Category: Audio Drama Review

Top Ten Greatest American Radio Detective Performances

Around the time I first started the Great Detectives of Old Time Radio, I did a series of articles ranking radio detectives by network, listing the top five detectives from ABC, CBS, NBC, Mutual, Multi-network shows, and Syndicated shows.

After more than seven years, and a great deal more exposure to all radio detectives, we’re ready to do this in a way that’s less complicated. So, over the course of the next three weeks, we’ll take a look at my lists of the top 10 best performances in American-made radio detective programs. I’m limiting this list to American programs because that’s what I have the most experience with:

10) William Gargan as Barrie Craig in Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator (1951-55)

After the first half of 1950, it was hard to get a radio detective show off the ground. NBC tried several and all but one were cancelled after less than a year. That one was Barrie Craig. Barrie Craig lasted four years and it’s all chalked up to Gargan’s performance. Gargan had been a real-life private operative and had been born in New York City (where the series was set) and that authenticity helped as well as his natural charisma. Craig was easy going with a wry sense of humor that often poked fun at genre tropes. However, he was not a man you wanted to cross, though violence was not his usual means of resolving conflict. Craig was driven by a strong moral code and was one of the best and noblest characters we’ve ever featured on the show.

9) Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes (1939-46):

For nearly half a century, Rathbone’s portrayal of Holmes was the definitive one until Jeremy Brett’s performance in the 1980s and early 1990s Grenada television version emerged as a challenger. Even then, Rathbone’s performance influences Sherlock Holmes producers to this day. There are a number of reasons for this and it makes Holmes a treat whether on film or on radio.

Rathbone had a superb range and was not only able to play Holmes as the genius detective, but also was able to play some moving and emotional moments like in “The Guileless Gypsy,” as well as for comedy such as he did in, “The Second Generation.” Rathbone had great chemistry with his Watson (Nigel Bruce) which made the duo a delight to listen to despite Dr. Watson being occasionally written as a bit daft. Rathbone succeeded in making Holmes a truly likable character and handling all challenges with unmatched professionalism even as he began to tire of being typecast as Holmes.

8) Natalie Masters as Candy Matson (1949-51)

The series was broadcast from San Francisco and only heard on the West Coast, which was a shame. The series focused on Candy, who was a former model and a hard-boiled private detective. This was a very unusual series and an unusual role for a woman at a time. Masters plays it to perfection, creating a characterization of Candy that’s competent, smart, and tough, while still being very likable and compassionate. The series didn’t take itself too seriously, but it never turned Candy into a joke. Masters’ performance was both slightly ahead of its time, and also immensely entertaining.

7) Bob Bailey as George Valentine in Let George Do It (1946-53(?)

Bob Bailey is best remembered for playing Johnny Dollar for five years. That’s so well-remembered, his work on this series is often forgotten, and it shouldn’t be. While Let George Do It began as a somewhat weak detective sitcom, it quickly took off to become one of the smartest and best written detective/mystery shows of the Golden Age of Radio, with Bailey’s detective at the center of the action. As the show changed co-stars and styles, Bailey continued to turn in solid performances whether they required kindness and profundity, action, or humor, Bailey’s performance as George Valentine could always be relied upon to get the job done.

To be continued next week…

Audio Drama Review: The Wisdom of Father Brown, Volume 2

Colonial Radio Theatre continues to bring the works of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown to the air in this second collection of four mysteries based on G.K. Chesterton’s Wisdom of Father Brown.

•The Duel of Dr. Hirsch-The reclusive French statesman Dr. Hirsch is accused of treason and Father Brown and Flambeau get caught in the midst of swirling political intrigue. This is a classic Father Brown story with a clever solution most listeners wouldn’t see coming. Colonial does a superb job on the adaptation and allows Chesterton’s misdirection to work its magic.

•The Man in the Passage-A great actress is murdered. Several men could have done it, but the case hinges on conflicting testimony as to what the suspects and Father Brown saw in the passage. This is probably one of Chesterton’s lesser mysteries and that it would be a mystery to the police that would end in a climatic court scene requires a greater suspension of disbelief than any other story in the Father Brown canon. The entire mystery is a joke and Father Brown’s conclusion is the punch line. The characters are played quite broadly and a bit over the top because of this, but Colonial is simply playing the story as it’s written. They do good job adapting a story that doesn’t easily lend itself to adaptation.

•The Purple Wig- A freelance journalist investigates a cursed aristocratic family and how that curse has apparently affected the latest Duke of Exmoor. This one has a great satirical element as it focuses on the efforts of a newspaper to shape public opinion by reporting facts that conform to the papers and the reader’s biases. The mystery isn’t bad and it’s wrapped in a clever bit of satire that feels as relevant today as it was when Chesterton wrote it more than a century ago.

•The God of the Gongs: Father Brown takes a winter holiday with Flambeau and they find themselves at a summer resort where Father Brown discovers a body and a dark mystery. This is the most straightforward and suspenseful tale on the CD and builds very nicely to its climax.

In taking on The Wisdom of Father Brown, Colonial has set out to adapt some of Chesterton’s most challenging stories for readers. Like Volume 1, Volume 2 to succeeds in making these stories entertaining and engaging for a modern audience while still being true to the source material with solid production values and good production values. Overall, another great Father Brown collection from Colonial Radio Theatre.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

Disclosure: I received a free digital copy of this production in exchange for an honest review.

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Audio Drama Review: The History of Harry Nile, Volume 7

The final dozen stories to wrap up Phil Harper’s historic run as Harry Nile are collected in the History of Harry Nile, Volume 7, containing twelve episodes including three double length episodes and Harper’s final episode before he died.

Some of my favorites are:

The Case of the Interstate Stalker: A case where Harry helps out his sister who is being chased across the country by an obsessed used car dealer. It’s not a typical detective story, but it does show Harry’s personal side, and shows the aging private eye relating to his family.

The Friends of Jules Riskin: Another personal story that follows up on a previous episode, this time involving the death of Harry’s younger brother Joey. Harry’s been told it’s an accident but finds out otherwise, and faces a mob vendetta that could wipe out his family.

Twenty Grand: A shady business deal investigation leads Harry on the hunt for a rare car, and an encounter with an even more unusual woman. There’s some great twists and solid tension.

The Mobius Matter: The last Harry Nile story starring Phil Harper. A husband comes to Harry and Murphy saying he believes his wife is trying to kill him. Independently, the wife comes to them saying her husband is trying to kill her. It’s a very clever case with a lot of twists. The story features Richard Sanders from WRKP in Cincinnati.

Motive: Russell Johnson (the Professor from Gilligan’s Island) appears and the story has solid and unexpected twists.

The stories in this set are well-written and well-acted. My only minor quibble is with the ending of, “The Miracle Mile,” a story which took Harry back to Los Angeles to solve a problem for an old friend and then ended without Harry doing anything for his friend.

Beyond that, this was really a joy to listen to. Phil Harper’s run as Harry Nile was an all time classic run that’s been a pleasure to listen to, and his chemistry with the late Pat French was superb.

This is a good buy for long-time fans of Harry Nile. There are many callbacks to prior episodes, so those who are new to the character may want to try the History of Harry Nile, Volumes 1 or 2, or pick up one of the Adventures of Harry Nile sets with Larry Albert, who took over the role after Harper passed away.

However, if you do want to purchase this, be aware that March 19th, 2017 may be the last day you can order. Jim French productions is closing and there’s currently no plan for the episodes to continue to be legally available. So if you’re interested in any of their products, March 19th, 2017 is the deadline.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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Audio Drama Review: Avengers, The Lost Episodes, Volume 7

Big Finish concludes its four-year promise of adapting all the episodes from the mostly lost first season of the Avengers starring Anthony Howell as Dr. David Keel and Julian Wadham as John Steed. There are three stories in this final release, but only one features both protagonists.

Dragonsfield is a superb Cold War story that finds Steed on his own and investigating espionage at a British lab. The lab is trying to create a top-of-the line space suit in order to sell it to the Americans. This story is a delightfully done mystery with plenty of suspects and manages to keep you guessing. We do see Steed using some enhanced interrogation methods on one spy, but other than that this is a very well-done story featuring Steed alone.

In the Far Distant Dead, on his way home from a South American holiday, Dr. Keel stops to provide medical relief in the wake of a cyclone. In the process, he encounters a fisherman with food poisoning and discovers the source–a can of hydraulic fluid mis-labeled as olive oil.

Keel sets out to get to the bottom of the deliberate act meant to save on custom fees. Following on the heels of a solo episode for Steed, this solo episode for Keel balances things out and we get a story that centers on Keel as a physician and where the mystery is driven by Keel’s compassion and righteous anger. Dr. Sandoval is an interesting supporting character. Is her outrage real or is she in on the conspiracy?

The story does suffer from a villain who is over-the-top. The way he says “Kill him!” is hilarious but I don’t know if that goes well with the tone of the story.

Finally, in The Deadly Air, Steed and Keel investigate sabotage at a laboratory trying to discover a vaccine. This story suffers from being in the same box set as Dragonsfield which is a much better story, rendering The Deadly Air a repetitive episode.

The story is okay, but it pales in comparison to Dragonsfield which has more suspense and more interesting characters. This adventure by comparison is an average story with a few good moments.

Overall, this is a good set in what’s been a good series. The Lost Episodes has filled a big hole in the history of one the 1960s most beloved and iconic programs with superb acting, good writing, and a dedication to authenticity.

Overall rating for this box set: 3.75 out of 5.0

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Audio Drama Review: The Avengers: The Comic Strip Adaptations, Volume 2

The second and final volume of Big Finish’s Avengers Comic Strip adaptations offers four more hour long adventures featuring Julia Wadham and Olivia Poulet playing the iconic roles of of John Steed and Emma Peel.

The set begins with “Playtime is Over” in which Steed and Peel investigate a series of daring robberies apparently committed by children. When a man who has offered them a lead is murdered by a toy boat, that sets them onto a toy factory run by an eccentric man who never quite grew up.

This takes the offbeat nature of the Avengers and ups the zaniness to the level of a 1960s Batman TV episode. It’s incredible fun, if a bit predictable at times.

In “The Antongoniser,” after several strange deaths, Steed and Mrs. Peel are put on the case and discover the cause of death is animals gone bad. This is an entertaining program, with some fun moments, but it doesn’t measure up to the better episodes in the series with a mystery that’s too quickly solved and a villain that’s not that interesting. Still, worth a listen due to the fun one-liners.

In, “The Mad Hatter,” a visiting foreign princess becomes a target for assassins. As the title implies, a theme villain is behind it, but the story has a lot of twists on its way to the big reveal. The dialogue is hilarious as are many of the situations. Although, the idea of a rattlesnake being hidden in a bowler hat does cross the line from hilarious to ludicrous. Still, a fun episode.

“The Secret Six” is a perfect finale for the comic strip stories as Steed and Mrs. Peel find themselves prisoners at a country estate where they are held by six master criminals from around the globe who have decided that eliminating Steed and Peel is critical for their evil plans to succeed. It’s an action packed and dizzying ride as the two have to dodge bullets and even a tank in their quest to stay alive. Overall, this is a fun and exhilarating conclusion to the series. My only complaint is  several of the six villains were not quite credible as crime bosses. In the end, that doesn’t stop this finale from being a pleasure to listen to.

Ratings: 4.0 out of 5.0

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