Category: Audio Drama Review

Audio Drama Review: Lord Peter Wimsey: BBC Radio Drama Collection Volume 1

The BBC has begun release its adaptations of Dorothy Sayers novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. The series originally aired between 1973-1983 with one story being recorded in 1993. All feature Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter.  The first collection features radio adaptations of Wimsey’s first three novels.

The collection begins with the first novel Whose Body. It opens with his mother calling him when a dead man is found in an architect’s bathtub and the dead man is wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez glasses.

The story does a good job of establishing Wimsey as a detective as well as much of the supporting cast. The story has a light tone. One big exception is when Lord Peter has an episode of what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder related to his service in World War I. His servant Bunter (Peter Jones) served with him in the war and has to bring him out of it.

Overall, Whose Body is delightful and at five parts, it moves at a quicker pace than the other stories in the set. It’s a well-done and pleasant puzzle mystery.

Next up is Cloud of Witnesses in which Lord Peter returns from abroad to find his sister’s fiancé has been murdered and his brother is suspected of the crime.

This is an eight-part adaptation, and the mystery is much more involved and complicated. It works and it gives some insights into Lord Peter’s family and their relationships to one another.

The final story in this collection is the seven-part adaptation of Unnatural Death which has Lord Peter investigating the death of an elderly woman three years previously that was apparently from cancer. Her heir was her great niece who had served as her nurse. A doctor became suspicious of the true cause of the death and was pushed out of the town because of it.

The question of motive is at the heart of the mystery. Lord Peter recruits a marvelous spinster to help with the investigation.

The mystery is complicated and several elements are a bit iffy. The story also suffers from a lack of Bunter, who is absent from most of the tale. By no means is it a bad mystery, it is just not as good as the other two.

Beyond the mysteries themselves, the acting is good throughout. I also love the theme music. It fits the detective like a glove.

I have to say I was impressed by the quality of the sound and the sound effects. It was better than it was on the Poirot’s Finest Cases set that the BBC released a while back, which is odd. The Poirot adaptations came later. Whether this is due to advances in audio restoration technology or due to the Whimsey production team creating a better sound, the sound design is very impressive.

Whether you’re a long-time fan of Peter Whimsey or you like old-fashioned British detectives in general, these radio plays are a delight and I highly recommend them.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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A Look at Our Miss Brooks

Our Miss Brooks is the most popular and beloved of the post-War sitcoms, airing from 1948-57. It was on television from 1952-56 and came to theaters. The television version lacks an official DVD release, so only a few public domain episodes are easily available. We’ll be focusing on the radio version.

The series began in 1948, focusing on Connie Brooks, an underpaid English teacher at Madison High School who was a boarder in the House of Miss Davis. The series covers Brooks’  troubles with an authoritarian principal and trying to win the man she’s in love with, bashful biologist Philip Boynton.

Originally, Shirley Booth was chosen to star and a pilot was recorded featuring her, but she wasn’t a good fit. Eve Arden won the starring role and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part. She had a great sense of comedic timing and near perfect delivery, always generating a laugh at the right time. In addition to her relationship frustrations, Miss Brooks was beset by financial problems. And, again, Principal Osgood Conklin’s  constant demands went above and beyond any reasonable interpretation of her job description.

Conklin was played by Gale Gordon and his character makes the series what it is. Conklin is an authoritarian and a bit of an egotist. He strictly enforces all rules, including ones he himself ignores. A character like this could become obnoxious, yet Gordon makes him fun. He has signature lines, such as the most incredulous of, “Oh you do…” to someone whose opinion he thinks is preposterous. He also has a classic delayed reaction where he goes on calmly for several seconds before realizing what someone said and responding.

Conklin was humanized a bit. He often suffered from Miss Brooks’ accident-prone nature. By the end of most episodes, Conklin has got his comeuppance, which makes for good catharsis.

Mr. Boynton was played from 1948-53 by Jeff Chandler and thereafter by the Robert Rockwell, who played the role on television. Boynton is a biology teacher and tone-deaf to romance. He likes Miss Brooks but doesn’t express it even though they date quite a bit. He’s cheap and rarely pays for anything with Miss Brooks. His idea of a hot date is a trip to the zoo. He’s obsessed with his biology animals and will often demur on more exciting opportunities.

Miss Brook’s landlady Mrs. Davis (Jane Morgan) serves as a warm, supportive figure who is hilariously absentminded. Walter Denton (Richard Crenna) is a squeaky-voiced teenager who lavishes Miss Brooks with praise and frequently drives her to school. He’s also a representative of the students and often locks horns with Mr. Conklin.

Harriet Conklin (Gloria McMillan) rounds out the regulars as Conklin’s daughter and Walter’s girlfriend. She was level-headed, intelligent, and kind. Major recurring characters included Miss Enright (Mary Jane Croft), a fellow English teacher who was a rival for Mr, Boynton’s affections. Most of her episodes featured an entertaining verbal catfight between her and Miss Brooks. Stretch Snodgrass (Leonard Smith) was a stereotypical “dumb jock” but a well-realized one, always managing to create laughs through his malapropisms and his inability to keep anything straight. Gerald Mohr played at least two different French Teachers in order to be stereotypically French and romantic.

The stories are standard sitcom fare that relies on the characters and the cast’s chemistry in order to make the plots work. The stories reflect the culture of the times and the expectation of teachers to maintain a high moral standard. Mr. Conklin would sometimes take this to excess and raise concerns about Miss Brooks and Mr. Boynton’s “fraternization.” However, they’d been dating for at least five years and still addressed each other as Miss Brooks and Mr. Boynton even away from work. They were far above most people’s standards. The series reflects a more innocent time in entertainment.

The show does have its weaknesses. Many episodes require Miss Brooks and company to convince people of an outrageous whopper of a lie. The problem is the lies are so outlandish and the deception has such low consequence for the truth coming out, the show comes off as dumb rather than funny.

In addition, the series doesn’t have the heart of many other productions from the same era. Unlike The Life of Riley or The Great Gildersleeve, characters in Our Miss Brooks, never have any regrets about their actions, nor do they have heartwarming moments. The story remains a comedy all the way through each episode. While comedies should focus mostly on the funny, the lack of any emotional moments or regrets makes the characters more shallow and harder to relate to.

Still, despite its issues, the series works due to its funny situations and Arden and Gordon’s unerring timing and delivery. It is one of radio’s true classic sitcoms.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

180 Episodes of Our Miss Brooks are available here.

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Audio Drama Review: Black Jack Justice Season 1

Black Jack Justice was produced by Decoder Ring Theatre in Canada. Like the Red Panda, it’s a period series. Black Jack Justice is set after World War II and is a detective series in the style of hard-boiled detective shows like Philip Marlowe and That Hammer Guy.

Unlike most narrated private eye series, Black Jack Justice features two detectives and each takes turns narrating the story. The series stars Christopher Mott as Jack Justice and Andrea Lyons as Trixie Dixon: Girl Detective, his partner. Writer Gregg Taylor plays their recurring police foil Lieutenant Sabien.

The format of the series works well. Both characters are hard boiled, but their styles vary. Justice’s narration tends to be a bit more world-weary and sarcastic, while Dixon is lighter and more smart alecky in her approach. It makes for interesting narration and also good banter between the characters.

There’s definition friction between them, and lots of sniping back and forth. Still, there’s a great amount of professional respect as well as a shared sense of right and wrong.

The first season features twelve episodes, unlike future seasons which would included only six. The episode titles in this first season employed many puns on Justice’s name, such as, “Justice Served Cold,” “Justice Delayed,” “Justice be Done,” and “Hammer of Justice.”

Almost every episode has a good mystery plot. The stories are intellectually engaging and often offer surprising solutions. Most have a tone and style that would fit into the golden age of radio. On some issues, particularly the role of women and domestic violence, it feels a bit more modern, but it doesn’t go overboard.

The music is great, particularly what’s used during the narration. It establishes the mood well.

The only episode that left me a bit cold was the series finale, “Justice and the Happy Ending.” The mystery was not challenging and the plot ultimately came down to how Justice would handle a temptation. However, it was somewhat predictable the way it played out.

Still, the season is overall quite strong. If you love golden age detective shows, it’s definitely worth a listen.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Season 1 of Black Jack Justice is available on the Decoder Ring Theatre website.

Audio Drama Review: Four by L’Amour


As I’ve mentioned before, Random House adapted several stories by the great Western Author Louie L’Amour to audio. Most of these are available as single releases, but some are available as collections, particularly those who have the same lead character. However, this collection of four audio dramas only has the irresistible rhyming title with four different heroes (all but one a one-shot character.)

In “No Man’s Man,” Gunslinger Lou Morgan is hired to get rid of a suitor to a woman he was madly in love with. However, he arrives to violence and so many complications.

I like this story. Even though it’s in the Old West, it reminds me of a classic hard-boiled detective novel: There’s a lying client, dangerous hoods, a mysterious woman who captures our hard-bitten hero’s heart. It has great action and a solid story.

In “Get Out of Town,” fourteen-year-old Tom Fairchild is the man of the house at his farm after his father dies and he goes to town to findhelp. He chooses to hire an ex-convict, Riley, against the advice older men in town. Tom’s an interesting character and this is a coming of age story for him. In the course of the hour audio drama, we see how he changes, in his relationship to Riley especially, as there’s a romantic spark between Riley and Tom’s mother. The story’s ending isn’t quite what you expect, particularly if you’re looking for big western action, but it’s still good drama.

In “McQueen of the Tumbling K”, Ward McQueen, the foreman of a ranch, sees a wounded man fleeing through the Tumbling’s K spread. In town, he learns a gambler is setting up a town and making advances towards the female owner of the ranch. In the middle of this, McQueen is waylaid and left for dead.

This story’s not horrible, but it’s the weakest story of the collection. The villain is painfully obvious, but McQueen is also too strong a hero. Once his physical survival is assured, there’s  not much of a question of the outcome. Everyone in town knows him and no one knows the villainous gambler. The earlier stories worked because you had established lone strangers in Morgan and Riley facing off against local bad guys without any locals having a reason to back them up. Here it’s reversed and doesn’t work as well.

Finally, we have “Booty for a Badman,” featuring one of L’Amour’s well known Sackett characters, Tell Sackett. Tell has had little luck as a miner, which makes him the logical choice to transport the other miners’ gold. Every miner who has left the camp as a known success ended up dead. If they send out someone who everyone knows has a failing mine, he shouldn’t get stopped–in theory.

Carrying $40,000 worth of gold is a risky proposition and it becomes even riskier when Tell encounters an Army wife who has had a breakdown and runaway as she can’t take the strain of living in the West.

This is a good story with a great sense of drama as well as a strong action scene. While we only get to spend an hour with Tell, we get a strong idea of his character. The resolution was one I could have seen coming a mile away, but it’s still a fun story.

Overall, while I liked some stories more than others, this is a nice sampling of stories from one of the most beloved best-selling authors of all time.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

 

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A Look at the Alan Young Show

Baby Boomers will remember Alan Young as a mild-mannered Wilbur Post on Mr. Ed. Generation X and Millennials are more likely to have encountered his work as Scrooge McDuck in Duck Tales and as Jack Allen on Adventures in Odyssey.

Before all that, he was a young comedian who held a spot on radio, first as a 1944 Summer replacement over NBC, then with an ongoing series over ABC from 1944-46, and then back to NBC from 1946-47, and returning again to NBC for six months 1949.

What was the series? Was it any good? I’ll offer my answers based on the existing episodes. We don’t have any surviving episodes from the 1944 Summer Run or the 1949 series. We do have more than 20 episodes from 1944-46 run, and we have the entire 1946-47 series and that’s what this review will be about.

Concept

The concept of this series is fluid. Consistently, Alan Young plays Alan Young, a young man living in Van Nuys, California. Throughout much of the series, he’s trying to win the favor of his girlfriend Betty’s father. The week after he finally seemed to succeed, both Betty and her father were written out of the series. While some episodes of the second season of the ABC run reference Alan running a sign painting business, there are relatively few references to his work, or what Betty’s father did for that matter, which is quite odd.

The plots are superficial, the continuity inconsistent, with characters occasionally behaving in ways and saying things that make no sense to justify a joke. Like many other programs, it has characters whose performances center on one joke: the department store salesman who will mirror what a customer says even at the point of reversing himself, a newspaperman who is frantically busy and confused. Most of more significant characters have multiple catchphrases which are delivered often for comedic effect.

In many ways, the show resembles the Mel Blanc Show (which I reviewed several years back.) Both are somewhat born loser characters, and Mel Blanc also had a girlfriend named Betty who had a father who didn’t like him. Blanc’s show also copied so many of the tropes of Young, but not nearly as effectively. It’s disappointingly bad given the voice talent on it, but it serves as a helpful comparison in showing how Young’s show was different.

The Alan Young show benefited from better written stories. Alan could win some and he could lose some, and the endings of the episodes were usually wonderfully zany and surprising in how things turned out.

The Performances

While Alan Young’s character could feel a bit like a loser, I don’t think the character ever felt pathetic. Young played his character with a great sense of charm, charisma, and good humor. His delivery got laughs for jokes that probably wouldn’t have worked otherwise. His performance was likable, and did a good job running up and down the comedic scale of emotions. He was twenty-five when he got his own sitcom and brought a lot of youthful energy that you just didn’t hear from the middle-aged leads on most other programs.

The supporting players were mostly okay. Again, we get a lot of one note characters who provide the same sort of material week after week. The only character I thought was probably a waste of time was Lulabell. Lulabell shows interest in Alan during the post-Betty shows but never becomes his girl. She’s a Southern Belle meant to deliver Southern stereotypes and say a version of, “ya’ll” and allow Alan a chance to mock her for it. It’s probably the most tedious part of the series.

The characterization of Betty as well as Alan’s later girlfriends is weak. Essentially, they want kissed, they want to get married, and they want Alan to act in ways that are attractive to them and get offended when he doesn’t. That’s pretty much the whole part.

Other than that, all the characters were okay.I laughed at some more than others, but most were well-conceived and worked. Plus, the show rotated the characters and the writers had a good sense of how not to overplay a joke and they rotated many of these characters on and off the program so they didn’t get tiresome. My favorite of these side characters is Mr. Busby, the newspaper editor. He’s just an incredibly manic character and I always laugh during his scenes.

However, the best thing about the Alan Young show is the show’s primary antagonist, Hubert Updike III, played by Jim Backus. Updike is the insanely rich scion of a family with extreme amounts of wealth which Updike boasts about, such as claiming to own entire states, among other constant exaggerations. Updike has an exalted opinion of himself as the most beautiful creature on Earth, and is constantly trying to foil Alan’s plans. Initially, this is because Updike is Alan’s rival for Betty’s affection, but he continues this after Betty’s disappearance. Add to Updike’s other qualities a tendency towards childish petulance when he doesn’t get his way, and you’ve got the makings of comedy gold with the right man in the role.

Backus is definitely the right man. His delivery and timing is superb. The most wonderful part of nearly every episode is the times that Hubert Updike’s on. He was a superb foil for Young, playing beautifully off him. No one has more catchphrases than Backus and somehow he managed to make most of them funny every time he said them, and Young borrows a few of the lines and gets plenty of laughs himself.

It’s worth noting the co-writer of the series was Sherwood Schwartz, who created Gilligan’s Island. Not coincidentally, Backus was cast to play the millionaire, Thurston Howell III. In many ways, what you get to hear on the Alan Show is a younger, more over the top version of Thurston Howell.

Other Factors

It was a post-War program from the era when it wasn’t enough to give you a sitcom, you also got a number or two from the orchestra in most episodes. These are enjoyable,were popular hits, and are mostly well-performed with just a slip up or two in the process to keep things interests. The commercials don’t stand out, but they’re not annoying either.

Overall

Is this one of the great old time radio comedies? No. It’s too formulaic and other than Hubert Updike, there’s not a whole lot outstanding about the series, but it’s also not a comedic dud like the Harold Perry or Mel Blanc programs. Obviously, if you’re a fan of Mr. Young or of Gilligan’s Island, it’s worth a listen. It’s also not a bad choice if you just want to listen to a comedy program. There are better programs, but there are far worst things you could listen to both golden age and modern entertainment.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5.0

Episodes of the Alan Young show can be found at the OTRR Library 

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