Category: Audio Drama Review

Audio Drama Review: The Life of Riley

The Life of Riley was a radio sitcom that aired from 1944-1951 and starred William Bendix as Chester A. Riley, an aircraft riveter from Brooklyn who moves to California and eventually settles into a bungalow with his wife Peg (Paula Winslow), his daughter Babs (Barbara Ellis), and his son Junior (multiple actors including Tommy Cook and Alan Reed, Jr.). The series has many episodes in circulation and many episodes missing. The Life of Riley went through three distinct phases during its seven-year run.

1. War Worker Riley (1944-45)

From the beginning, Riley was known for his malapropisms and bizarre thought processes, but in these early years, Riley wasn’t near the dope he’d be portrayed as in later seasons. He was involved in essential war work, and in the middle of World War II, you didn’t make essential war workers out to be idiots. He developed one of the best comedy catchphrases of all time, “What a revolting development this is,” and it was often used either in moments of exasperation or surprise, sometimes even when there was a positive surprise after he’d worked himself into a lather.

There was plenty of comedy to be had, particularly caused by the free-loading character of Uncle Baxter (initially played by Hans Conreid). In addition, the housing crunch of the late War era impacted the Rileys, and they spent several episodes struggling to find a place to live. While not all episodes of this storyline remain, … there’s quite a bit of humor in their various ups and downs and what they have to do to find a place to stay. The series also captured another aspect of the war: proxy weddings. In one two-part story, confusion ensues when Riley has to stand in for a deployed bridegroom. The series also featured heartfelt stories, like when Riley invites the boss’s son over for Christmas and teaches him the true meaning of the holiday, or when the Rileys throw a New Year’s Party for troops departing by train.

John Brown would appear as Riley’s neighbor and friend from Brooklyn, Jim Gillis. Gillis would often be Riley’s pal but would also antagonize him.

2. Riley, the Well-Meaning Idiot (1945-50)

After the war, the writers seemed willing to make Riley a bit more ridiculous. Yet, he was still well-meaning. He unleashed havoc because his mind went off in weird directions and he misunderstood a situation. He only wanted the best for his kids, but sometimes comedy resulted from it.

The series also featured several recurring characters. In addition to Gillis, RIley had another neighbor named Waldo Benny (Dink Trout), a hen-pecked husband who stoked Riley’s worst fears to comic effect. Of course, the greatest supporting character on the show was the morbidly hilarious Digby “Digger” O’Dell (aka: “The Friendly Undertaker”) (also played by Brown). O’Dell’s appearance followed very rote procedures, often including his greeting of Riley, “You’re looking fine, very natural,” and his complaint about youths stealing signs from other businesses and placing them in his window. But the character often found a surprising way to turn the conversation back to Riley’s problem with a morbid twist. Digger is such an unusual character that it’s a stand-out in the golden age of radio. Alan Reed played the recurring role of Mr. Stevenson and Riley’s father-in-law, along with other characters.

There were also quite a few flashback episodes to when Riley and his wife Peg were in Brooklyn. This set the stage for other programs to do this a lot, such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, although The Life of Riley really made no attempts to put this into any continuity. In fact, none of the post-World War II episodes have much continuity, which allows for some script re-use.

It was a good run, but nothing lasts forever. The series’s decline over radio began with the introduction of Louella (Shirley Mitchell). Louella was the type of Southern belle character Mitchell was known for playing on a wide variety of programs, including The Great Gildersleeve. She’s a single woman who moves into the neighborhood and gets Riley to do things for her, like household chores and buying her gifts. The joke is that Peg and many people think there’s something between Riley and Louella, and Riley even thinks Louella’s trying to seduce him, when there’s nothing going on. However, knowing that it bothers Peg, Riley continually engages with Louella throughout the entire rest of the series. It wasn’t funny, particularly after the first Louella episode. No married man with any sense would do that to his wife, even Chester Riley. It was a bad turn for the series and a preview of what was yet to come.

3. Riley, The Terrible (1950-51)

The last season of The Life of Riley contains the worst character violation in old-time radio that I’ve ever heard. Riley by definition was a well-meaning family man. In the second episode of the 1950-51 season, the Rileys finally get a new car, and Riley and Peg take their driver’s tests. Riley fails the driver’s test because he didn’t study and has a horrible driving exam. Peg gets her license. Despite this, Riley insists on driving, gets into an accident, and tries to get Peg to take the rap for him. She ends up nearly going to jail, when he had been driving.

This is just one example. In another episode, Junior gets together with some other boys to start a lawn-mowing service, and Riley takes over and turns them into virtual slaves to his massive ego. A similar thing happens with a father-and-son concession stand that Riley and Junior start and that Riley ruins when he goes on a huge ego trip. In this season, Riley is transformed from a well-meaning but dim-witted husband and a father to an out-of-control narcissist. It’s often hard to find joy in these later, more cynical episodes.

John Brown’s Digby O’Dell continued to be a highlight, but his appearance and statements became increasingly disconnected from the plot. It’s as if old Digger O’Dell couldn’t care less about Riley’s self-inflicted problems caused by being a horrible person. And who can blame him?

The series did rebound a little towards the end, but its 1951 cancellation really put it out of its (and its audience’s) misery.

Bendix would reprise the role of Riley when the series returned to television in 1953, and the episodes I’ve seen lean more towards the lovable Riley of the early radio seasons, as opposed to the nasty 1950-51 version.

As a series, it’s a solid episodic family sitcom for most of its run, but the 1950-51 season is one of the worst seasons of a long-running show that you’ll find in Old Time Radio.

The first six years of the Life of Riley earn a 4.25 rating, but I’ll give the overall series a rating of 4 based on the horrendous final season.

You can listen to episodes of The Life of Riley on the Internet Archive for free.

Audio Drama Review: Raymond Chandler: A BBC Radio Collection

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels have been adapted twice by the BBC. The most recent adaptations from the early 2010s starring Toby Stephens have been available as official releases for quite a while under the very similarly named collection Raymond Chandler: The BBC Radio Drama Collection. However, this relatively new collection (released in 2020) contains the 1970s and 1980s episodes, starring Ed Bishop, an American actor best known for his works with British producer Gerry Anderson.

Bishop starred in adaptations of the first six Marlowe novels, although the second novel was performed last due to rights issues: The Big Sleep, The High Window, Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye, and Farewell, My Lovely.

Bishop is a strong choice to play Marlowe and his voice is probably better for the character than Toby Stephens, who starred in the more recent adaptations. Stephens uses a tough-guy accent like Marlowe came from the streets of Philadelphia or New York. Bishop’s voice sounds more like the Marlowe from the books, who, as revealed in The Little Sister, came from a small town. That said, it’s been a while since I’ve listened to the Stephens-led dramas, so I won’t comment on how Bishop’s performance compares in every detail. The BBC having given this an official release might allow me to do some fun comparisons as to which version better handled individual novels.

The acting is very good and they avoided the worst tendencies of British drama that feature American characters. The BBC’s portrayal of Americans were often hit-or-miss up until the 1990s, with exaggerated accents that made the entire thing very hard to take seriously. Here, the acting is right on the mark. Whether they were working with a lot of ex-pats like Bishop, or simply British actors who were skilled with American accents, I was never pulled out of the story by a bad or silly performance.

The sound is minimal and a bit primitive, but not more than most British Audio Dramas prior to the 21st Century.

The stories themselves are well-told and for the most part capture the spirit of the novels. They even did a good job adapting my least favorite novel of those featured here, The Little Sister. The biggest fault with the adaptation was an over-reliance on expository narration. Narration would be something you’d expect with hard-boiled detective stories, and in most productions, it works just fine. The problem is that each adaptation was fit into a very rigged hour and a half time slot. This worked fine for most of the novels, but for others, it didn’t. The Long Goodbye requires a lot of tough adaptation decisions as to what to include, what to exclude, and what needs to be condensed. The BBC chose instead to not decide and use expository narration a lot. Throughout The Long Goodbye, it felt like a third of the runtime was Marlowe expositing scenes that occurred off-air that probably should have been on-air. The result is an adaptation that feels a bit lifeless. This was also a problem, to an extent, with the adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely.

I think the other four stories are well done, and Farewell, My Lovely is still pretty good, but the adaptation of The Long Goodbye is disappointing despite the story being considered one of Chandler’s best.

The release includes a nice bonus, a 1958 interview of Raymond Chandler by James Bond creator Ian Flemming. The interview is really much more of a conversation between two friends who are both some of the most popular writers of thrillers in the 20th Century. It’s nice to hear it as if you’re a fly on the wall in the room.

Overall, if you’re a fan of Raymond Chandler and Philp Marlowe, this is worth checking out. Despite a lackluster treatment of The Long Goodbye, this is still a good value, particularly if you use an Audible Credit to purchase it.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

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Audio Drama Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Voice of Treason

Sherlock Holmes: The Voice of Treason is an Audible original Audio Drama written by George Mann and Cavan Scott and starring Nicholas Boulton as Sherlock Holmes and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Doctor Watson.

Holmes is called in when Queen Victoria disappears from her rooms, threatening the stability of the British Empire. Can Holmes unravel the mysteries surrounding the royal household, and find the Queen and save her?

This is a very involved piece. Both Holmes and Watson are solidly cast. Holdbrook-Smith does seem a little a bit too into the buffoonish takes on Watson at times, though I think that’s more an issue of the script than anything else. The supporting cast is solid from the top to bottom, which is saying something, because this has such a huge cast of characters, with not many cases of doubling up. The sound design is also well put together and does a great job of recreating the feel of the late Victorian era.

What made me nervous about the release was the time of it – eight hours. That’s very long for an audio drama. I wondered if we’d get a GraphicAudio-style story with a lot of narration in-scenes, as if a novel is re-enacted word-for-word.

It wasn’t that. Mann and Scott are both talented writers and their core story is actually a compelling mystery with some very good twists included. It’s a story where you’d best be patient, because it can seem like they’re not being true to the characters, but it does come out mostly right in the end. Yet, eight hours is a long time. It’s enough for around three Big Finish Sherlock Holmes box sets or sixteen episodes of the Jim French Productions Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and not all that time is well spent. The plot can be a bit over-complicated at times, and include such diversions as a card game featuring radical labor leaders, an estranged relative, etc. The story starts out really slow, with events that are only tangential to the main plot. While all these are not bad, they feel very much like padding. The story could have lost two to three hours of runtime while still maintaining its core story and being better-paced.

Still, if you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan out for a long car ride, or who has a series of long commutes, this is not a bad listen. There’s a really compelling story at the heart of it and if you’re in for a more relaxed and leisurely pace to your adventure, this could be a worthwhile listen.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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Audio Drama Review: The Avengers: The Comic Strip Adaptations Volume 06: Steed & Mrs Peel

Big Finish’s latest release of the Avengers features three different comic strips from the Steed and Peel era of the 1960s television series starring Julian Wadham as Steed and Olivia Poulet as Emma Peel.

In “Seven Deadly…Assassins”, Steed and Peel are sent on a ship where they are charged with guarding a valuable jewel. However, they find themselves amidst a group of assassins themed around the seven deadly sins and with a grudge against them.

This is very much a typical Avengers story with themed villains, a fun location, the quips, etc. It does lack some of the punch other comic adaptations. As writer Roland Moore points out, this was from a holiday special without cliffhangers. Still, it’s a fun story, and it’s written with a good understanding of what to expect. The performances are good even with the archest and most on-the-nose characters. It’s a fun time, and hits the right marks, but doesn’t quite have the pizazz of the better stories.

In “Stand and Deliver,” Steed and Peel are invited to a Highwayman’s Ball at the house of a nobleman/scientist. It turns out the ball is a set up to find out who is a spy within the British Secret Service, and Steed is a suspect.

In the case of many stories with this sort of plot, it might be fair to complain about how convoluted the story is, but this is the Avengers, and no villain ever cares about doing anything in a simple, direct way. This story is a fun listen that has a lot of twists and turns, and combines elements of a few different genres to make for a good romp.

“You Won’t Believe Your Eyes” is a hard one to evaluate, owing mainly to the comic strip used, which writer John Dorney admits goes in some directions that are atypical for the Avengers. The beginning of the story is quite strong with the sudden appearance of polar bears and T-Rexes. Then, after we find out the source of these apparitions, the story loses some momentum. We’re given two very stereotypical Soviet spy villains that are far from the typical over-the-top Avengers villains we’re used to. The story picks up in the last few minutes when we get the final plot twist and the denouement. It’s helped by a good acting performance from Dorney.

It’s not a bad script but doesn’t quite deliver the level of fun you expect from an Avengers script, particularly with an opening like this one had.

I couldn’t help but wonder whether Big Finish is running out of good source material, particularly for the Steed and Peel era.
The stories in the six volumes have all been based on storylines from comic strips in TV and TV Action magazine, with Big Finish writers adapting the scripts and expanding on their ideas and concepts. In addition to the atypical finale, the opening story wasn’t a serialized story like all the others, but a self-contained story from an annual.
Overall, this box set was still a fun time. The production team at Big Finish does a great job making these as good as possible. I just sensed that due to the quality of the source material, there was more work needed to put out higher-quality episodes than on previous sets.If you love the TV Avengers or the previous box sets, it’s still worth checking out.
Rating: 3.75 out of 5
The Avengers: The Comic Strip Adaptations, Volume 6 is available on the Big Finish website.

Audio Drama Review: George Edwards’ Les Miserables, Volumes 1 and 2

Radio Archives often comes up with unique offerings that separate it from other old time radio sellers. Such is the case with its two-volume release of the Australian serial adaptation of Les Miserables by Australian actor/producer George Edwards.

Transcription disks of the fifty-two episode 1949 serial are not in general circulation, so this has been a treat that has not been heard in decades.

The sound quality is immaculate and I expect nothing less from this company. Radio Archives has consistently shown a talent for bringing these golden age treasures to listeners in sound quality that exceeds what most original listeners heard over the radio.

The classic story follows Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who spent nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread and for subsequent escape attempts. On his release, Valjean is forced to carry a yellow passport that causes would-be employers and landlords to repel him, but his life is changed forever by the kindness of a bishop.

Les Miserables is a massive work with a giant cast of characters and no adaptation can capture everything. Still, the story seemed to get most of the essential and best-known elements of the novel and makes it fit into the serial format. Episodes five and six are missing from the collection, but I didn’t really feel I missed much by their absence. Episode four ends just after Valjean’s encounter with the Bishop and episode seven starts just after Valjean has become mayor of a small town under an assumed name. Even basic familiarity with the story kind of allows you to fill in the blanks and Valjean himself summarizes important details.

The story does take a few twists noticeably different from the book, and ends in a very different way, which may offend literary purists, but is nevertheless is still a reasonably satisfying ending to the story.

There were a couple moments I questioned in this. Given the limited time for the adaptation, it was odd that the story includes both Valjean as a prisoner showing a feat of strength and Inspect Javert having a flashback to that exact same scene a few episodes later. A little bit of exposition or a shorter flashback would have provided economy and more time to expand the story. Or they could not have shown the scene at all the first time, since we were going to have Javert remember.

The sound design and music on the production is, for the most part, standard and competent in a way that you’d expect from a production of the era. It uses similar themes and musical bridges over and over again. But there are also some high points in the series that really are brought home by some really outstanding musical arrangements.

The unnamed cast is solid. There’s not a weak performance in the entire company. The actor who plays Inspector Javert delivers the best performance. He brings out Javert’s manic madness in a way that’s captivating. He makes every ridiculous, mad step Javert takes in the story completely believable. In another context, the performance might be over the top, but this actor nailed the performance and captured the character of Javert in a way that really elevates the entire production.

Radio Archives released the set in two volumes. The first collected episodes one through four and seven through twenty-seven. The second volume collected volumes twenty-eight through fifty-two.

If you’ve listened to and enjoyed other George Edwards serials such as The Adventures of Marco Polo or if you’d just like to hear a fresh serialized take on Les Miserables, this is a collection worth listening to.

Radio: 4.5 out of 5

Volumes 1 and 2 of Les Miserables are available to purchase as downloads on the Radio Archives websites.

Audio Drama Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hound of the Baskervilles is like the Christmas Carol. You don’t watch or listen to an adaptation to find out what happens but to see how well the creators have captured the story. Big Finish does a superb job of capturing the spirit of the Hound of the Baskervilles in a very traditionalist adaptation. Amazingly, the entire program was recorded and rehearsed in a single day.

The cast is wonderful. Richard Earl has got the part of Watson nailed and that’s vital since most of the story centers around him. John Banks and Charlie Norfolk did Yeoman’s work, playing five parts and three parts respectively. They did it so seamlessly, I didn’t know they didn’t have separate actors for each part until I listened to the Extra’s CD. Samuel Clemens is very compelling as Sir Henry Baskerville. And of course, Nicholas Briggs is great as Holmes.Of course, what makes the piece so atmospheric over audio is the sound design and music, coupled with Earl’s narration and they did an incredibly good job in post-production. It captured the spookiness and suspense of the story. Overall, Big Finish does Doyle’s most legendary story justice in a superb adaptation.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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A version of this review was posted in 2015

Audio Drama Review: Death on the Nile

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this review was posted in 2014.

The plot of Death on the Nile is familiar to me. In the past,  I’ve reviewed the Ustinov big-screen version and the David Suchet version.   Recently, I was pleased to enjoy the BBC Radio 4 version.

It can seem odd to listen to, watch, and experience a mystery multiple times because to the viewer or listener, it’s no longer a mystery. We know whodunit and we know why. Yet, there are some stories that are so compelling that the stories never get old. And that’s definitely the case with Death on the Nile. 

The plot has Poirot (John Moffat) on vacation in Egypt and stepping smack into the middle of a huge drama.  Simon and Linnet Doyle are on their honeymoon being staked by Jacqueline, Simon’s former fiancee who he jilted in order to marry Linnet, who was Jacqueline’s far richer best friend. Poirot sees trouble coming and tries to head it off, warning Jacqueline not to let evil into her.  However, the tragedy occurs when Linnet is murdered with Jacqueline’s gun. However, Jacqueline didn’t do it as she had just attempted to kill Simon and had panicked and was staying with a nurse at the time Linnet died.

The good news for Poirot is that the boat is full of potential suspects or at the very least, people who have their own secrets to hide.  Thus Poirot has to sift through an amazing array of lies to find what really happened.

While you listening to the radio adaptation, you may miss the stunning visuals that defined the television and film adaptations, I think that the radio version may have been the best at capturing the emotional conflicts at the heart of Death on the Nile. The pacing is very deliberate. It was aired as a five-part drama, and the first murder didn’t occur until the end of part three. They really did a great job setting up the situation and the characters. The interactions between Poirot and Jacqueline are priceless, and the resolution to the secondary storylines add a more positive counterbalance that makes this enjoyable.

Death on the Nile is a great story that brings home the brilliance of the murder and the tragedy of the perpetrators in a way that captures the imagination and makes this a must-listen-to Poirot adaptation.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0

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