Category: Golden Age Article

Audio Drama Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Last Act

Note: This review was previously posted in July 2015 but is being reposted. Big Finish is having a sale. The download version can be purchased for 0.99 (in your local currency). You can access the sale by clicking here and using the password “redballoons” before 5/1/2018.

The Last Act brings Roger Llewellyn’s long-running Sherlock Holmes one-man play to audio. The story finds a somber Holmes reflecting on his life and career after Watson’s funeral. It’s a heartbreaking performance as Holmes reflects on his friend and his career. “You never appreciate the best things, the best people, until they’re gone.”

Not every moment is somber. There are humorous moments as Holmes reflects on one of his friend’s oddities or on Lestrade’s unremarkable career that saw him never rise above Inspector.

The play covers a variety of ground. From “The Abbey Grange” to “The Speckled Band,” “The Final Problem,” “The Empty House,” and The Hound of the Baskervilles and many more, Holmes offers his reflections on his cases and it’s a Tour de Force performance.

I enjoyed the second half far less as it offered insights into Holmes’ dark secrets, including his little-discussed childhood. On one hand, this explained Holmes being merciful in one particular case. On the other, there’s a certain modern conceit that tries to explain everything anyone does as a result of childhood trauma. This can be seen in superhero fiction where so many characters’ origins are being rewritten to include trauma. It becomes monotonous in fiction when no one ever does anything good, noble, or heroic unless a parent was killed or was abusive, or some other trauma occurred to explain it.

I also didn’t like the way Holmes’ drug use was addressed. In the books, Watson claims to have weaned him off cocaine. However, the play insists Holmes’ use continued unknown to Watson and it leads the play to a dour place. While some would argue this is more realistic than the books (which removed the cocaine habit as it became socially unacceptable) and it might be clever to undermine audience expectations by moving from downbeat to depressing, but I wasn’t pleasantly surprised by the turn.

Still, the play is well-written even if I have issues with the tone, Llewellyn’s performance as Holmes (and twelve other characters) is pitch-perfect and thoroughly engaging. He captures Holmes as a man trying to come to terms with the greatest loss in his life as a lifetime of emotional restraint begins to ebb away. I only wish the play had a more satisfactory conclusion.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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Audio Drama Review: The Maltese Falcon

The Hollywood Theater of the Ear released its own adaptation of the classic Dashiell Hammett novel The Maltese Falcon in 2008. The production sticks closely to the book and contains moments not included in the 1941 movie. The Maltese Falcon tells the story of Sam Spade (Michael Masden), a private detective whose partner is murdered and who finds himself caught in a web of intrigue involving a mystery woman (Sandra Oh) and a group of dangerous men seeking the priceless Maltese Falcon.

The acting is superb with Masden doing a good job portraying all the facets of Sam Spade. Edward Hermann’s take on Casper Gutman was also nearly as good as Sidney Greenstreet’s. I also liked the idea of portraying Joel Cairo as an Egyptian. That gives a reasonable explanation for the character’s name.

The one off-putting part of the production was it’s decision to include all of the third-person narration in the story and have the actors read the narration about their characters’ actions. It was odd, as if the production was trying to straddle the line between being an audio drama and being an audiobook. Either using a third person narrator or showing narration through sound effects would have made a better listening experience.

Still, this was a fun listen that captures the heart of a classic detective story.

 

Rating: 4 out of 5

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The Too Rare Detectives

Lost episodes are the bane of old time radio fans. There are few series where you can be entirely sure you’ve heard everything there is to hear. There’s always hope a new episode of Barrie Craig, the Saint, or Philip Marlowe, or Dragnet will emerge.

With those series, we have a lot of episodes in circulation that we can enjoy. However, some series have few episodes in circulation and what we have leaves us wanting more.

We’ll discuss seven rare, tantalizing programs.

1. The Big Guy-3 Episodes circulating (23 missing)

Henry Calvin stars as Joshua Sharp, a widowed private detective raising two precocious kids alone. Sharp was a different protagonist in a world of often interchangeable hard-boiled detectives He had to be as tough as any hard-boiled private eye but he also had a fatherly gentleness to him. The existing episodes vary quite a bit, but I really wanted to see more of this character. It lasted only a season.

2. Easy Money-5 Episodes (21 missing);

Larry Haines stars as Mike Burnett, a magician turned racket buster. This aired at a time when the TV series, “Racket Squad” was a big hit on television. Truth be told, this radio series was far better than it’s TV counterpart. Haines is pitch perfect and the rackets are interesting, plus the stories are well-written. It lasted only a season.

3. Leonidas Witherall-7 Episodes (38 missing):

Based on the novels by Phoebe Atwood Taylor, this was one of the most fun detective comedy series I’ve heard. It features Leonidas Witherall, a boys school principal with a beard like Shakespeare. Witherall goes around solving crimes. The series stars Walter Hampden, one of the finest actors in New York at the time and also features the great Agnes Moorhead. It lasted only a season.

4. The Thin Man-8 Episodes (361 missing):

The Thin Man aired for nine years yet we only have eight episodes. Claudia Morgan played Nora Charles opposite five different actors who played the detective. Most of the episodes are light mysteries. Unfortunately, two were dumbed down, didn’t include mysteries, and the humor was hit and miss. However, the other six episodes point to a great series which deserve to be remembered more.

5. The Fat Man-10 Episodes (279 Missing):

J Scott Smart was iconic in his role as Brad Runyon, the Fat Man. In the opening, he steps on the scale, a moment remembered for decades by people who listened to the overweight hard-boiled detective with a heart of gold. He solved mysteries with his uncanny pronunciation of “murrder.” The episodes that exist are a delight, yet we only have an average of two episodes for every season Smart was on the air.

6. Hercule Poirot-11 episodes (425 missing)

Harold Huber starred as Hercule Poirot in a series of original stories broadcast over the Mutual Network. Nine episodes of Poirot’s fifty-one half-hour performances survived. This is not the worst of it. Huber and Poirot went to CBS where Poirot’s adventures were serialized daily for seventy-seven weeks, all but two of these episodes are lost.

Poirot is one of the greatest detective fiction characters of all time, and Huber was a solid Poirot. The radio series captured the spirit of the character as it chronicled his new “American” adventures. Though some of the mysteries were a bit off. The same could be said of the new Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Yet on occasion, that series produced a great, new story worthy of the original Great Detective. It’s a shame we don’t have the same number of extended mysteries for Poirot.

7. Candy Matson-14 Episodes (79 missing):

Candy has the most episodes of anyone on this list and we get her first and last episodes. Still, this series leaves me wanting a lot more. She changes throughout the series as she’s taken more seriously, but the points at which the character changes are hard to identify due to so many lost episodes. The biggest string of consecutive episodes available is three and there are as many as twenty lost episodes between available episodes.

Are there any rare old time radio programs that make you wish you could hear the whole series (or at least a lot more of it?) Let us know in the comments.

The Top Ten Best Episodes of Night Beat

The recently completed Night Beat series was one of
the best-written and best-acted series we’ve ever played. There were so many great episodes. Narrowing it to a top 10 is a challenge, but here is my best shot.

10) The Man with Red Hair
Original Air Date: August 21, 1952

Randy is picked up in a bar by an intriguing woman who has an unusual itinerary for their date. Along the way, they’re stalked by a man with red hair. Good mystery with an emotional conclusion.

9) The Slasher
Original Air Date: November 10, 1950

A slasher has been terrifying women in the city. Randy thinks he’s discovered who’s behind it and the next victim. Some great twists in this one.

8) Mr. and Mrs. Carothers

Original Air Date: October 26, 1951

A cute, elderly couple ask for Randy’s advice on how to have a good time in the Windy City. All is charming until Randy gets a hint the husband is planning the unthinkable. The story builds up suspense and mystery while giving characters very believable motives.

7) Tong Water
Original Air Date: April 17, 1950

Randy goes to Chinatown to prevent a breakout of a Tong war that could spread across the country.

6) Jukebox Romance

Original Air Date: May 18, 1951

A man with dwarfism is ready to kill after a bully decides to arrange a meeting between him and the lady jukebox operator. In this special episode,a beautiful performance by William Conrad comes out of nowhere and steals the show.

5) I Know Your Secret

Original Air Date: April 10, 1950

Randy comes across a woman ready to commit suicide based on a simple message: “I know your secret.”

4) Einar Pearce and Family

Original Air Date: October 13, 1950

Randy is vacationing in Minnesota and is put on the trail of wanted criminal Einar Pearce, but is captured by the criminal’s family to stop him from going to the police…until they’re done with him. This is a very different Night Beat in a quaint rural setting with unforgettable characters.

3) Fear
Original Air Date: May 25, 1951

Randy receives a letter from a man threatening to kill him sometime during the night.

2) Sanctuary
Original Air Date: June 22, 1951

The set up is brilliant. A madman holds a boy hostage in a church belltower. Can police get the lunatic out without harming the boy? A suspenseful story with a surprise conclusion.

1) Expectant Father

Original Air Date: December 28, 1951

William Conrad’s best single performance on the series as he plays a carousing colleague of Randy’s about to become a father. The vast majority of the episode is Conrad and Frank Lovejoy playing off each other. The script has some dated elements, but it connects to common feelings and conflicts that men deal with. A great piece of writing, brilliantly acted.

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Audio Drama Review: The Red Panda Adventures, Season 2

Season 2 of the Red Panda features twelve more adventures featuring the Red Panda. It stars Greg Taylor, who also writes the series. Clarissa Der Nederlanden Taylor plays his sidekick Kit Baxter (aka the Flying Squirrel.

Season 2 took what worked in Season 1 and expanded on the Red Panda’s world. We meet some of the Red Panda’s agents. In the previous season, the idea of agents was abstract. In the episode, “When Darkness Falls,” we finally meet some of the operatives, including a police officer and local businessmen. Note the Shadow magazines also gave the hero a team of undercover operatives throughout the city. That likely influenced Taylor. The Red Panda’s agents make several appearances in Season 2 and make a solid addition to the series.

Having established our heroes, the series reveals more backstory in “Secret Origins.” The title likely references a 1986-90 DC Comic series. In the episode, we learn how Kit Baxter met the Red Panda for the first time. “The Big Top”  presents the Red Panda with a moral dilemma.

Throughout the first season, the Red Panda’s foes were mostly thugs and supervillains. In “The Black Hand,” we get the first real case of the Terrific Twosome of Toronto battling the supernatural. The Red Panda deals with a threat to his secret identity in, “The Hidden Door.”

In the season finale, “The World Next Door,” the Red Panda has a crossover with the more comedic Original universe. A character from its future is out to steal something the Red Panda is trying to protect.

Beyond this, the Red Panda continues to dish out justice to villains who could have been on the Shadow. The Red Panda programs’ quality has improved from Season 1. Occasionally, the sound effects or a performer will be off. Other than that, the Red Panda found its groove in Season 2. There’s not a bad episode among this bunch. It’s sure to delight fans of the golden age of radio and superheroes.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

You can listen to Season 2 of the Red Panda here.

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