Category: Audio Drama Review

Audio Drama Review: Mutual Radio Theater, Volume 1: Week 1

During my recent series on the American Audio Drama Tradition, I was intrigued enough to check out Radio Archives Mutural Radio Theater, Volume 1 set through the Hoopla App.

Mutual Radio Theater was a 1980 series that continued the Sears Radio Theater only on a different network and with a multitude of sponsors so Sears could still advertise on him but not have to foot the whole bill. The series was an anthology with five formats. Mondays were for drama and were hosted by Lorne Greene of Bonanza, Tuesdays were for Comedy and were hosted by Andy Griffith, Wednesdays were for Mystery and were hosted by Vincent Price, Thursday was about love and human relations and it was hosted by Cicely Tyson, and Fridays were for Adventure and were hosted by Leonard Nimoy (a replacement for Richard Widmark from the Sears series.)

The set collects the first four weeks of the series or twenty episodes of about 45 minutes in length. As an overall review of the set quality, let’s just say I doubt these recordings sounded quite as good to people listening to it in 1980. The sound quality is pristine, it’s top-notch. Any complaints you have with the set can’t be due to Radio Archives.

The commercials are a real time capsule. The AT&T “Reach out and Touch Someone” commercials encouraging people to call their friends on long distance were prominent, but there were so many sponsors. Probably my favorite commercials were the country-music-style commercials for Motorcraft Parts. The Agree Shampoo commercials also aged hilariously.

But what about the stories themselves? When you’re talking about twenty stories across five genres, you get variable quality. Some are good, some are not so good. But I don’t think that does the production justice. Over the next five weeks (we’ll take Christmas off), we’re going to look at each of the twenty episodes, starting with the stories from the first week. I also note Golden Age radio stars involved in each production.

The Shopkeeper: A shopkeeper keeps two outlaws from robbing his store by using a gun hidden under his apron. The sheriff suspects he might be part of an outlaw gang about to rob a mining payroll. Golden Age Stars: Vic Perrin and Mary Jane Croft.  

Review: This is a somewhat average Western story, helped by a nice bit of Suspense over who the protagonist is and what decision he’ll make. I had an inkling early on but the story does a good job throwing up red herrings. Grade: B 

Our Man on Omega: A sci-fi comedy imagining a celebration of the man who made first contact with aliens, a somewhat dimwitted computer tech who connected with aliens who experienced time backward and forwards and were shaped like U.S. mailboxes. Golden Age Star: Richard Krenna 

Review: This story has potential, but is mostly told through narration by our unnamed Master of Ceremonies.  The story tries to get political and offers up some dull one-note villains. It’s unengaging and comes off as just a bit of silly fluff and not all that good. Grade: D

Long Distance:  A man about to fly to St. Louis on business receives a warning from his aunt that it’s not safe to fly. He ignores her because she has a fear of flying. However, her call makes him late, he misses the plane, and it crashes. But that’s just the start of her warnings of doom that keep coming true. Golden Age Stars: Janet Waldo, Jerry Hausner, Bill Zuckert 

Review: This is a pretty standard spooky mystery setup. The solution was obvious early on, but I think the story did a good job taking us on the journey. I also liked the main characters. This is enjoyable if somewhat predictable outing. Grade: C+ 

Love Conquers All: A modern British teenager falls in love with her teacher and begins to read romantic literature on how to snare him. Golden Age Stars: None 

Review: I enjoyed this. The story starts off slow but develops over the course of the running. I like Cicily Tyson as the host/narrator and she’s given some good material to work with. While I initially found the teenage girl characters over-the-top, the main character became more realistic, even though she’d embraced a lot of silly ideas. I also liked the teacher. He had chastened a fellow teacher for marrying an ex-pupil but has a fondness for this teen girl. Will he hold onto his ethics or discard them? It’s an interesting story, and I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out. I was nervous it was going to go off the rails, but it didn’t.. It’s actually a lovely story that found a good way to resolve it’s issues ethically. Grade; B+   

The Ship: One of the world’s biggest oil platforms is hijacked. A member of the gang convinces a naïve provisioner to supply the tanker with food in exchange for his life and a cut of the takings. Golden Age Star: John Dehner. The play stars Brock Peters, who was best known for playing Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. Mr. Peters is best known in the audio drama world for being the radio voice of Darth Vader in NPR’s Star Wars adaptations.

Review: So far, this is  the story that most easily could have been told during the golden age of radio, although probably not with an actual African character as a protagonist. Otherwise, this would have been an average episode of the radio anthology series Escape. Peters performance makes it worth listening to. Grade: C+ 

 

To be continued…next week.

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Audio Drama Review: The Seamstress of Peckham Rye

This story is set several months after Big Finish’s previous Holmes release, The Master of Blackstone Grange (review: here). Watson (Richard Earl) has moved into a gender-segregated rooming house to be near the American actress he met in the previous story while they continue the task of obtaining a divorce from the lady’s estranged husband. At the same time, Holmes (Nicholas Briggs) has sunk deeper into melancholy and drug use. The two are brought back together when a young Inspector Silas Fisher (played by James Joyce) enlists Watson’s help to get Holmes to investigate a baffling murder.

The Seamstress of Peckham Rye continues a couple of major threads from the Master of Blackstone Grange, but otherwise stands on its own. The previous work felt Doylesque in its overall plot and structure. This story is a different beast. It feels like a modern-day mystery in its structure, while still being true to its Victorian setting and characters. It does work. It’s an intriguing and engrossing three-hour story. The mystery has a lot of turns and the story is given a lot of space to breathe. However, it never feels padded. It’s engaging from the beginning of the story until the final rendition of the closing themes.

The casting and acting performances are impeccable. Mark Elstobb and Lucy Briggs-Owens turn in flawless performances as Americans. India Fisher offers one of her most vocally unique performances. Briggs and Earl know their characters well and turn in a superb performance that highlights the strength and the complexities of the relationship between Holmes and Watson. The characters are well-drawn and engaging from start to finish.

There’s at least one major mystery that’s left unresolved at the end of the set and a few plot points that remain open questions. All of which should be resolved in next year’s release. I can only help that story is as superb as this one.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Audio Drama Review: The Red Panda Adventures, Season Ten

The War is over and young Harry Kelly is back, although his absence during his time in the military is still unexplained. The Red Panda and Flying Squirrel are now parents. With the Red Panda well into his middle-aged years, he’s looking for an exit. Could the new superhero emerging be the key to giving Toronto’s Terrific Twosome a chance to ride into the sunset?

The Tenth Season of the Red Panda Adventures (unlike the previous nine) is only six episodes long. The season deals out another run of pulp fiction adventures as the Red Panda takes on old foes and new and also manages some clean-up of all the mad science and magic running about in his world during the War. There are some really solid battles and fun adventures to be had.

Yet, the series overall theme is of transition. There’s a sense that at this stage, our heroes are being pressed to the limit of their abilities and dealing with threats that might begin to get beyond them. Emotionally, they’re ready for the exit, they just need the confidence to know the city is left in good hands. The finale of Season Ten is satisfying and makes for a good chronological close for the adventures of the Red Panda.

The season is a cumulation of years of work. Writer and star Gregg Taylor to take his characters on a journey through a heroic career from close to the start of their career to finish. The Red Panda and Flying Squirrel began their careers during the Depression at a time in real life where mystery men like the Shadow, the Green Hornet, Doc Savage, the Spider, and the Black Bat captured the public imagination. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, they began to be supplanted by the cape and costume crowd: Superman, Batman, Captain America, and Wonder Woman. The Red Panda and Flying Squirrel clearly fit into that former tradition, stayed around during the War, and chose to give way to the new generation of heroes at the end. It’s a really imaginative way to do the arc, and Taylor did a tremendous job plotting this out and also helping the characters to grow and change over the series without becoming unrecognized for who they were at the start.

While this marks the end of their chronology, with 114 half-hour episodes over the course of a career that spanned fourteen or fifteen years, there are plenty of lost opportunities for “lost stories.” And we’ll get around to reviewing many of them here eventually.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

The Red Panda Adventures Season Ten is available for free from the Decoder Ring Theatre Website

Audio Drama Review: Black Jack Justice, Season Ten

The Tenth Season of Black Jack Justice saw Jack Justice (Christopher Mott) and Trixie Dixon, Girl Detective (Andrea Lyons) engage in six more episodes set in the 1950s and featuring the regular cast of characters as they navigate a world of mobsters, lying clients, and even a disappearing mummy.

At this point in the series, Black Jack Justice had settled into its reliable mix of hard-boiled narration, philosophical musings on well-worn adages, caustic banter, and occasional gunplay. If you’ve listened to and loved the first nine seasons, there’d be nothing to make you say, “Stop this ride, I want to get off!” It continues to be excellent at what it does.

The fifth episode of the season did push up against the limits of the series. “The One that Got Away,” was about a murder attempt on a man Trixie had toyed with earlier in the series, an operative for the Brakewait insurance agency who’s getting married. The episode is a fun one as Trixie is at the office working late and one by one, Jack and other male supporting characters show up with the man following an attempt on his life after the party. The story has fun twists and crazy dialogue. Yet, it also strives to be more focused on Trixie dealing with someone she’d dated getting married. There, it doesn’t quite work. Trixie as she’s been played for ten seasons is completely self-assured and self-contained with no interest and perhaps no ability to form long-term relationship and no inkling of any further depth. The episode doesn’t do much to push the boundaries of her character as there’s not much further it can be pushed after ten seasons. She works as a superb homage to the dime novel detective but that’s about it.

Overall, the tenth season works, particularly when it sticks to what it does and knows best. If you enjoy noir stories, with witty dialogue and a dose of comedy, Black Jack Justice continues to be a worthy listen.

The Tenth Season of Black Jack Justice is available for free on the Decoder Ring Theatre website.

Rate: 4 out of 5

Audio Drama Review: The Avengers: The Comic Strip Adaptations, Volume 5

Big Finish released its fifth volume of Avengers Comic Strip Adaptations based on four 1960s Avengers comic strip stories featuring John Steed and Tara King. In this recast version, Julian Wadham and Emily Woodward play Steed and King with their superior Mother played by veteran British Actor Christopher Benjamin (Jago & Litefoot.) 

The box set opens with “Whatever Next.” Steed and King are summoned to headquarters by Mother to witness a heroic saving of the world through Soviet and US Cooperation. The reason for the cooperation? An eerily correct prediction from a man who claims he got the information from aliens. Steed and King are on the case and quickly find themselves marked for murder.

This story is clever, fun, and moves at a solid place. At it’s core is an entertaining mystery that introduced a lot of twists and red herrings before turning in an unexpected solution. Overall, this is a solid opening story for the set.

In the second story, “How Does Your Garden Grow,” Steed and King are called into investigate when giant plants endanger the operation of a British Airbase.

As a story, this is a superb vehicle for Tara King, as we learn she’s an expert pilot. She gets to shine and show her stuff several times. We get a decent enough mystery that has a nice twist and sets the stage for some lovely aerial dog fights, which are well-realized over audio.

In, “A Very Civil War,” An armored van is robbed carrying new Bank of England notes. However, both the van and the stolen money is recovered or is it? Steed senses something’s wrong and sets off to find the truth.

This story has a  good mystery as to what happened. But it’s much more of a hook. Once Steed begins to look into it (as Steed himself observes), the solution becomes rather obvious. It’s all a lead in to the classic Avengers situation of infiltrating a quirky group of people (in this case re-enactors of the English Civil War) to find out what’s going on.

This is very much a standard Avengers story but realized well. It makes for a breezy fifty minutes of entertainment and does out a good measure of mystery, swashbuckling action, and more than a bit of humor, with just a touch of light flirting. Overall, a thoroughly satisfying listen.

The sets concludes with “Mother’s Day.” Mother is set to go back to her old school for sports day as the guest of honor after the first honoree had to drop out. However, Steed and King look into it and find a string of mysterious deaths and disappearances surrounding all the other members of Mother’s Sports Day championship back in the 1930s.

This is a good old-fashioned romp. The story gives us a big mystery to be solved, but also there’s plenty of fun cases of impersonation and trying to maintain cover, wacky motives, insane murder attempts, and then there’s Mother’s Aunt with her constant pronouncements of doom.

This episode also sees the return of Linda Thorson (the original Tara King) to the Avengers franchise in another part and she turns in an absolutely superb performance in an interesting part.

This is the last announced Avengers project from Big Finish as of this writing. While I hope there will be more, if this is the last Avengers story they do, this is a wonderful release to go out on.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Nine: The Eighties

Continued from Part Eight

The 1980s would begin with the biggest radio breakthrough of the 1970s coming to an end. Earplay left on its weekly radio play and its team turned to producing serialized half-hour stories.

In December 1982, it was announced that CBS Radio Mystery Theater was coming to an end. Twenty years after the official end of the Golden Age of Radio. The revival of network radio drama was snuffed out. CBS stated that it’s focus would be on providing news, sports, and special events coverage.

CBS Radio Mystery Theater and its nine seasons on the air hadn’t changed anything. Radio networks had given up on radio drama and then in the 1970s had returned to it as a trend, but it still didn’t fit into their long-term business model.

Himan Brown ran as tight a ship as possible on CBS Radio Mystery Theater to make it make sense for the network. The actors were paid union scale for their time and a flat $350 ($1008 in 2021 dollars) per script payment to the writer. If Brown couldn’t make a radio program profitable enough for the network, it couldn’t be done.

When CBS Radio Mystery Theater left there, it didn’t end audio drama, but it ended the idea a large network of commercial radio stations like CBS or Mutual were going to invest in and promote the new radio dramas. It would require new methods of distribution.

In addition, both Heartbeat Theater and The Eternal Light, two programs that dated back to the Golden Age of Radio, would cease broadcasting. Yet, while the 1980s had more than its fair share of endings, it also featured some very important beginnings.

NPR Playhouse

NPR Playhouse by presenting an adaptation of Star Wars. George Lucas sold the adaptation rights to the original Star Wars films to his local public radio station KUSC for the sum of $1 each. The production was done in cooperation with the BBC on a $200,000 budget. The radio adaptation brought back Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) and Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) from the film in a story that was expanded into a thirteen-part serial paying homage to the sci fi serials of the 1930s and 40s, which the Star Wars films paid homage to. The series used the music and many of the same sounds as the films.

The Empire Strikes Back was adapted in 1983 as a ten-part serial with Hamill and Daniels returning and Billy Dee Williams reprising his role of Lando Calrissian. John Lithgow voiced Yoda.

Both productions were fairly well-received. However, due to production issues, Return of the Jedi wasn’t adapted until 1996, with Anthony Daniels being the only original cast member to repise his screen role. It was told as a six-part serial.

NPR playhouse initial run in 1981 used the Star Wars audio drama and reruns thereof as bit of an anchor for the series. Like the Mutual Radio Theater, NPR Playhouse offered five nights of radio drama with nights reserved for Star Wars, re-runs of Earplay, and the BBC Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy based on the novels by Douglas Adams.

NPR Playhouse would turn out many interesting projects. In 1984, they released The Bradbury Thirteen, Thirteen audio dramas based on Ray Bradbury Short Stories. They also released  The Adventures of Doc Savage in 1985, which dramatized two separate Doc Savage pulp novels from the 1930s.

NPR faced financial problems that brought to the verge of insolvency, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting helped NPR remain solvent but forced NPR to re-organize. The grant money that had gone to NPR directly would go to local stations, who would decide what NPR programs to buy. NPR had to make cuts and this included all the teams making audio drama.

This didn’t mean an end to NPR Radio Playhouse but a shift in focus. It began to play more programs made by other non-profit radio theaters around the country and throughout the world.

A theater listing from 2001 shows how the system evolved. NPR offered four separate half-hour playhouses: One dedicated to “Classic World Literature and Plays,” another to “American Tales,” another Mystery and Science Fiction, and a final one to open stage and contemporary dramas. The website states the degree to which individual stations controlled what aired on NPR, “Individual stations may carry only part of the Playhouse programs, may air them in a different order than they are numbered below, and many don’t carry any of it at all. This listing gives only the order of the satellite feeds.”

For the first quarter on its first playhouse, NPR offered Sherlock Holmes Stories from the British company Independent Radio Drama Productions for the first six weeks of the quarter, then the LA Theatre Works Adaptation of the Devil’s Disciple (we’ll discuss LA Theatre Works more in the next part) for four weeks, and then for two weeks, they offered an adaptation for Sleepy Hollow from Generations Radio Theater.

For the fourth quarter, they offered LA Theatre Works presentation of “Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting,” a play about Branch Rickey’s decision to sign Jackie Robinson and integrate major league baseball and then for the rest of the quarter they offered plays from the California Artists Radio Theatre, a theater company began by radio character actor Peggy Webber.

The second and a third quarters were made up of episodes of 2000X. 

2000X was a rare series where NPR actually was involved in the production. They partnered with Yuri Ravosky of the Hollywood Radio Theater of the Air to produce it. The series was originally named Beyond 2000 and released in the year 2000 and centered on futuristic stories from as likely sources as Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein and as unlikely sources as Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling. The production featured forty-nine different stories told over twenty-six episodes. Some of these stories took up the length of an entire episode and one for only two minutes. The series featured established Hollywood Actors like Richard Dreyfuss, Robin Williams, and David Warner. It also brought golden age radio legend Jackson Beck to provide narration on one episode. The series was produced thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

2000x would be the last original work commissioned by NPR. Due to a lack of affiliate interest, NPR Playhouse came to an end in 2002.

Focus on the Family

The radio ministry Focus on the Family entered audio drama in 1987 with Family Portraits over twelve episodes. The family drama series received positive feedback and the series continued on as Adventures in Odyssey. Odyssey continued to be a kid-centered family drama series. However, the series began to change and introduce many adventure elements. Probably the most important was the Imagination Station, which was introduced in 1989 as an invention of Mr. Whitaker, the central character who ran Whit’s End, the local Ice Cream Shop. The Imagination Station allowed users to travel to a simulated version of the past and interact with the characters there. This was typically used to allow characters to experience events from the Bible or history. He also created the Room of Consequences which allowed the user to find out likely consequences of a choice or decision by extrapolating a likely imaginary future.

Odyssey added these speculative elements along with real villains, mysteries, and long plot arcs, while maintaining simple kid drama stories that had nothing to do with these plot elements. This led to an odd mix of episodes that somehow worked. This could be embodied in the lead character of John Avery Whitaker, a kind grandfatherly man who serves kids Ice cream and good advice. However, he also has invented the equivalent of Star Trek’s Holodeck and stuffed it into the same building as his ice cream shop, and by the way also has a son who is secret agent.

The series, over its run, attracted major voice talent. Hal Smith, who originated the role of Mr. Whitaker was best known for playing Otis, the town drunk on the Andy Griffith Show and for providing multiple voices on Davey and Goliath. Townsend Coleman, who voiced The Tick in the 1990 Animated played Jason Whitaker. Golden Age radio star Alan Young (also the titular Mister Ed and Scrooge McDuck on Duck Tales) featured as multiple voices, including Whitaker’s friend Jack Allen.

Three different actors have voiced Whitaker. After Smith died, Paul Herlinger was cast in the role in 1996 and played the part until he was forced to retire due to ill health in 2008, and was replaced by Andre Stojka. Numerous child actors came and went as the Odyssey series ran.

The series has had a life beyond its more than 900 radio episodes, with seventeen videos released, along with more than eighty books. In addition, there have been toy and computer game spin-offs. Adventures in Odyssey has had the most success at merchandising of any program since the Golden Age.

Focus on the Family tried another series in the 1990s, The Last Chance Detectives. The Last Chance Detectives was a kid-centric mystery-adventure series set in a New Mexico desert town. Their first multi-episode adventure featured an appearance by Jason Whitaker, thus tying it into Adventures in Odyssey. The series featured Adam Wylie, who’d spent four years on the critically acclaimed TV series Picket Fences as the lead. It had a much more limited cast and a down-to-earth setting, which lent itself to something Adventures in Odyssey never produced: a live-action adaptation. The series didn’t make it. There were three different four episode story arcs over radio along with three direct to video films, and five novels.

Another project was Focus on the Family Radio Theatre. The Radio Theatre did longer form standalone productions. Radio Theatre produced adaptations of public domain works like Les Miserables, Oliver Twist, and Ben Hur, along with World War II era biopics of leading Christians such as C.S. Lewis, Corrie Ten Boom, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (which won a Peabody Award in 1997). They also produced an original mystery series: The Father Gillbert Mysteries. Some of Radio Theatre’s more notable later work included adaptations of two of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters.

The success of these efforts and Adventures in Odyssey in particular set the stage for many other successful modern Christian Audio Dramas including Paws and Tales, Down Gilead Lane, Jonathan Park, and the Lamplighter Theatre. 

Louie L’Amour Audios

Bantam Audio publishing started up in the 1980s and wanted to publish audio version of the work of legendary Western Writer Louie L’Amour. L’Amour didn’t want to just put out normal audiobooks. He wanted to turn his short stories into audio dramas patterned off old time radio programs.  The programs were mostly produced in New York. The first story to be adapted was “The Unguarded Moment” which was one of L’Amour’s non-Western stories.

An obvious choice for adaptation was L’Amour’s stories of Texas Ranger Chick Bowdrie. Reathel Bean was cast as Bowdrie and all the Bowdrie stories were adapted to audio, along with many many others from L’Amour’s lengthy bibliography. Eventually the audio dramas were recut for radio and syndicated on more than 200 stations.

In 2004, the final L’Amour Audio Drama, Son of a Wanted Man was adapted. It was the first and only L’Amour novel to be adapted to radio.

Audio Drama Review: Red Panda Adventures, Season Nine

The Ninth Season of the Red Panda Adventures finds the world in flux. It’s now a question of when rather than if the Allies will be victorious. But what happens afterwards is an open question.

The series is split into two parts. The bulk of the season focuses on supervillains previewing the sort of threats that will be on the ground after World War II. This is represented by an old villain returning in a new guise to take over Toronto and exact revenge on the Red Panda. In addition, we get an episode where the Red Panda battles villains known as the Rocket Men. These stories are fun, exciting, and pulpy in the way so many of the early Red Panda Adventure were.

The other part is cleaning up the war and dealing with what might come in a post-War world. Of particular concern is their old nemesis Professor Von Schlitz, who is going whole hog cooperating with the Americans. The Red Panda fears the German scientist will corrupt the Americans and use them for his evil ends. And the robotic red ensign wants revenge on Von Schlitz for the murder of the robot’s human wife at the start of the war. This leads our heroes into tight spots.

The “V E Day” episode deserves praise. It’s an anthology episode that told different stories with differing themes all structured around VE Day. The episode is great listening and points to the potential future of the show.

After nine seasons and 108 episodes, the series was still going strong, with the 100th episode airing without ceremony. Much like the Red Panda himself, the series might be past its peak, but it still packs a punch with exciting stories, fun dialogue, and a real sense of classic pulp adventure. The Ninth Season was a worthwhile and satisfying listen.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

You can listen to the entirety of Season 9 of the Red Panda Adventures online.