Test Drive

Sometimes it can feel like the editorial attitude taken toward radio drama in Canada (specifically at the CBC) over the years was that it should deliberately be the un-TV sort of programs…that is “low-key” concepts that probably wouldn’t last six minutes, let alone 6 episodes, on TV (unlike, say, British radio series which are often very much the kind of high concept, high drama things you’d do for TV). Not that this was always the case at the CBC, as it certainly produced some good thriller and sci-fi series. But this deliberately low-key vibe does seem to crop up from time to time — detective series about small scale crimes, mild comedies that are more just light-hearted. And case in point is Test Drive, a six episode “dramedy” written by Dave Carley chronicling the unassuming life of a Toronto car salesman from the 1950s to circa 2000 (the series aired 2003-2004).

The whole point in the various episodes (set sometimes years apart form each other) is to be kind of slice of life (the appropriately-named narrator, Earl, even self-deprecatingly remarks on how “ordinary” he is). Indeed, probably the best episode is among the most flamboyant…when he decides to run (unsuccessfully) for parliament.

The result is a series that is kind of too unassuming at times…yet with that said, it does grow on you. It’s a comedy-drama…though the “comedy” is often more just “light-hearted” and has a slightly broad, campy delivery at times. Gordon Pinsent narrates throughout in a kind of self-consciously “bumpkin-y” voice, though when he assumes the role proper in the final two episodes, he’s exceptionally good (Geoffrey Bowes plays the character in the scenes in the first four episodes).

Part of the point of the series is to chronicle not just Earl’s life (growing older, his kids aging, etc.)…but the changing world around him through the decades, and in that sense its very “Canadianess” is part of the appeal, making period references throughout (from a Toronto flash flood in the 1950s to Robert Stanfield’s political misadventures in the 1970s). So, not exactly riveting but, if you stick with it…mildly appealing. Others in the cast included Catherine Fitch and Andrew Tarbet.

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!)

Pixie Juice

45 min. BBC Radio production from 2014 written by Ed Harris that’s a kind of Twilight Zone-ish tale and a quirky mix of comedy and drama, kitchen sink realism, fantasy, and horror.

A down-on-her-luck working class London tattoo artist (Indira Varma), looking after her dad (who’s losing his sight) one day discovers strange fairy/pixy creatures and after an accident with one, discovers their blood can be used in ink to create magical tattoos. A snappy-pace and the mix of elements, where it can be funny, serious, and creepy all at once, is part of what holds your attention (given, as mentioned, in a way it’s a pretty standard type fantasy tale). Good dialogue and good performances, too — especially Varma.

She

BBC Radio adaptation from 2006 of the classic, Victorian fantasy novel by H. Rider Haggard, adapted by Hattie Naylor and directed by Sara Davis. A trio of Englishmen set out for the African interior to investigate stories (part of one character’s family legends) of a tribe ruled over by a mysterious — and immortal — white woman. Tim McInnerny stars as Holly and Mia Soteriou as Ayesha (“She”) with Oliver Chris, Howard Coggins, Ben Onwukwe and Janice Acquah.

I’ll admit, I have some ambivalence to the source novel (which I read years ago). Although a genuine classic of fantasy fiction, it’s kind of an odd story in that, though technically an “adventure” — it’s not really very exciting, being slow moving and more about the characters than the cliff hangers…without the characters necessarily being as well rounded as they need to be. So in that sense, I can’t fault the radio version for its presentation of the material (although the initial quest does seem a bit perfunctory as dramatized here, the characters seeming to find this “lost” civlizxation rather quickly).

McInnerny is fine as the lead character and narrtror, but some of the supporting roles aren’t as memorable (including Leo who, in a sense, is the more stereotypical handsome leading man role) — but, again, I think that relates to the novel as much as the tradio versiopn. And I’ll admit I didn’t feel Soteriou quite evoked the presence of She (admittedly, in a radio version, I’m not sure what sort of voice I’d want — though funnily I think Janice Acquah brought more personality to her supporting role). Bottom line: it’s suitably atmospheruc and a perfectly respectable, perfectly competent adaptation of the novel, and faithful within its time and format. And I suspect it’s a hard story to dramatize as there have been a few movie versions over the years — but few are well regarded.

Wingfield

The hugely successful Wingfield plays (beginning with Letters from Wingfield Farm and numbering four or five sequels) tell the story of a big city stock broker, Walt Wingfield, who decides to chuck the fast lane and buy a small town farm — relating his adventures (and misadventures) in letters written to the local paper. Written by Dan Needles, they’re all one-man shows starring Rod Beattie.

Very funny comedies, yet with an underlining drama. Sure, they aren’t much more than sitcoms — but smart, high quality sitcoms, not relying on cheap jokes for the most part. The town’s folk aren’t bumpkins, and there’s a good natured charm to Walt’s clumsy efforts to adjust to farm life (an underlining theme is that Walt is often more nostalgic for — and protective of — the rural life than his neighbours who are born to it!)

A strength of the plays is Beattie’s multi-faceted performance, evoking a cast of characters who are consistent (yet also capable of growth) throughout the plays. Many of the plays have been recorded as audio productions and, in that format, his performance can be even more remarkable, as you wouldn’t realize it’s not a full cast acting together (well, except when he does the women characters).

Funny, charming…and definitely a modern classic of Canadiana.

PAUL TEMPLE

Paul Temple appeared in novels and a series of popular radio serials by Francis Durbridge decades ago. In some respects they seemed like the ideal marriage of the kind of breezily sophisticated manor house mystery, ala Lord Peter Wimsey and the like, with a more pulpy, action flavour ala, say, Bulldog Drummond, the stories involving a little more shooting and cliff hangers than the simple arm chair detective mystery.

Paul Temple and his wife Steve are the usual upper middle class sophisticates (with a butler, yet!) — he writes mystery novels, but also acts as a consulting detective and is friends with the Police Commissioner. Many of the old serials are still rerun on BBC Radio and available on CD (with various actors essaying the role, though Paul Coke is often regarded as the definitive Paul). As well, in 2007-2009, the BBC decided to re-do some old serials for which the original recordings were lost. So they used the old scripts, but with new actors (and apparently, even restricting themselves to technology that would’ve been available at the time) with Crawford Logan as Paul and Gerda Stevenson as Steve.

I’ve listened to a few (both the old and the modern-era recreations) and they’ve all been eminently enjoyable, well produced and well acted. Usually eight half hour episodes per mystery, they’re full of twists and turns, mysterious clues and red herrings, that’ll keep you interested (though sometimes off-puttingly violent with them finding the bodies of people beaten to death!) — mixing, as I say, Agatha Christie whodunits with more of a gritty, pulp fiction aspect (there’s often some mysterious master criminal or gangster lurking behind the crimes, as opposed to the crimes being motivated by passion or personal larceny). Granted, they do tend to blend into each other, the stories recycling similar themes and formulas (often involving an early clue being a name scrawled in a diary, or on a memo, that no one can account for, and the search for some mysterious gang lord whose identity is revealed in the end) — but that maybe makes them better for repeated listens since you‘re unlikely to remember how the story plays out because you’re probably muddling it with the others! The constant twists and revelations (or revelations that the previous revelation was a lie!) mean that it can be a bit silly…but that’s part of the fun.

I have a particular fondness for Paul Temple and the Madison Mystery, but that may simply be because it was the first one I ever heard — but I also liked the atypical idea (for a crime story) that the initial death is entirely natural. A man dies of a heart attack on a cruise…but his death triggers a chain of criminal events.

There are also audio books of some of the novels (as opposed to full cast serials) but that’s less of my focus — I’m not sure if there’s much overlap (ie: a full cast serial and an audio book of the same story). The series overall is definitely highly recommended.

The Ghost Train

90 minute BBC radio adaptation from 2008 of Arnold Ridley’s vintage 1923 stage play that mixes mystery, supernatural, and comedy with a story of passengers aboard a train who get marooned at a desolate train station for the night…where local history warns of a mysterious ghost train.

It’s a decent production, lively, and well acted (in a slightly fruity, OTT way) though some of the voices are hard to distinguish from each other. But the play itself is…problematic. For one thing, we’re probably half way into it before we even get to the spooky stuff (the first half more just introducing the passengers on the train) and, though it might have been more surprising when first written, nowadays kind of comes across as a predictable Scooby Do episode — as such, doesn’t quite succeed as being too scary/spooky (and even though it’s light-hearted…isn’t that funny). Still, an agreeable enough way to kill 90 minutes.

Ring for Jeeves

P.G. Wodehouse’s comic/satire stories of the British upper classes, as personified by oblivious Bernie Wooster and his smarter, but reserved, butler Jeeves, have seen a few audio/radio versions (as well as TV). The novel Ring for Jeeves (itself I believe based on a play, Come On, Jeeves) was adapted into 2 one-hour episodes for BBC Radio in 2014. It’s a little atypical in that Jeeves has been lent out to another oblivious gentleman, Bill, so it’s not about Wooster — the only Jeeves story not involving Wooster (though Bill is essentially the same character type, so perhaps the switch was to allow more plot freedom since the status quo doesn’t have to be maintained by the end of the story).

It’s a manor house comedy full of exaggeratedly typical British gentry (tally ho!) living on the cusp of the end of the Age of Aristocracy (here the 1950s) as they are having to get real jobs and deal with dwindling fortunes. Bill is in the process of trying to sell his estate (possibly to a wealthy American woman) while also dealing with the misadventures resulting from an ill-fated foray into being a racing bookie (after he ends up owing more money to a winner than he actually has). And there is a bit of a “play” vibe to it, as most of the action takes place on the estate over just a few days.

Perhaps the curious thing about it is that some of the actors are often associated more with drama, yet the story itself is pure light-hearted farce. But that results in a mixed effect. On one hand, you could argue the characters and dialogue demand a little more camp and OTT…on the other hand, maybe it lends the characters and situations a little more grounding, so that the whole doesn’t float away on a cloud of total frivolity. By that I don’t mean that the actors aren’t playing it as comedy — they are! — it’s just the characters can still seem a bit like, well, people, too. As such, maybe not as funny as it could be, but it’s maybe more slyly amusing and engaging than you might expect it to be. And where you have to pay attention to the dialogue to get the jokes.

Martin Jarvis stars as Jeeves and Jamie Bamber as Bill, with Rufus Sewell, Joanne Whaley, and American actress Glenne Headly in the cast. It’s a good cast, with Sewell in particular delightfully atypical as an aging, oblivious, aristocrat. Of course, I can’t say I’m a devoted fan of the Wodehouse/Jeeves stories in general, but I did enjoy this as a kind of breezy, amusing romp.

The Adventures of JAGO AND LITEFOOT

Big Finish’s Doctor Who plays have proved enormously successful…but the company has had more modest success with other franchises, leading to them to occasionally look to Doctor Who for something that will tie into the franchise…even as it allows them to stretch creatively. Which led them to…Jago & Litefoot. A couple of characters first — and last — seen in the perennially well-regarded 1970s TV serial Dr Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

Set in an archetypical Victorian London of fog and back streets, Professor George Litefoot (Trevor Baxter) is a police forensic pathologist and Henry Gordon Jago (Christopher Benjamin) a bombastic theatre impresario with an amazing ardour for alliteration who aided the Doctor and Leela on that adventure. On a whim, Big Finish reunited the actors for one of their Companion Chronicles enhanced audio books (The Mahogany Murders)…and were so struck by the potential, and the genuine chemistry between the actors, and how easily they re-inhabited their roles (after 30 years!) that they decided to launch them into a series of full cast audio plays, with the unlikely duo investigating strange events and mysterious goings on — from werewolves to psychics.

Funnily, despite the inherent humorousness of the characters — particularly Jago (Litefoot is played more straight) — leading one to think they were intended as an answer to the popular audio comic-thrillers of The Scaryfiers (which BF had begun distributing for Cosmic Hobo Productions) the plots are actually serious. There’s lots of humour and comedy, but basically arising from the characters and to leaven the drama, rather than as an out-and-out parody. And it works tremendously well, succeeding as being both like Dr. Who (in that they are thrillers involving steampunk sci-fi and the supernatural) yet with their own tone and flavour, most notably because the heroes are more “everymen.” The lead characters are the stories’ anchor, delightfully realized and exceptionally well performed by Benjamin and Baxter who you really would assume have been playing these roles for years, they seem so comfortable with them and with each other (indeed, their performances are even better than in the old TV serial!) The humour is well captured, the Victorian flavour (in themes, dialogue and period detail — Oscar Wilde even guest stars in one story) nicely evoked, and the plots interesting enough to keep you listening. An unexpected success.

BF has presented them in a series of “series” (or seasons) each of generally 4 one hour dramas, sold as boxed sets, each series usually made up of relatively stand alone adventures linked by a sub-plot/recurring nemesis to form arcs of four episodes. At this point I’ve heard Series I, Series II, and Series IV and all are generally highly enjoyable. I also listened to Dr. Who: The Companion Chronicles: The Mahogany Murders, which is more an enhanced reading by the actors as opposed to a full cast dramatizations (though acts as essentially the first episode in the Series I arc). The characters have also guest starred in some of BF’s Dr. Who audio plays, including the 6th Doctor stories Voyage to Venus and Voyage to the New World — both quite good, though with Voyage to Venus getting the nod as the more fun, while Voyage to the New World boasts the more ambitious plotting.

Insp. Adam DALGLIESH

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.