Category: Golden Age Article

Audio Drama Review: The Judgment of Sherlock Holmes

The box set begins with Holmes visiting Watson in the early 1920s on urgent business that involves setting down a key adventure that occurred after the events of the Final Problem when Dr. Watson believed his old friend was dead. However, the Society believes Holmes is alive and wants to find him. To do it, they’ll threaten everything Watson holds dear. Watson faces this threat in London while, unbeknownst to him, Holmes is on their trail in Tibet.

This is a rich story spread out over more than four hours. The music and sound design by Jamie Robertson is some of the finest work Big Finish has done, and it makes the story come to life.

The script is meaty. The production successfully mixes mystery, political intrigue, and great character moments in a constantly entertaining story. Watson is pressed to his limit, into taking actions he would not normally countenance. Holmes ends up facing choices that haunt him (and perhaps the world) decades later. We’re also given insight into Holmes’ family and background.

I appreciated the way the villains were drawn. We’re inundated with fictional villainous organizations bent on world conquest that introducing such a group is not in itself remarkable. Barnes does a great job of casting the Society as a fanatical, apocalyptic cult without going over the top. There’s a certain realism to them that makes their fanaticism frightening.

Nicholas Briggs makes a superb Holmes, and nicely manages to distinguish his Holmes from 1892 from that thirty years later. Richard Earl gives one of the best interpretations of Watson I’ve heard and really does well in a story that requires him to carry far more action than is typical for Watson. They’re supported by an absolutely superb supporting cast who don’t miss a beat.

My only criticism is, after the Society’s Plan is dealt with, we’re treated to more than twenty minutes of decompression and clean up and much of that is still in the 1890s. In addition, the fate of Mary Watson was so central to this story but is dealt with in a bit of an anti-climatic way.

Despite these minor issues, the Judgement of Sherlock Holmes is a thoroughly entertaining and well-produced audio drama that shines some light on Holmes’ lost years with a cracking adventure as well as, perhaps, setting the stage for adventures to come.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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Four Great Radio Good Guys

If one of your New Year’s Resolutions is to try out another old time radio program, I have some recommendations for you. While I love detectives such as Johnny Dollar, Sherlock Holmes, and Philip Marlowe, there’s more to old time radio than great detective stories.

Here are four heroes who are good guys from Comedy to Westerns, here are great programs with some memorable and enjoyable characters, in no particular order:

1) Luigi Basco-Life with Luigi

Luigi Basco (J Carroll Naish) was brought to America from Italy by Italian restaurant owner Pasquale in the hopes that Luigi would marry his daughter Rosa. Luigi has little interest, but Pasquale isn’t easily dissuaded and manages to complicate every event in Luigi’s life so Luigi is only left with one solution–marry Rosa so Pasquale will bail him out .

What defines Luigi is a good natured curiosity, a love for his adopted homeland, and a desire to do the right thing. However, Luigi’s character did get revised from early episodes. In those, he was a foster parent to a young boy and knew more about American history than most Americans despite being new to the country. Always, Luigi has a sunny optimism and eagerness to help that’s infectious as he tries to be a good citizen.

He dealt with serious challenges later in the show. In one episode, he writes a school play that features a role for a Black student over the concerns of people at the school that it would cause an uproar. In another episode, he didn’t get a job because he refused to change his name to “an American name” and he insisted that Basco was a fine American name.

Some of the accents are a bit stereotypical, and the plots are formulaic, particularly in the early seasons, but the show’s heart is in the right place and Luigi is a wonderful character to follow through the 100+ episodes in existence.

See: Full review here.

2) Doctor Christian:

In the mid-1930s, Danish Actor Jean Hersholt took on the role of Doctor John Luke, Doctor to the Dionne Quintuplets in two movies. He was so good in the role of the kindly Doctor, he was given a series he could play it without the famous Quintuplets.

The result was Doctor Christian, who practiced his gentle brand of medicine for sixteen years over radio and in six films. Doctor Christian is the ideal physician: caring, wise, and selflessly dedicated to others. His biggest ambition is to build a hospital for the people he serves in the small town of River’s End. His attitude was summarized in the first episode when a worried woman apologized to him for not paying a $10 bill.

He said, “You can go ahead and forget $5 of that bill.”

She agreed to this.

He replied by saying, “Good, and I’ll forget the other $5.”

River’s End is a town full of decent but flawed people who often require a bit of gentle help from River’s End’s leading citizen. While Doctor Christian isn’t perfect, he holds high a standards of kindness, goodness, honesty, and neighborliness that is noble and exemplary. The show had a fine cast. Like many 1930s dramas, the plots could be over the top. But still, Doctor Christian is a wonderful character. He’s a great person to aspire to be like when you grow up no matter how old you might be.

3) The Mayor from Mayor of the Town 

The Mayor of the Town became a much more lighthearted comedy drama in the vein of Doctor Christian. But at the start, America was at war, which led to a serious footing. In the opening episode, Tom Williams, son of the Mayor’s best friend Judge Williams, wants to enlist. The Mayor encourages Tom to over his father’s objections. When Tom is killed in action, he faces the anger of both the Judge and Tom’s young pregnant widow.

It’s pretty gripping stuff for a premier episode and future episodes would continue the trend. It would have the Mayor taking in a traumatized war orphan. He would encourage the career of a local tomboy as a military nurse and help a musician who was going deaf as a consequence of Axis bombing. It was a tough time to be the Mayor of the Town, but he handled it well. However, he’d much rather handle problems such as being named the winner of the “Papa Dear” contest or helping misunderstood young people. Throughout it all, he remains lovable, wise, and fun. (See full Review)

4) Captain Lee Quince-Fort Laramie

Captain Lee Quince is second in command at Fort Laramie in the 1870s. Raymond Burr played the role before he took on the iconic part of Perry Mason over television. Fort Laramie was a memorable series aired at the height of the popularity of the Adult Western, it is one of the most realistic series ever written.

Quince is a fantastic character to listen to. He’s an experienced and tough Army officer who knows the lands and the peoples of a still very wild west. He’s gruff but possesses the wisdom that comes from years of experience. He’s not preachy but he maintains a strong moral core throughout the series as he deals with all sorts of challenges from Indian attacks to rogue soldiers and Indian agents.

It’s a fascinating series that manages to have a few lighter stories such as an episode where the men are out of payroll and another where they receive some clueless visitors from Back East. Still, there are other far more serious stories such as one dealing with Indian massacring settlers, an episode in which a woman loses her soldier husband on a patrol, and another dealing with a fanatical soldier committing genocide on Native Americans.

Throughout, Fort Laramie is brilliantly written, brilliantly acted, and Burr is at his best as Lee Quince. (See Full Review)

Please feel free to share any of your favorite old time radio programs and heroes in the comments below.

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Three Forgotten Old Time Radio Christmas Traditions

Reprinted from December 2011

Television has its Christmas traditions. A Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas survive through the wonder of reruns and videos.

The Golden Age of Radio also had its Christmas traditions, traditions that for years were part of what Christmas was in America. Thankfully, through the power of MP3, we can step back in time and rediscover some of the best:

1) Christmas in Pine Ridge

The recurring Lum and Abner Christmas special in the 1930s was somewhat of an odd show. There wasn’t any comedy to speak of. The plot centers around Lum, Abner, and Grandpappy Spears helping out a young couple that’s gotten stranded in Pine Ridge, where the mother is giving birth. The family is clearly meant to parallel the Holy family travelling to Bethlehem.

The episode’s theme shows Pine Ridge at its best and in its fifteen minutes, it’s poignant, thoughtful, and even philosophical as Lum reflects as well on the old year ending and the New Year coming.

Lum and Abner Christmas Special-December 25, 1940

2) Lionel Barrymore as Ebeneezer Scrooge

While most people living in the 21st century have no idea who Lionel Barrymore is. Say, “Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life” and people will have no problem remembering the distinctive voice of the wheelchair bound adversary of Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey.

One key contributor in Barrymore playing Potter was Barrymore had a lot of experience in the role of miser. From 1934-53, he played the Role of Ebenezer Scrooge for 18 of 20 Christmases. He relinquished the role once to his brother John in 1935 and in 1938, Orson Welles took the part. However, in 1939, while Welles was still the boss at the Campbell Playhouse, Barrymore was Scrooge once again. This time in an hour long adaptation that showed off the amazing talent that was Lionel Barrymore with Welles’ narration making the show a must-hear. Listen and you’ll find out why, for an entire generation, Barrymore was the definitive Scrooge.

Listen to The Campbell Playhouse: A Christmas Carol: December 24, 1939

1) Bing Crosby singing Adeste Fideles

If you say, Bing Crosby and Christmas, for many, “White Christmas” is the first song that comes to mind. However, this was not the song most common to the Crosby Christmas Special. It was Adeste Fideles, also known as Oh Come All Ye Faithful.

Whether Bing Crosby was hosting the Kraft Music HallPhilco Radio Time, or the General Electric show, Adeste Fidelis would lead off. Crosby would first sing the song in Latin, then everyone on stage and at home was invited to sing the song in English.

While fewer people understand the Latin version now than in Crosby’s day, the performance is quite powerful and was simply a great way to begin another great Crosby Christmas.

December 20, 1953 episode of the General Electric show.

Book Review: Some Buried Caesar

Nero Wolfe has one of the most extensive recurring supporting casts of any detective in literature: the crook Fritz, Inspector Cramer, and the three teers (Saul, Fred, and Orrie.)

Some Buried Caesar (1939) is surprising in that it’s completely devoid of all of that, with Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin being the only recognizable features. Indeed, Wolfe and Archie only appear in his famous Brownstone in the final post-mystery scene.

In Some Buried Caesar, while driving to an exposition to enter Wolfe’s prized orchids in it, Archie and Wolfe are involved in a car accident. In their efforts to help, Wolfe is trapped on a stump by a prized bull. They’re rescued and offered hospitality by the bull’s owner, Thomas Pratt, who plans (to the horror of local stockmen) to barbecue the prized bull for publicity for his automat. Clyde Osgood, the son of Pratt’s rival, makes Pratt a bet that he will not barbecue Caesar that week.

Subsequently, Clyde Osgood is found dead in Caesar’s pasture. Wolfe doesn’t say anything until asked to investigate by Fredrick Osgood, the dead man’s father. Wolfe believes he has the evidence of who the murderer is but he has to come up with another plan when that evidence goes up in smoke.

This book is a showcase of Stout’s genius for creating entire communities of characters with complex relationships between them. Among the characters introduced was Archie’s longtime girlfriend Lily Rowan. Wolfe is at his most wily and sagacious, showing that he can operate out of his element if he has to. Archie is probably at his most amusing at this book. My favorite part is when Archie is arrested and attempts to organize a union among the prisoners. This is one of the finest books in the Wolfe canon and the best of the pre-War Nero Wolfe novels.

Rating: Very Satisfactory.

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Audio Drama Review: The Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes

To call The Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes ambitious would be an understatement. It’s a collection of four-hour-long, original audio dramas from the life of Sherlock Holmes that spans nearly forty years, has an underlying plot that ties together through the set, yet each story holds up fairly well on its own.

The stories are an interesting mix. The lead off tale is set before Holmes and Watson met and has Holmes having his first meeting with Lestrade in England, while Watson is kidnapped from his unit to care for a dying Englishman in Afghanistan.

The second story is set shortly after Holmes’ return from being presumed dead and after the Adventure of Empty House and a series of great successes which leads to arrogance and a failure that leads to a well-deserved dressing down. The third part tells the reason why Holmes retired so young from Detective work. The final story is set after World War I and finds Holmes and Watson on their way to Europe to apprehend an old enemy only to discover the mastermind behind the entire affair.

The stories are well-written both individually and as a collection. It really hangs together quite well. The acting by the leads is superb as Briggs and Earl really inhabit the roles. The set manages to highlight the warmth and strength of the Holmes-Watson friendship that has survived so much. This combination is a really a pleasure to listen, particularly with stories as strong as these. The music and sound design are also up to the high standards Big Finish has established on all its releases.

Overall, The Ordeals of Sherlock Holmes is a great box set that offers fans of Sherlock Holmes fresh stories that feel true to the spirit of Sherlock Holmes.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0