Category: Audio Drama Review

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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Audio Drama Review: The Red Panda Adventures, Season Eleven

With the end of Season Ten of The Red Panda Adventures, The Red Panda and the Flying Squirrel retired and are thought dead by the general public. Toronto has a new protector, so what exactly is left for Season Eleven? Six lost stories occurred between the Adventures of the Red Panda that we heard on audio.

Each episode has a framing device that sets up a look back at a never-before-told story. It’s a fun format that doesn’t carry the weight of trying to fit into the ongoing arcs of the previous seasons. The adventures are fun and imaginative and most tended toward the pre-war era for the Terrific Twosome of Toronto which had a nostalgic effect. My favorite episode was Twas the Night Before in which the young son of the Red Panda and the Flying Squirrel tells a story of the Red Panda and how he encountered Santa Claus. It’s easily the best Christmas episode Decoder Ring Theater ever produced and fun.

If I had one complaint, it was that a few framing stories seemed to be related and that they were all going to tie together with our heroes taking some (out of costume?) action but alas they weren’t going anywhere. Still, I’m not certain how much of that’s Taylor’s fault and how much it’s mine for having the expectation.

Overall, this is a nice little encore for the Red Panda and Flying Squirrel whose past adventures continue to be explored in comics and audiobooks.

Rating for the Series: 4.25 out of 5

Overall Thoughts on the Series:

The Red Panda Adventures was a cleverly structured series. The series has ongoing plot arcs throughout its run. Gregg Taylor was clever in the show’s early run with the way each series would seemingly be episodic but would also be setting up future events, such as the Red Pandas encounter with the Nazis before World War II, hints of magic influences that would culminate in the Occult War, and the mysterious disappearance of former Red Panda operative during the latter part of the War, which would be a big concern for the Flying Squirrel during Season Nine and paid off in Season Ten.

As a pastiche to mystery men and shows like the Green Lantern and the Shadow, it’s unparalleled. In one way, Taylor improved on these old radio programs and pulps. In the original stories from the golden age, these characters never aged, but did change to meet the needs and demands of wartime. Taylor gave his characters life. They changed and evolved. The Red Panda had an era of dominance and an apex of power that waned, giving way to the age of costumed and caped superheroes that succeeded him. It’s a good solid character journey through an exciting era.

Taylor’s stories used pulp-style stories of monsters, crime, and horror, but also was clearly influenced by later works as well, as Marvel and DC stories, along with Science Fiction franchises clearly were an influence that Taylor managed to translate back to his golden age setting.

The acting was good. Often over the top, but that’s  what the series called for and it did a good job delivering it. The series had a recurring ensemble cast that made it possible to bring Taylor’s vision of the Toronto of the 1930s and 1940s to life.

The show’s biggest consistent problem was its weak sound effects. These weren’t “cheesy like the old days.” In the old days on radio, they had sound effects men who could have produced much higher quality effects when the Shadow was on the air then were included in The Red Panda. The best thing that could be done to improve the series is remastering it with better effects. The series mostly avoids moments that call for big effects, but I can’t recall a single time a big effect landed.

Some ideas developed during the series weren’t fully explored. Taylor introduced characters featured only once, such as a new butler whose memory wasn’t wiped and the Flying Squirrel’s mother moving in to take care of the baby or different new superheroes or villains. The limits of the series left a lot of interesting ground unexplored.

The series also could try a bit too hard with modern-thinking characters existing in the 1930s and 1940s. But it never took itself too seriously, which makes such efforts clumsy but inoffensive.

Overall, The Red Panda Adventures is not only a pioneering series in the new world of original podcast audio dramas, but it also manages to capture the spirit of programs like The Shadow and the old pulp magazines and find new ways to make them fun for a modern audience. It overcomes its weak sound effects through well-plotted and interesting series and continues its legacy in books, audiobooks, and comics.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

 

Audio Drama Review: Black Jack Justice, Season Eleven

Black Jack Justice ended its run as an audio drama with a six-episode eleventh season, once again featuring Christopher Mott as Black Jack Justice and Andrea Lyons as Trixie Dixon, Girl Detective.

The Eleventh Season was much the same as the first ten. The series has a very established beat at this point in the run. You get a typical mix of mystery, comedy, and glorious witty banter.

Big moments were rare. Perhaps, the biggest was the appearance of a federal agent leading to an explanation of the disappearance of a long-time supporting cast member. They did their best to manage it, but the fact that was the cast member left off-stage and they tried to give it as much weight as they could. The series finale featured Jack and his wife Dot going on a double date with Lieutenant Sabian (Gregg Taylor) and Dot’s supervisor in hopes of them getting together while Trixie is undercover as a waitress at the restaurant trying to get to the bottom of a client’s allegation that a mob is starting a protection racket. It’s a fun story.

It’s not what you expect from a series finale these days, though. However, writer Gregg Taylor argued that Black Jack Justice was one of those series that had no need for a big series finale and he’s right.

Serialized storytelling has become all the rage and with good reason. There’s something satisfying about watching characters not only have adventures, but grow and change, and having their world and life change as a result of the decisions made by them and those around them. To not have a big finale for these type of programs that ties up all the plotlines and character arcs would be a shame.

Black Jack Justice is an old-school episodic series. You can listen to any of its seventy-two episodes in any order without any real confusion. So there’s no need for closure, no requirements for the characters to come to a dramatic end.

Season Eleven does a fine job and is entertaining as always. At this point, it’s a comfortable blanket and a cup of cocoa. It delivers everything you would expect. I don’t think any episode would stand out as the series best, although I feel the finale was the best of the season with some great humor and some good moments for some supporting characters.

Season rating: 4 out of 5

Thoughts on the Series:

Typically, most hard boiled private eyes are solo acts. The Justice and Dixon combo where both narrate at different times, both have hard-boiled banter is, as far as I know, unique. The origins of this was a stage comedy act, and having dueling noirish narrators sounds like a Whose Line is it Anyway sketch, not a blueprint for a seventy-two episode series. So credit to Taylor, Lyons, and Mott for making it all come together.

The series came up with consistently good mysteries. The solutions rarely could be guessed from the beginning. Usually they were surprising and often added to the humor of the episode. The character of Lieutenant Sabian wasn’t incompetent, but was a smart cop who asked smart questions and even solved the case a couple of times. While Jack tended to solve more mysteries than anyone, really the solution could come from Trixie or Sabian as well.

While there was little character development, the characters were more complex than their typical jobs would allow. While Tracy and Jack act like they’re complete cynics, they both have shown moments of compassion and a desire for justice.

The series also breaks a key dramatic trope. From the first season, Jack and Trixie irritated each other, got on each other’s nerves, and were often nice to each other. Contrary to dramatic expectations, this didn’t mean they were destined to fall in love. This means they found each other mildly irritating and didn’t like each other. Bold move.

Justice and Dixon’s talents compliment each other well, but they’re not friends or buddies. Tolerance and a joy of annoying each other is probably the closest they’re going to get.

The series is a model of episodic fiction. There are changes that happen for our leads: Clearly establish Trixie as an equal partner in Season Two, the adoption of the office dog King, Jack getting married, and two other characters leaving the series stand out. But none of these really change the essential: Justice and Dixon sitting around the office, waiting for cases, chatting with clients, and going out and solving them.

At times, this series set in the 1950s does a stretch a bit too much to be modern but not too often. It’s a delightful throwback that has a real staying power. It’s fun and well-written. These 72 episodes stand up as a fun homage to the hard boiled detective drama and it’s been a delight to listen to them.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

Audio Drama Review: The Junebug Mystery Plus Six More


Retired Police Captain Waverly Underhill (Dave Ellsworth) was the lead character in the Captain Underhill mysteries which were presented sporadically over radio from 1982-2010 as part of the Cape Cod Radio Mystery Theatre. He was joined by Wally O’Hara as Doctor Alexander Scofield, his friend and physician. This set collects seven total mysteries, with most ranging between 50 minutes and an hour and a half in length.

Most of the mysteries are set in the contemporary era of the program, although two episodes feature tales from the 1960s when Underhill was still an active policeman and encountered cases involving JFK and the Beetles.

This set was my first time encountering Captain Underhill and I enjoyed both Underhill and Doctor Scofield. The two have al New England “Holmes and Watson” vibe that works for them without seeming too derivative. They work well together and they’re fun to listen to.

Underhill makes a great lead detective character. He’s sharp and insightful but his methods have just the right amount of eccentricity to make the story interesting. You never quite know what he’s going to do next but he always has a reason for it in the end.

The lead performances are consistently good and as are most of the secondary performances. There were a couple of guest performances that were weaker, which could be irritating but not enough to ruin the story.

The mysteries are all intriguing with a great mix of real clues and red herrings and it’s always great to hear how Underhill works the solution out. For the most part, the length of the episodes gives the story more space to breathe and allows for more complex plots than half-hour radio programs. However, there are a couple of instances where it did feel padded. One key example was one story that featured eleven minutes of a radio report that wasn’t particularly relevant to the plot.

More than anything else, I love the atmosphere of the series. The series was recorded  in New England and there’s some  solid research into places and people that give it a real stamp of authenticity like you’ve traveled to Cape Cod. I really wish there were more programs like it: Entertaining, locally made radio drama that captures the sound and feel of a place.

I was somewhat disappointed to learn the first episode in the collection wasn’t the first episode of the series. Apparently, the early episodes are available on Audible as individual downloads. Still, it would be nice for all of the mysteries to be available as a collection.

My favorite story on this set was “The Case of the Shooting Star” where Captain Underhill is at a party on the night that someone is apparently is killed in bed by a falling meteor. The way he finds out what’s going on and delivers his deductions are just brilliant. My least favorite, “The Case of the Four Little Beatles.” The mystery is probably the weakest and feels more like a contrived bit of baby boomer nostalgia. Maybe if you’re more into the Beetles, you’d enjoy the story more, but it fell a bit flat for me.

Overall, though, these are still good enjoyable modern radio drama mysteries that I can recommend to fans of radio detective programs, particularly of the cozy sort.

Rating: 4 out of 5

 

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My Top 10 Big Finish Stories of 2021, Part One

Big Finish puts out a lot of Audio Dramas and I’m a huge fan. I listen primarily to their officially licensed Doctor Who audio dramas and multitudinous spin-off but also a few of their non-Doctor Who offerings. In this column, and the next one, I’m going to list the top ten best stories I heard from them that were released last year. Now, as usual, I don’t listen to everything they put out, so this list is not definitive, and of course, the opinions are my own:

10) “The Laughing Policeman” by Jonathan Barnes, Adapted as an Audiobook by Justin Richards, and read by Duncan Wisbey from Jago & Litefoot Series 14:

With the passing of co-star Trevor Baxter (who played Professor George Litefoot), the Doctor Who spin-off Jago & Litefoot came to an abrupt end after thirteen series. They tried to cap off the series with the release of Jago & Litefoot Forever, a Jago-heavy adventure where Christopher Benjamin carried the bulk of lines and Litefoot appeared briefly using lines pasted in from past adventures. (see: My review here.)

However, Big Finishhad scripts paid for and completed for a fourteenth series. After waiting an appropriate time, they set about adapting Series 14 into an audiobook. Each story had its own individual reader with some link to the past seasons. The series focused on a sinister new secret regime using mind control and having established itself in Victorian London. “The Laughing Policeman” is the second of four stories adapted:

This story is told in first person by a policeman trailing Jago and Litefoot, believing them to be seditionists against the new regime. But who is following who?

This is a remarkable piece and works great as an audiobook. Inspector Gilhooey provides a combination of atmosphere, humanity, and humor, as our two heroes take a slightly less prominent role in a corker of a mystery. There are some great twist and turns and so many superb surprises. I also love how his view of Jago and Litefoot evolves throughout the story and how he changes as well.

The fine story is given a great reading by Duncan Wisbey as the set continued its momentum from the opener.

9) The Gulf by Tim Foley starring Tim Treloar and Sadie Miller from The Third Doctor Adventures, Volumes 7

The Third Doctor Adventures began by recasting the role of the Third Doctor, originally played by Jon Pertwee (1919-96) so that surviving Third Doctor cast members like Katy Manning, who played the Third Doctor’s companion, could appear in full-cast Doctor Who stories. This box set brings back the daughters of the late actresses Caroline John and Elisabeth Sladen to play the roles their mothers played as the other Third Doctor Companions.

“The Gulf” finds the Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith landing at a mysterious disused sea-based mining rig that’s become a retreat for artists.

There’s a spooky/disturbing atmosphere about the place and the sound design. Sadie Miller fits right into the role of Sarah Jane Smith and gives a solid performance. The all-female guest cast is well-written with British Acting legend Wendy Craig (who I had no prior familiarity with) turning in an incredibly engaging performance as Marta, the leader of the group.

The story is clever and thoughtful and misses some frightening scenes with some spot-on character work.

8) The Trojan Dalek by John Dorney and starring David Tennant and Jane Slavin from the Box Set Dalek Universe 2

This story sees Mark, Anya, and the Doctor going in the front door of a base where an old friend of Mark’s is being treated for severe battlefield wounds and where they hope to find a lead on the scientist who possesses the time travel tech the Doctor needs to return to the TARDIS. When they fail to get cooperation on the latter issue, the Doctor suspects something far more sinister is going on.

The most remarkable aspect of this story may be that this wasn’t originally John Dorney’s story but he filled in for another writer. This is a superb script. It has elements that could easily be discordant. In the first half of this script, the Tenth Doctor has some of his most hilarious lines for Big Finish, but as the story goes on, we discover serious elements of body horror involving some experiments to fight the Daleks and an ending that hits like a punch to the gut.

However, rather than discordant elements, the humor at the start of the piece serves to make what happens later all the more horrible. It’s a mix of comedy and tragedy that makes for one of the strongest Big Finish stories of the year so far.

7) Unfinished Business by James Goss

6) The Sincerest Form of Flattery by James Goss

5) A Quiet Night In by Lou Morgan

All three stories comes from the War Master: Killing Time set starring Sir Derek Jacobi.

The plot of the box set features the Master (Jacobi) during the Time War trying to gain control of a system known as the Stagnant Protocol, a place whose inhabitants do not die but also are incapable of reproduction. He sees a way to exploit them for his own long plan, however finds a rival on-world in Calanthia (Alexandra Riley).

Unfinished Business and The Sincerest Form of Flattery are first and last stories of the set and heavily focused on the rivalry between the Master and Calanthia, as well as the complex relationship the two develop. To see the Master forced to deal with someone who is his equal in cunning and ruthlessness works well. Jacobi, an acting legend, is great, but so is Riley, who does rise to the occasion with an incredibly solid performance.

A Quiet Night In is the second story of the box and has the Master returning to Earth and pretending to be the Uncle of Jo Jones Manning.) She takes a trip out to the country to meet her uncle and finds herself as his mysterious house. The atmosphere of the story is heavy and brilliantly done. The story takes many unpredictable twists and turns. Both Jacobi and Manning turn in spellbinding performance in a solid bit of psychological terror.

Continued next week.

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