently I caught reruns of a couple of half-hour plays. The first, Our Finest Hour, was -- I dunno; I guess slice-of-life describes it. I think it was supposed to be a comedy -- and though it was light-hearted the timing wasn't right to get genuine laughs. I didn't hate it...it was innocuous enough. But it just seemed kind of aimless and pointless. The second story, Oy Vey, Maria worked better for me, although it was again very "small", very slice of life, but the acting was good and it held my interest, generally. But good, bad, or inbetween, none were exactly compelling.

The drama, The Comedians, was a play about a World War I entertainment troop. I enjoyed it once I got into it, but it was a bit hard to get into (partly because of the cutting between fact and drama), and even once it was over, it didn't quite feel like a movie, with a satisfying narrative arc and character progression.

It Came from Beyond was part of series of plays connected by a "conspiracy" theme. This one involved a 1950s Hollywood filmmaker and UFO cover ups. This had "name" stars -- Saul Rubinek and Julie Stewart -- but it just seemed kind of dry. It was as if that "earnestness" to which I alluded had kind of seeped over into what should've been pure entertainment. Part of the problem was it was tied into the whole Roswell UFO crash legend. And being, as I am, fairly familiar with all that, as soon as the characters started talking about it...I started to zone out. Because there was nothing new or fresh there! My suspicion is that the writer didn't realize how well trod the ground was. Personally, I'd have preferred wrapping the story around a fictional, Roswell-esque incident, so that the writer could surprise us with unexpected revelations and the like -- so it could become its own story. As well, the main character was supposed to be a not especially likeable character who spends most of the story passively being acted upon -- not the best hero for a thriller.

The World According to Charlie D is a good illustration of a few of my points. Either written by, or based on a story by, mystery writer Gail Bowen (can't remember which) it's about a radio talk show host who's interviewing a guest. First: takes forever. Yeah, it eventually turns into a thriller (a caller announces he's got the guest's kid and is going to kill her)...half-way through! But for the first half: no. It's just these characters talking, interspersed with music ('cause it's a radio show), which further slows up the plot progression. Now, they maybe were trying that old Howard Koch/Orson Welles War of the Worlds trick of making people think it was a real broadcast. If so -- the actors and the dialogue weren't convincing enough. And as a drama, I just didn't find the leads interesting or likeable. And the premise, when it arrived, was just unpleasant -- a guy threatening to murder a kid while the mother can only sit helpless in a sound booth? Not my idea of "thrilling".

Then let's look at the CBC's recent Deep Night. The CBC has had a long history of doing these kind of supernatural/horror anthologies -- Vanishing Point and Nightfall before. And, to be honest, I generally haven't liked them much. The problem is: people misunderstand the genre. People think of the Twilight Zone as a horror anthology -- but really, it was incredibly diverse: horror, whimsy, human drama, sci-fi, adventure, thriller. And almost always character driven. But too often these radio dramas seem a bit small and repetitive.

And Deep Night was more of the same. I want to briefly consider a few examples. First off, the best of the episodes I heard (and I listened to at least a half dozen) was The Intercom -- it was a bit slow and still wasn't a particularly fresh story. It seemed like the sort of thing that Canadian producers would turn into a straight-to-video movie starring some low-level Hollywood TV actress. Woman movies into an apartment in a new city, hears strange things on the (disconnected) intercom, discovers the previous tenant had disappeared mysteriously... But, overall, its combination of ghost story and whodunit made an agreeable enough listen.

But others weren't as agreeable. (Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD)

There was Someone Just for Me, which followed the old idea of the scumbag-gets-her-comeuppance...an idea that is rather problematic (but incredibly popular among writers); it's okay in a short story, but to expect us to spend half an hour with a character who isn't remotely meant to be a 3-D human being we care about? And it even jarred with the plot, as the story required the anti-heroine to do somebody a favour -- something even the writer tried to bandage over by having the character remark she didn't know why she was doing this altruistic thing! But the story is basically: a guy comes to a woman telling her he's being haunted by something ever since she dared him to go into a graveyard as kids. Reluctantly she agrees to help him break the curse (the act of altruism to which I alluded) even as she doesn't believe in the supernatural; and ends up with the thing haunting her! End. Uh...oh-kay. There was a minor "creep" factor, but otherwise, let's look at it critically: it's not a character study (the heroine is just obnoxious and doesn't grow), it's not ironic (a guy tells her there's a ghost and she ends up haunted by a ghost -- not very ironic) and it's not surprising (see earlier comment), and it's a pretty thin plot, to boot. And what's the point? The metaphor? The sub-text? (Okay, I'm guessing they felt there was some vague message about childhood bullying).

Then there was Ice Sceams which was even worse, albeit at least the hero wasn't a scumbag. And the fact that the characters were Native Indian was a nice touch -- nice because it was irrelevant to the story. But the story opens with the narrator telling us how he'd seen something so horrible, so shocking...and then proceeds to relate his story. Okay, it's a gimmick beginning to kick start a story that, otherwise, will take a while to get to the good stuff (I've used it myself), but if you use it, there better be a pay off! So then this guy tells a rambling story about how, when he was a kid, a friend's family drowned in a frozen lake; years later, the friend persuades him to go with him while he visits the spot and -- the ice opens up and drowns the friend. End. Yeah, so after introducing the story by telling us he saw something soooo shocking...it's just that his friend fell through a piece of ice? No monster! No unspeakable elder god! Just, y'know -- ice breaking. Yeah, sure, we can infer it was the spirits of the dead parents or something -- but inferring doesn't send a guy into a bar for three days thinking he's seen something horrible. But beyond the non-story, again we're left with an episode with no characterization to speak of, there's no irony, little plot. And, again, no point (other than, y'know, stay off the ice, you numbnut!)

The problem with episodes like the above two to me is that it isn't simply that I didn't like them, or found them unsatisfying...it's that I found them annoying, bordering on insulting. I know, I shouldn't take it personally. But...I do.

But an episode of Deep Night that left me particularly ambivalent was Birth. First off, it intrigued me because it was set among space explorers on mars, it was also more adventure than simple fatalistic man-does-nothing-for-most-of-the-episode-then-gets-killed-by-ghost/moster/other. So it had all those things going for it...but it still left me unsatisfied.

A drama, it could be argued, needs to satisfy many of the same factors as a news story: y'know, the Who, What, Where, When, Why, How? sort of thing. I didn't know "who" it was about. I mean, I knew who the characters were, but I didn't know who the story was about, who was the main character. There was a scientist, but he gets isolated from the others, and so has no impact on the action per se. He even dies...but I'm not sure why. Was it supposed to be tragic? He didn't die being heroic, per se, he didn't die as cosmic justice for some misdeed. And I didn't know what the story was about -- I knew what happened, but what was it about? The theme? The sub-text? There's a baby born on mars, plus these robots gain a sort of sentience, so they are "born" as well, so I'm sure there was supposed to some sort of thematic subtext...but I just didn't get it. Even as an adventure it was a bit anti-climactic as the characters realize the key to stopping the robots is to...smash 'em. Uh... That's a bit like realizing the best way to stop a monster is to, y'know, kill it.

I've listened to it a couple of times, and as much as I like the fact that it was different than the other Deep Night episodes...it just left me cold, emotionally. Perhaps part of that is the bizarre lack of connection between the parents of the baby, there was so little sense the characters had any kind of an intimate/emotional connection.

Now I'm going to put my neck on the chopping block and mention that I've written a few stories over the years -- not enough that any real writer would call me a writer, but there ya go. Anyway, there was a story I wrote, a Twilight Zone-ish sort of thing, where I sent it to an editor, who liked it, but said the characters needed to be fleshed out more. Which I did, with an extra line or two, an extra paragraph here and there. Not a lot -- not a major rewrite. And you know what? I think it did improve the story -- and so did the editor. My point is, it doesn't take much to tweak a core idea into a good story: but you have to be prepared to do that tweaking, to realize it's important. The story is called Pvt. Parker, Missing in Action and can be read here -- go ahead, read it. If the story sucks, fine, disregard everything I've said in this essay. But if it's even mildly okay (not even great, just okay) then -- hey -- think about my comments.


Maybe I'm an odd man out on these things. Then again, I liked the original Twilight Zone and it remains the bench mark for supernatural anthologies. So I guess I can't be too far out of touch.

Just talking about radio drama in general, what I wonder is how many people writing radio dramas in Canada...listen to radio dramas. Often when you read interviews with people who are working on radio dramas, they'll tell you how they had conceived of it as a TV show, or movie, or play, and then were persuaded, for budget reasons, to try it as a radio drama. Fair enough. I'm the first to say radio is a great forum for trying things too expensive to mount visually. But are they fans of the medium? Do they have a shelf full of full cast audio tapes and CDs next to their DVDs? And if not, does that impact on their ability to deliver a great production? If they regard the medium as no more than sloppy seconds in their career trough?

I wonder if CBC Radio executives, and writers and producers, spent a little time over at, say, the BBC 7 website, listening -- just listening -- to some of those productions, would it inspire them to greater heights? More populist productions?

Or would they turn it off, grumbling, and say: "where are the pictures?" as they head off to plop themselves in front of their $2 000 flat screen TV?

Some relevant websites:

CBC Radio


Scenario Productions (a company that has released a handful of old old CBC Radio productions to tape and disk -- including the Investigator and some classic Wayne and Shuster)

Assorted Nonsense (a blog of Joe Mahoney - a CBC Radio guy)

Nightfall-25: a site dedicated to the CBC radio horror anthology series, Nightfall.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

January 31, 2007

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