The Great Detectives of Old Time Radio The great ones are back in action.

12Apr/140

Radio Drama Review: Death on the Nile

The plot of Death on the Nile is familiar to me. In the past,  I've reviewed the Ustinov big screen version and the David Suchet version.   Recently, I was pleased to enjoy the BBC Radio 4 version.

It can seem odd to listen to, watch, and experience a mystery multiple times because to the viewer or listener, it's no longer a mystery. We know whodunit and we know why. Yet, there are some stories that are so compelling that the stories never get old. And that's definitely the case with Death on the Nile. 

The plot has Poirot (John Moffat) on vacation in Egypt and stepping smack into the middle of huge drama.  Simon and Linnet Doyle are on their honeymoon being staked by Jacqueline, Simon's former fiancee who he jilted in order to marry Linnet, who was Jacqueline's far richer best friend. Poirot sees trouble coming and tries to head it off, warning Jacqueline not to let evil into her.  However, the tragedy occurs when Linnet is murdered with Jacqueline's gun. However, Jacqueline didn't do it as she had just attempted to kill Simon and had panicked and was staying with a nurse at the time Linnet died.

The good news for Poirot is that the boat is full of potential suspects or at  the very least, people who have their own secrets to hide.  Thus Poirot has to sift through an amazing array of lies to find what really happened.

While you listening to the radio adaptation, you may miss the stunning visuals that defined the television and film adaptations, I think that the radio version may have the been the best at capturing the emotional conflicts at the heart of Death on the Nile. The pacing is very deliberate. It was aired a five part drama, and the first murder didn't occur until the end of  part three. They really did a great job setting up the situation and the characters. The interactions between Poirot and Jacqueline are priceless, and the resolution to the secondary storylines add a more positive counterbalance that makes this enjoyable.

Death on the Nile is a great story that brings home the brilliance of the murder and the tragedy of the perpetrators in a way that captures the imagination and makes this a must-listen to Poirot adaptation.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0

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22Mar/140

Radio Drama Review: The Interplanetary Adventures of Flash Gordon

In January 1934, newspaper readers were introduced to the adventures of Flash Gordon, an athletic Yale graduate who is kidnapped by Doctor Zarkov and taken in a rocket to the planet Mongol along with the lovely Dale Arden.

In 1935, Hearst brought Flash Gordon to radio a 26-part adventure starring Gale Gordon as Flash Gordon in The Interplanetary Adventures of Flash Gordon. Radio serials from this era are relatively rare, so I was surprised to find the whole 26 part story is available for listeners.

The serial is actually not all that good to start with. While it’s a faithful adaptation of the comic strip, the writers seemed to struggle with being faithful while transitioning Flash Gordon from a visual to an aural medium. One big thing was that very important scenes were skipped over in the early going, so you felt someone was giving highlight of the story rather than you listening to it.

The serial got much better around the sixth episode as the scene shifted to Flash's goal of taking over  the Blue Magic land from the witch Queen Azura. What followed over the next eighteen episodes was a dazzling display of imagination and plot twists with hypnosis potions, invisibility machines, angry dwarfs and a wide variety of reversals of fortune. This was radio fantasy for kids with all its gusto.

The series did break with continuity in the comic books,  so it could bring listeners another program. Episode 24 ended with Flash, Dale, and Zarkov accidentally heading back towards Earth in a rocket ship and in Episode 25 they crashed in the Jungle near long time radio character Jungle Jim. In Episode 26, the two were finally wed to wrap up the series, so that Jungle Jim could take over its time slot.  This wouldn't be the last Flash Gordon was heard on the radio, but it would be the last complete program.

Overall, the serial was good.  Some people might be offended by Flash's active conquest, but in the end it's just fantasy.  While the beginning was rushed, and the end while good was a little out of place, the middle chapters are packed with great story.  The acting quality varies quite a bit from character to character and there are a fair share of hams on the story, but the series works.

It particularly works as a promotion for the Flash Gordon comic strip. Characters like the Blue Magic Men, Hawk Men all sound exciting, fun, and worth seeing as well as hearing.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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1Mar/140

Audio Drama Review: Doctor Who: The Highlanders

Just like the first of the Second Doctor episodes of Doctor Who, only the audio remains for the second serial, "The Highlanders."

In The Highlanders, the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and his companions Ben and Polly find themselves caught in the midst of a war between the British red coats and the Scottish highlanders.  The Doctor and his companions have to escape from the British and get back to the TARDIS while also thwarting the plot of a corrupt government barrister who plans to ship captured Scots to brutal slavery on Carribean Islands.

This story isn't as good as Power of the Daleks, but it definitely is worth a listen. This serial features some great comic scenes for Troughton and the Doctor certainly shows some cleverness in this tightly plotted story.  This was actually a surprisingly strong story for Polly who in two previous stories I've seen/heard her in, her role was limited to making coffee as serving as a hostage. In this case, she's the one member of the TARDIS not captured and key to their rescue.

This serial was noteworthy for a couple other reasons. After about a third of the First Doctor stories were historicals, Troughton wanted to get away from them, so this would be the last purely historical Dr. Who episode until 1982. Also, this episode introduced the character of Jamie McCrimmon (Frazier Hines) who appeared in more Doctor Who episodes than any other companion.

Overall, this is a historic serial with plenty of fun, swashbuckling action, and the introduction of a great companion in Jamie, so it's definitely worth a listen.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

11Jan/140

Audio Drama Review: The Power of the Daleks

Last Christmas, Time of the Doctor marked the end of Matt Smith’s reign as the Eleventh Doctor, and this fall the BBC will kick off a new series featuring Peter Capaldi in the role. Today, we take a look at the first regeneration from First Doctor William Hartnell to Second Doctor Patrick Troughton, “Power of the Daleks.”

Due to the BBC's horrible archival policies in 1960s, this isn’t a story people can “watch.” This is one of several stories that are completely missing on video and the only way they can be enjoyed is as audio dramas using the TV soundtrack recorded by fans and narration by a star from the series..

Without belaboring the point, in the “Tenth Planet,” the last First Doctor story, it was clear that William Hartnell was pretty well played out in the role. The four episode story featured almost no action from the Doctor in the first, second, and the fourth episode, and the third episode was spent with the doctor asleep. The fourth ended with the Doctor changing into Patrick Troughton.

Troughton actually really gets into the role right off the bat. While long time Whovians have seen newly regenerated doctors go through the process of picking out their wardrobe and getting used to new appearances, Troughton was the first and does it quite well. His character is fun and clever. The Second Doctor plays a recorder which is another nice bit of characterization.

Of course, his companions, who were with the First Doctor, are skeptical that this is really the same Doctor, with Ben being far more skeptical than Paulie.

The Second's Doctor’s inaugural adventure is a blast. The TARDIS lands in the future on Earth's colony Vulcan where they discover the murdered body of a government official called an examiner. The Doctor assumes the examiner's identity and is determined to uncover why the Examiner was killed and what was going on in the colony.

In the course of his investigation, the Doctor comes across his most dangerous enemies, the Daleks. One of their ships has crash landed and a scientists is studying the dead Daleks. The Doctor wants them destroyed but finds out to his horror that the scientist who discovered the Daleks is actually trying to revive one and that he succeeds.

The revived Dalek, whose gun armed has been removed insists, "I am your servant." The Doctor of course doesn't buy it and is trying to stop the crazy scientists from reviving more Daleks. However, the whole Dalek issue is caught in a web of political intrigue which has more than one person thinking they can use the three revived Daleks as pawns. Some consider the small numbers of Daleks to be minor matter, but the Doctor warns that one is enough to destroy the entire base.

This is a wonderful serial that really works on every level: it has intrigue, mystery, suspense, and fantastic sci fi action. This is a story that illustrates the true power of audio story telling. The early writers of Dr. Who had great imagination, but lacked in special effects. That's no problem here. The music and the dialogue tell the story powerfully.

The story has some genuinely scary moments that are really brought home by the audio. Of course, the Daleks are up to evil and two separate episodes end with Daleks chanting and there are few things more scary than a group of Daleks chanting, "We will get our power! We will get our power!" as they circle the scientist brought them back to life.

The scientist, Dr. Lesterson also has a fascinating character arc as the Daleks true nature becomes more apparent and things go from bad to worse. His final scene is the last episode of the serial is just haunting and fascinating at the same time.

Bottom line: "The Power of the Daleks" packs a powerful punch with a tone that's often a bit dark, but also brilliantly conceived and executed.
Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0.

The Power of the Daleks is available at Audible.

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26Oct/130

Audio Review: Dr. Who: Marco Polo

Dr. Who has become a 21st phenomena with the series revival growing to even greater acclaim than the previous stories. Yet, it still has its roots in the 1960s where the first two Doctors played by William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton gave the character his roots. The stories of the Doctor and his companions were originally produced as half hour programs that were serialized stories as opposed to the one hour usually self-contained today.

I've watched a decent amount of first doctor material. I've seen the first three serials with Hartnell as well another, "The Aztecs." News came out that two previously lost serials are now available for purchase both starring the second doctor Patrick Troughton, but that leaves nearly a hundred episodes of the show lost,  effecting twenty-six different serials including the last two Hartnell stories and first seven with Troughton.

While hopefully more of these videos will emerge, Dr. Who fans don't have to wait to at least enjoy the stories because sound tracks of early Dr. Who episodes, recorded by fans at the time the series aired, and remastered and re-released by the BBC are available through Audible. So, I'm going to listen to all the Dr. Who missing  episodes I can't see beginning with Marco Polo and see how the  audio format helps or hurts.

"Marco Polo"  is  the fourth Dr. Who Serial and ran seven episodes from February to April 4 and follows after the events of "The Edge of Destruction" which left the TARDIS  damaged and finds the Doctor and the TARDIS crew (Ian Chesterton, Barbara Wright, and Susan Foreman) stranded on top of a snow capped mountain and in danger of freezing to death. However, they encounter several Chinese as well as a Mongol warlord named Tagama who wants them killed. However, the Chinese are led by Marco Polo who saves them and treats them kindly.  However, they quickly find that Polo's motives are not entirely pure: He wants to give the TARDIS to Kublia Khan in hopes of securing his own return home to Venice. However, the warlord Tagama has designs on TARDIS of his own.

The audio is narrated by William Russell (who played Chesterton in the series) who shares bits of action that the soundtrack can't pick up. These bits are minor. In some ways, being in an audio format helps this series as the setting is quite ambitious  with luscious and ornate Oriental settings.  Given the budget of the original show, it's safe for me to say that the theater of the mind will easily beat what 1960s British TV could do in its portrayal of the Khan's palaces.

This serial also seemed reminiscent in its slower pacing of radio serials I've listened from the 1940s and '50s which often had more deliberate pacing overall with cliffhangers built in to keep the audience's attention.

Another big difference from the modern Dr. Who is that other than involving time travel, this story has very little science fiction. If there were a modern Dr. Who/Marco Polo stories there'd be ghosts, space aliens, or zombies thrown in.  Instead what we get is a great historical adventure with its share of twists but just an adventure happening in medieval China.

The character of Marco Polo makes this story unique from many early serials. While in other programs like "The Aztecs, "  characters like Tagama scheme and turn initial allies of the TARDIS crew into enemies, this is a lot more complex as Polo is enlightened. He isn't superstitious, bloodthirsty, and works to save the crew despite requests to kill them.  His broad experiences have made him willing to consider anything including their claim that the TARDIS is a flying caravan, which is why he stole it. He feels bad about it too.  Polo's moral struggle really does create some solid dramatic tension. 

Less interesting is the overused trope of the girl about to enter into an arranged marriage that doesn't want to do it, and the convenient plot device used to resolve it, though they did do a decent job making the character likable and someone you care about.

While the serial isn't great, it's good for what it is: a fun historic adventure serial. It works well with the audio format  and for now, it's the only way to encounter the classic Marco Polo story line unless you want to read the novelization.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5.00

This serial is available from audible.com

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9Jun/130

Radio Drama Set Review: Father Brown Mysteries Vol. 4

The fourth volume of the Father Brown Mysteries from Colonial Radio Theater collects four more G.K. Chesterton stories. More importantly, the middle two stories have been previously adapted either in the 1970s British TV series or the 1980s BBC radio series.

In the  "Actor and the Alibi", Father Brown is called in by a theater company to calm down a temperamental Italian Catholic actress and finds himself investigating the murder of the theater owner who most of the company holds to be a scoundrel. This solution as well as the distortion of reality that seems to have engulfed the situation is remarkable. Unless you have the sagacity of Father Brown, there's little chance of solving it.

"The Worst Crime in the World"  has Father Brown concerned about a young man that might marry his niece. A strange visit to the castle-home of his reclusive father does little to allay his concerns, particularly when the young man seems to have disappeared.

"The Insoluble Problem" is a classic story that finds Father Brown and Flambeau stumbling on an impossible murder after Father Brown is called the house while Flambeau is driving to a museum protect valuable jewels. Unlike all the weird murders Father Brown has solved, is this one truly insoluble?  Really, this was a pretty clever concept that plays quite nicely with classic tropes of the mystery genre.  I'm surprised that I haven't seen this clever plot used  more often.

"The Eye of Apollo" is a classic story which pits Father Brown against the founder of a sun-worshiping cult who has convinced a strong-headed wealthy woman to follow his way. When she dies, it appears to have been accident with the cult leader having a perfect alibi. The actual solution has a great ironic twist that's pure Chesterton.

This is the best quality Father Brown set Colonial has put out yet. J.T. Turner has Father Brown down pat and M.J. Elliott is adept at giving listeners all the life and pleasure of the original stories. One thing I noted in this collection is how Turner would take some of Chesterton's artful descriptive commentary and put it in the mouth of his characters.

Overall, this is a faithful and high quality adaptation that is a must for fans of Father Brown and of classic mystery.

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3Nov/120

Audio Drama Review: Hilary Caine Mysteries, Box Set 1

In the Hilary Caine Mysteres, MJ Elliot, known for his adaptations of classic Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown programs created an original comedy mystery series for Jim French Productions in Seattle.

It's the 1930s and Hilary Caine (played by Australian Karen Heaven) works as the house detective for the tabloid Tittle Tattle Magazine. She goes and solves crimes and they tell the true story (or something approximating the true story) in the pages of the tabloid Tittle Tattle magazine. She usual assists Inspector Julius Finn (Randy Hoffmeyer) or is it the other way around?

Hilary has a great line of patter that simply has to be listened to in order to be believed. The comedy is priceless. Consider this example:

Hilary: I was having with my friend Hercules Poyrot -
Finn: I believes that Hercules Poirot. And I believe he's fictional.
Hilary: Nonsense. If he wasn't real, who was I having lunch with?
And this line:

Hillary: She made me furious when she said English people are repressed.
Finn: You did a good job hiding it.

Another time when asked about her religious affiliation, she declared she was "a lapsed skeptic." However,  just because she makes statements that could come from Gracie Allen and has an imagination that seems to struggle to under the difference between reality and fictions, she shouldn't be underestimated. She's got a keen mind and manages to unravel some clever mysteries. MJ Elliot and Jim French successfully captured the spirit of the 1930s screwball mystery comedies. I was also somewhat reminded of Barbara Britton's portrayal of Pam North on television, although Hillary Caine's stories are much more British.

The nine mysteries in this collection are mostly solid though there are a couple that seemed a little too easy to figure. One of them reminded me a little bit of the Father Brown Story, "The Quick One" in it's set up though it's denouement was different.

Overall, the people who brought us the Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Adventures of Harry Nile have once again brought fans of classic mysteries a wonderful character to enjoy, so I heartily recommend this collection.

The collection is available at Jim French Production's website  for $29.95 on CD and $15.00 for audio downloads. It is also available on Audible at a discount or for free as part of an Audible trial offer.

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31Mar/120

Audio Drama Review: Father Brown, Volume 3

In this Third Volume of the Father Brown Mysteries, Colonial Radio Theatre takes the stories from The Incredulity of Father Brown and the Scandal of Father Brown, two of the latter collection. Colonial an admirable job with the source material:

"The Oracle of the Dog": A man is killed in his summer house and the strange behavior of a dog is seen as a key clue. Colonial had to do some work on this story as an adaptation. In the original Chesterton story, Father Brown doesn't visit the scene of the crime, but rather solves the case based on clues given him by someone else. Thus, it came off as more of Chesterton's criticism of literary treatment of canines in murder mysteries. Thanks to Colonial, this story comes alive while still getting Chesterton's point across.

"The Miracle of Moon Crescent": In America, Father Brown warns four skeptics of that a well-known in millionaire is in danger after telling a story of his encounter with a superstitious Irishmen. They scoff at him, but when the millionaire is found murdered with no reasonable scientific or  psychological solution presents itself, the skeptics begin to doubt themselves and begin to consider a supernatural solution. J.T. Turner did a great job writing the adaptation and captured the subtleties of the satirical elements of the story. The only thing that marred this one was that the accents seemed quite a bit off. Still, a worthwhile presentation of a great story.

"The Green Man": A wealthy admiral is found murdered in full dress uniform by two golfers and it's a classic whodunit. The story begins in medias res with Father Brown speaking to one of the suspects before the final denoument, a kind of interesting twist. The story is standard whodunit fare handled quite capably by Colonial.

"The Quick One": A classic story of murder in a hotel bar of a a Tory curmudgeon. Father Brown insists that that the key to the case is finding an unknown man who stopped in for a drink and didn't even bother to finish it. (i.e. The quick one.) The mystery was well and faithfully adapted. A couple weeks ago, I criticized the British TV version for trying to mitigate Father Brown's views of the deceased as a heroic figure who was the one of the last men who could have saved England. Colonial avoided any revisionism in that regards. In one way, they actually improved on Chesterton with an edit. They moved a line that Father Brown delivered in the middle of the original story to the end when Father Brown was talking to his policeman companion on a train. Where it was originally written, it kind of seemed like rambling dictum that readers could easily pass over on their way to the solution. However, put at the end, it offers a vital explanation as to why a Priest would always be involving himself in Homicide investigations. This is probably the best Father Brown episode that Colonial's done so far.

Overall rating for the collection: 4.5

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4Mar/120

Audio Drama Review: Colonial Radio Theatre’s 2nd Father Brown Collection

Last year, I reviewed Colonial Radio Theatre's first Father Brown collection adapting classic stories from G.K. Chesterton.  I was pleased recently to finally download and listen to their second collection. As with the first collection, production values remain high with quality acting, and well-done sound effects.

This is a tougher collection for the adapters in some ways as two of the four stories they adapted are challenging ones to dramatize, but overall they carried it off quite well.

The Flying  Stars: It's crime time at Christmastime. Father Brown is one of several visitors to a wealthy English home, including a young socialist where a valuable jewels called, "The Flying Stars" make an admirable target for thieves. And thieves strike-during a pantomime event.  This one was a bit slow getting to the crime as it dragged through preparations for the pantomime.  However, the story as written by Chesterton was equally slow-paced. As slow it was, it was also necessary for the character development of Flambeau and Colonial does listeners a favor by actually showing Flambeau reform. They also did a nice job setting up a transition to the next story.

Point of a Pin: Noisy construction workers are waking Father Brown up every morning as they work on an apartment building, but a potential union strike or lock out threatens to stop construction. The owner of the construction company  lays off his workers and then is murdered. A threatening note points to union radicals as the likely culprit but Father Brown has other ideas.  This was a lot of fun for me, particularly because "Point of a Pin" is a lesser known and later Father Brown story that I hadn't read yet and Colonial did a great job in bringing this baffling story to radio.

The Three Tools of Death: Along with "The Blue Cross" this may be one of the best Father Brown mysteries.  I actually based much of my Father Brown chapter in my book, All I Needed to Know I Learned from Columbo on this story. However, it's not always gotten the respect it deserved. In the 1970s, the BBC ruined the story when they adapted Father Brown for television because the original story was so politically incorrect. Colonial didn't try to airbrush the story. They let it speak for itself and produced a faithful and well-done adaptation of this mystery that centers around Britain's leading optimist and teetotaler being found murdered. At first, there are no weapons found, and then all the sudden, there are too many. Father Brown says something's wrong with the crime scene, that all these weapons are "not economical."  Colonial does a great job telling the story. They even preserved the post-solution ending. It features Father Brown, after having unraveled one of the greatest mysteries in the history of detective fiction, going on about his rounds as a clergyman. That right there tells  you all you need to know about Father Brown.

The Invisible Man: A young man wants to marry a beautiful woman, but finds her being menaced by an invisible man. Threatening notes are left, but no one seems to be around. A threatening poster was put up, but no one was seen in the vicinity. Finally, a man is murdered under the watchful eyes of a man who swore that he saw no one go in.  What's going on? This story like, "The Sign of the Broken Sword" is one of Chesterton's most influential stories. It's also, like "The Sign of the Sword" in that it's incredibly hard to adapt based on the bizarre ending that Chesterton gave the original story. Colonial tries to work around this by having Father Brown narrate the story, which really doesn't work all that well. Still, it's a good story and other than Colonial's attempt to deal with Chesterton's quirky ending,  the adaptation is thoroughly enjoyable as well.

Overall Rating for the Set: 4.0 out of 5.0 stars.

Colonial turned out another great Father Brown set.

18Sep/110

Audio Drama Review: Perry Mason and the Case of the Howling Dog

In the Case of the Howling Dog, a man approaches Perry Mason with two seemingly unrelated requests. First, he has questions about the requirements for drafting a will including whether the will would be valid if he were executed for murder. Then he complains about his neighbor's howling dog which is keeping him up at night.

Mason takes action on the howling dog, contacting the district attorney's office. The neighbor insists there's no problem and that Perry's client is mentally unstable. Then Mason's client disappears with the neighbor's wife and later on, the neighbor himself is found murdered. Mason has to unravel the sordid affairs of the dead man, find the client he's supposed to represent, and unmask the real killer.

The Case of the Howling Dog is the best installment yet of the Colonial Radio Theatre's Perry Mason series. The mystery is incredibly complex and engaging with an amazing amount of twists and turns. At 78 minutes, this is  a fast paced thriller. Also, this is only the second of the four to feature actual courtroom scenes (The other being "The Case of the Sulky Girl.") CRT did a much better job with the courtroom drama than in The Case of the Sulky Girl as the court scenes in The Case of the Howling Dog were more vibrant and engaging. Fans of legal dramas will appreciate Mason's brilliant legal manuvering in the program's climax.

Throughout the episode, as has been the usual case in these shows, Mason walks a thin line ethically. When confronted over this by Paul Drake, he expresses contempt for lawyers who wouldn't skate on thin ice for a client. Certainly, the CRT's Perry Mason series wouldn't be nearly as entertaining if he didn't.'

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0 Stars

Note: If you are an Audible Member, the digital download of these programs are only $2.95 each which is a fantastic price for these great productions.

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