Category: Audio Drama Review

Radio Show Review: The Johnson Wax Program

Radio’s big comedy shows often went on Summer break.  In World War II, this was especially true as many comedians used their time off the air to continue working with USO and entertaining the Troops. In 1942, the hit Fibber McGee and Molly show went on Summer Vacation, but their sponsors, Johnson’s Wax, decided to continue to sponsor the Johnson’s Wax Program.

Johnson’s Wax could have chosen to do a typical summer musical program, with a nice singer and nice songs. Some of these series circulate. They’re pleasant if you like that sort of thing, but utterly forgettable and indistinguishable from each other. The Johnson’s Wax Program of the Summer of 1942 was different. Yes, it featured two talented singers in Connie Haines and Bob Carroll. It also featured two great and unique radio talents: Composer, arranger, and bandleader Meredith Willson and storyteller John Nesbitt.

Willson led the band for many variety shows and comedies that required him to play a role. Invariably it would be that of the dunce. However, that stage persona had little connection to his musical work. His music was filled with great arrangements and intriguing ideas for new compositions. He did great work on the Maxwell’s House Good News program in the late 1930s and early 1940s. However, I think his best work in the golden age of radio would be a few years later in The Big Show, a 90-minute radio program that aired from 1950-52.

John Nesbitt was a storyteller. His series of radio programs and MGM movie shorts called The Passing Parade told true stories almost too amazing to be believed. Yet, each fact was fully verified with the scripts being written by Nesbitt himself. The stories were not only surprising but often touch the hearts and minds of the listener with Nesbitt’s skillful reading. The best comparison I can think of for Baby Boomers is Paul Harvey’s Rest of the Story broadcasts, only a bit more dramatic.

Tother Willson and Nesbitt complimented each other’s work. Throughout the summer series, Willson played a series of “lost melodies.” These melodies had been meant for greatness but forgotten or laid aside for one reason or another. Nesbitt told the story of each lost song. Willson meanwhile scored Nesbitt’s stories, matching the stories with solid music (when required.)

The tone of the series, both in Nesbitt’s stories, as well as in its announcements reflected the Spirit of 1942. America was a Nation that was less than a year removed from Pearl Harbor, whose Atlantic merchant ships were under constant danger from U-Boats, and was moving to a firm war footing. Nesbitt turns his full rhetorical powers on the Axis Powers several times and it is stirring, particularly his “letter” to Adolf Hitler.

The series ran for thirteen weeks. Twelve episodes are in circulation. The only bad thing about the series is that the circulating episodes, while clear, are not the highest quality.  Still, if you’re wanting great music, great story, and some solid singing, this is a series that’s well worth checking out.

 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

The twelve existing episodes of the Johnson’s Wax program are available for free online here.

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Audio Drama Review: Shilling and Sixpence Investigate

The Morlington Mysteries are a series of murder mysteries that have been produced for many years live onstage in Brighton in the UK. While each mystery stands alone, it also could be enjoyed as a series. Producer/Writer/Sound Designer Nigel Fairs brings the Morlington Mysteries to audio in Shillings and Sixpence Investigates which is part of Big Finish’s new “Originals” range.

The series title characters Miss Lavinia Sixpence (Celia Imrie) and Desmond Shilling (David Warner) are new characters for the audio dramas. Sixpence is in charge of a girls’ school with Shilling being the school’s new English teacher. The series also features Doctor Who alumni Lisa Bowerman, Louise Jameson, and Matthew Waterhouse, along with many members of the stage company.

The stories are set in the small town of Morlington Hills at the start of the Second World War. The first series features four separate stories, each split into two half-hour episodes:

1) The Missing Year/The Dark Shadow: The series opens with a standard plot where the Lord of the Manor is murdered. The story serves to introduce the main characters as well to have them joining forces to investigate a murder for the first time. The characters are fun, if a bit broadly written, and they have some nice bonding moments. The mystery features a solid supply of suspects and a fair enough solution. Overall, the first story is a strong start that left me eager for the next story.

2) In the Silent Dead of Night / A Very Messy Business: Sixpence, Shilling, and several characters from the previous story go to the home of the eccentric Baroness Pippin to visit a medium. Murder follows.

This story has a decent plot, though unoriginal with a big hole at the end where the Baroness misses something that was unbelievably obvious.

The performances were mostly solid with Lisa Bowerman doing a great job as the housekeeper. At the same time, Miss Sixpence comes off as particularly unlikable with a mix of arrogance and coldness. Add to that most of these characters aren’t that likable and you’ve got a so-so story.

3) An Appointment with God/The Dying Room: The story focuses on questions raised in the first story and has Miss Sixpence visiting the first murderer and subsequently being kidnapped. It’s up to Shilling and the police to find her before her disturbed kidnapper has his vengeance.

The story is quite a bit darker than the first two stories as the more disturbing elements of the story press the boundary of the cozy mystery feel the first two episodes generated. Where the episode really succeeds is by putting Miss Sixpence through her paces by putting her in danger and making her deal with a past mistake. This makes her a lot more human and relatable. Overall, this is well-acted and well-paced.

4) The Face of An Angel/The Black Widow: In the final mystery, the man set to play St. Bernard in the town’s festival dies in an apparent accident. At the time, Shilling tries to find the Black Widow whose evil deeds connect the crimes in the first three episodes. The story comes to a resounding if not entirely unexpected solution. The story features a few good character moments, particularly for Lady Penelope and Inspector Cribbage.

Nigel Fairs deserves credit for how he manages to tantalize listeners for another series. He doesn’t leave the key cases unsolved, but he drops hints of many intriguing goings on about the village with hints of other unknown underhanded dealings. Inspector Cribbage states he has a reason for being there and is making an inquiry. Some characters have secret pasts. On top of that, three characters end the series in sticky situations. Thus Series 1 sets the stage for more cases in a future box set.

The production values on this series are pretty high. Fairs is as good, if not better, at the sound design and music as he is the writing and the sound makes the story feel true to the era. Overall, this is as good or better than anything you’re likely to hear on the BBC.

This solid historical mystery combines the mystery with a dash of melodrama to make for an engaging listen.

Rating: 4 out of 5 (8/10 for Countries on the Metric System)

Shilling and Sixpence Investigate is currently exclusively available at BigFinish.com

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Audio Drama: The Collected Bowdrie Dramatizations: Volume 2 (Dramatized)

The second volume of dramatizations of Louis L’Amour’s Chick Bowdrie stories features six stories featuring L’Amour’s fast-shooting Texas Ranger. The stories are all as strong as in the previous collection. In addition to being Westerns, most are also mysteries as Bowdrie rides into town and has to solve a murder or theft, often as the only legitimate law for hundreds of miles around. The mysteries are bad. If you know L’Amour stories, you often have a very early idea who the guilty party will be.

My favorite story in this collection is the one that isn’t a mystery. “South of Deadwood” found Bowdrie charged with delivering a desperado back to Texas for trial where he faces hanging. A woman insists the criminal can tell the truth that can clear her brother and save him from the gallows. Bowdrie is inclined to believe her, but the criminal refuses to cooperate as he has no motive to do the right thing. At the same time, Bowdrie is being stalked by the criminal’s old gang. As they travel, Bowdrie and the criminal practically become friends or as much of friends as they could be. It’s really properly a complex plot for a short story that works with great characters and a few surprises.

The dramas are all well-acted and fairly well scored. On top of the audio dramas, some of the shorter dramas are proceeded with a few clips from L’Amour himself, sharing his keen insights into the life and times of the old West. Overall, this is a delightful collection of well-written audio dramas by one of the masters of the Western genre and definitely worth a listen.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

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Audio Drama Review: No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency BBC Radio Casebook Vol. 1

BBC Radio 4 produced a series of audio dramas based on Alexander McCall Smith’s massively successful No. 1 Ladies Detective novels which follow the adventures of Precious Ramotswe (Claire Benedict) as she uses her inheritance to establish the first ever detective agency in Botswana for “ladies and others.”

The radio adaptations is done by Smith himself and the first casebook is eight episodes adapted from the first four novels in the series. The radio plays do a great job capturing the warmth and charm of the characters in the book with many bits of dialogue taken directly from the books.

The episodes have a much stronger focus on the mystery element than the books do. The earlier mystery plots tend to be a bit more complex and interesting such as when Ma Ramotswe finds clues that indicate a missing boy may have fallen into the hands of witch doctors and helps a woman who’s not sure the man claiming to be her long-lost father really is. Later we have cases that are more domestic such as a middle-aged man who wants to find a woman he robbed and a girl he wronged to settle his affairs in life.

The theme music is a nice and catchy African theme that makes a solid lead-in for the series.

Not everything from the books is included in the adaptations, but what is omitted mostly isn’t problematic. The two minor exceptions to this is that the audio drama doesn’t address that Ma Ramotswe moved her office from its original location to inside the same building as her fiance Mr. J. L. B, Matekoni’s auto repair business. That was jarring. Nor is it portrayed that Ma Ramotswe’s Secretary/Assistant Detective Ma Makutsi doubled as Assistant Manager of the garage. Omitting that begs the question of how Matekoni’s business survived a long illness in the middle of the series.

However, as the audio dramas stick close to the books, most of the faults come from the books. For example, the series has a habit of raising plot points that disappoint. For example, in one episode, Matekoni’s maid hatches a plot to have Ma Ramotswe sent to prison. In another, a male detective opens up a practice and uses his being male as a selling point for his business. Both of these ideas are resolved in the most anti-climatic way possible.

Still, for all their faults, there’s a reason the No. 1 Ladies Detective series books are so popular. These first eight episodes capture the charm of the book series almost perfectly. If you’re looking for a light mystery series with likable and interesting characters, this set will definitely hit the spot.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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My Big Finish 20 Honorable Mentions

We finished my Big Finish 20 which features 20 great Big Finish releases last week. However, Big Finish has a massive back catalog and there so many other releases that could be on there. I could list great individual releases for a long time. However, for brevity’s sake, I’ll only list two individual releases for honorable mentions and then focus on a few series of worthwhile audio dramas.

Individual Releases Honorable Mentions:

1) Treasure Island: A faithful adaptation that casts the magnificent Tom Baker as Long John Silver. Also the music suite on this one is just perfect for days you want to imagine you’re at sea. (Amazon) or Big Finish

2) The Scorchies: The Third Doctor’s Companion Jo Grant finds herself at the mercy of the Scorchies, a group of insane singing alien puppets. It’s as crazy as it sounds, but the music on this is great. The Scorchies would later return in Jago and Litefoot Series 8 and Iris Wildthyme: Reloaded. (Amazon or Big Finish

Series Honorable Mentions:

1) The Eighth Doctor Adventures: Big Finish began a series of audio dramas starring Paul McCann were broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and were told in the style of the revived Doctor Who series as (mostly) standalone 50 minute episodes. The initial companion co-star for the first four series was Sheridan Smith as Lucie Miller (OBE). After the first four series, the Eighth Doctor Adventures continued as a series of inter-connected series box sets under the titles Dark Eyes, Doom Coalition, and Ravenous. The series has so many high points and great stories, but it’s also inter-connected, and I don’t think you get the full benefit if you listen to an episode as a one-off.

2) Dalek Empire: The Doctor’s greatest enemies are the Daleks. What happens when the Daleks attack and the Doctor is not around? Dalek Empire tells the story of Dalek invasions and human attempts to resist them. The series is part space opera and part war story. It features fine acting. Series 1 and 2 featured Blake’s 7 star Gareth Thomas, Series 3 featured then-future Doctor Who star David Tennant, and Series 4 featured an intense performance from former Doctor Who supporting actor Noel Clarke. The entire series was written, directed, and produced by Television Dalek voice actor Nicholas Briggs. With the Dalek Empire, you get great acting, a lot of action, and stories that can have surprising twists.

3) Counter-Measures: This series features a team investigating paranormal activity in the 1960s and 1970s. There are four main characters, three of which originated in the 1980s Doctor Who story Remembrance of the Daleks However, knowledge of Doctor Who is not required at all as the Doctor or the events of their appearance is never even referenced in the series. The stories are about a variety of threats, ranging from science gone mad to extraterrestrial threats, with political intrigue thrown in for good measure. It’s like a vintage British version of the X-files. The stories remain true to their eras with the first four box sets in the 1960s and a special and last two box sets set in the 1970s (New Counter-Measures.)

4) The Diary of River Song: River Song (played by Alex Kingston)  was introduced in Series 4 of Doctor Who and married the 11th Doctor in Series 6. Doctor Who hinted that River had her own adventures and this series is about her adventures traveling in time and space. She’s not entirely separate from the Doctor as in each of the first four sets, she’s met up with an earlier version of the Doctor (or two) but because of the rules she’s not allowed to reveal herself to any of them (at least that they’ll remember.) This series has continued to improve with each successive set, with a lot of fun and unusual stories.

5) The Avengers: The Comic Strip Adaptations: Big Finish took on the task of adapting eight eight-page comic strips featuring John Steed and Emma Peel into eight full-length audio dramas on two box sets. The results were delightful. Julian Wadham continued his role as Steed from the Lost Stories and adapted to the lighter style of the Emma Peel and Olivia Poulet does a great job stepping into the iconic role of Emma Peel. The stories are mostly solid and show some great imagination, given they just started from eight pages.

6) Sherlock Holmes Stories by Jonathan Barnes: While Big Finish made some interesting Sherlock Holmes releases prior to 2012. Jonathan Barnes 2012, “The Adventure of the Perfidious Mariner, ” Big Finish came into its own with its Holmes stories. The new stories are respectful to the characters of Holmes (Nicholas Briggs)and Watson (Richard Earl) and explore that relationship while also taking some bold directions in the story. We get to see an elderly Holmes coming out of retirement in 1920s London after living years in the country. There’s also some great interconnection of stories beginning with the Adventure of the Perfidious Mariner and concluding after three box sets with the Sacrifice with Sherlock Holmes. For those looking for new Holmes Adventures, Big Finish is offering the best productions I’ve heard in many a year.

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