Category: Audio Drama Review

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

This is the third part of our review of Radio Archives’ Mutual Radio Theater, Volume 1 covering the third week of the series. For a look at an overview of the set, see the first week review.  Also see week two.

Oh Really, No O’ReillyIn a Western town that’s dying out since the railroad came through Denver, a crooked saloonkeeper and a dishonest undertaker engage a corrupt insurance salesman to take out a policy on a drunk drifter named O’Reilly when plans to poison him and collect the insurance money. That becomes a lot harder than they think. Golden Age Stars: Tyler McVey, Daws Butler, Marvin Miller, Don Diamond, Barney Phillips, and Howard Culver 

Review: This was based on a true story that was the basis of many stories including the 1955 Johnny Dollar serial “The Indestructible Mike Matter.” The story is hit and miss as a dark comedy but really does turn in a few very good plot twists at the end. Grade: B- 

The First National Radio Aptitude Test. An on-air radio aptitude quiz is conducted with some interesting answers.  Golden Age Stars: Alan Young, Marvin Miller, Daws Butler, Lillian Buyeff, Mary Jane Croft, Shepard Menken, Don Diamond, and Jerry Hausner 

This is a bit different. Andy Griffith gives a monologue about radio, its history, and the golden age of radio. I did have to chuckle when Griffin said he wouldn’t say anything about those headsets being worn by joggers and young people and wondered what he’d say to our modern world’s ubiquitous all-ages use of earbuds. He then sends the show over to a radio quiz master (Young) who provides a wacky quiz while receiving constant interruptions. 

There’s a lot to like. There are some funny jokes and if you’re a fan of the golden age of radio, there’s a boatload of talent from the era represented in this little production. 

On the other hand, this is a production that tries to overwhelm you with jokes, a lot of which don’t hit. There’s a Groucho Marx/You Bet Your Life parody that goes on too long. In addition, there’s a lack of logic. It was decided they wanted to include parodies of old time radio shows and poke fun at collectors, so without explanation they stop the quiz and do that. 

Still, this was entertaining. It plays well to nostalgia, has some funny bits, but could have been better. Grade: B 

The Mask: A businessman/art collector steals an old, sinister-looking mask from Africa with a bad reputation. He gets home and finds that reputation is deserved. Golden Age Star: Ben Wright 

This is an odd one, honestly. The businessman and a corrupt local official steal the mask and then the official is hospitalized with serious burns when his stove blows up and the businessman’s family start having minor fire-related injuries. Than the story has a twist…that’s almost absurd, but I think gives it a Twilight Zone feel to it. It does have some interesting turns, but there are also some flaws in the story logic. Still, it wasn’t a bad listen. Grade: B- 

For the Love of Laura: An actress and party girl frequently proposes marriage but never follows through until she asks herself who she’d really like to marry. Golden Age Stars: Janet Waldo, Shepard Menken,  Barney Phillips, and Vic Perrin.   

Janet Waldo does as good a job with the material as anyone could and the same can be said of all the actors. That said, Laura is just not a likeable character. The whole of the story is a combination of Laura leading men on, and imagining how good/how bad it might be to be married to each one.  She remains self-absorbed and shallow and strings each of these men along while she made up her mind. I will say she does show some character growth. She’s still shallow by the end, but not nearly as shallow as when she started. She’s self-absorbed but without being as foolish about it. 

I also think there are too many guys in the story. She has five beaus: a smart guy, a weightlifter, a golfer, her agent, and a guy who looks good but whose chief personality trait is breaking out a racist joke whenever there’s a lull in the conversion. Each time she remembers or fantasizes about one of them, she has to do it with each of them in turn. With so many male characters, they end up as shallow as her. If people wanted that much shallowness, they could just watch TV. Grade: C- 

Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby: More than a thousand years in the future, a couple are permitted by their government to get married and when they get a family-sized housing unit, they think the government is going to let them have a baby. They hope to be given a pink or blue card for their new baby. Instead, they’re horrified to draw a yellow card and find the extra room is designated for a seventy-five-year-old man who was cryogenically frozen in 1975 after having a near-fatal heart attack. Golden Age Stars: Herb Vigran, Marvin Miller 

This story deals with the idea of over-population, which was a huge environmental concern of the 1970s and 1980s. But I have to give writer Elliott Lewis credit for taking a different tact than many writers of the era. He doesn’t imagine some environmental cataclysm that wipes out the human race or humans going into space. He imagines humans continuing to find ways to survive until every inch of the planet is claimed and filled, the human population is in the trillions and has a powerful computer-led government running everyone’s lives, approving decisions to get married, where they can live, and how much food they’re given.  

The government that runs the plan does horrible things but is assured of it own beneficence, even stating so after having made a mistake that ruins this young couple’s life.  Whether you agree with or like Lewis’ setup, it was strikingly different. Of course, the radio program does dance around some of the ethical implications of this society.  

And it manages to get away with it because it acknowledges some broader human themes it chooses to explore through this world that manage to work. Herb Vigran is great as the man who finds himself more than a millennium out of time, awakened by Earth’s government because they need him for some purpose they don’t tell him. The character’s humanity pushes against a bureaucratic world. The character is very likable even as he makes questionable choices. 

The story also raises questions about the wisdom of cryogenic freezing, as it shows serious downsides with a little bit of upside at the end.

I do question its inclusion for a Friday program. Given its focus on having a baby, love, and relationships, this doesn’t fit with much with the “Adventure” theme Fridays were supposed to offer. Given a Sci-fi Comedy was played by comedy day, this might been a better fit on Thursday’s love day. 

Still, this merits a grade: B+ 

Our series will conclude on January 1st

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

This is the second part of our review of Radio Archives’ Mutual Radio Theater, Volume 1 covering the second week of the series. For a look at an overview of the set, see the first week review.

The Mutiny Against George Washington: In the closing days of the Revolutionary War , there’s a mutiny at works led by Washington’s officers to overthrow the Continental Congress. 

Review:  A really strong piece. It doesn’t fit in the “Western” slot of Mutual Radio Theater, but it fits here better than anywhere else. The story has two parts. In 1775, as a member of the Continental Congress, the story shows how he’s chosen and takes command of an undisciplined continental rabble. In the second act, the war is effectively over, but the Treaty hasn’t been signed and the troops are waiting for pay after many false assurances from Congress.  

When I think of Fletcher Markle, I think of his behind the mike work on programs like Studio One during the Golden Age of Radio and he also was a producer and director on this seriesHowever, he does a magnificent job as Washington. The script takes a really interesting and nuanced view. It does inject some modern cynicism that certainly resonated with listeners a few years after Watergate and will still today. However, there’s also real respect for Washington even if he wasn’t the type of man who’d fit in 1980s society. It’s an intriguing story and my biggest problem is that it left me wishing this had been a multi-part story, because it was so interesting to listen to. Grade: A 

Let’s Play House: A couple plan to build a new house on a mountain but run into many obstacles. Golden Age stars: Frank Nelson, Vic Perrin, and Peggy Weber.  

Review: On the positive side, Andy Griffith does do a fair bit of narrating and I’m always up for hearing him tell a story. Also, Frank Nelson plays the typical sort of character he played with great success on the Jack Benny program. There were some funny moments in the story.  

But its big problem was that it doesn’t feel like a thirty-eight-minute radio play. The plot is essentially something like the movie The Money Pit but with new construction on a mountain instead of renovating a mansion. The story takes place over two years and jumps from comedic event to comedic event using exposition to fill the gaps. It also has really goofy incidental music that indicates that the story thinks its funnier than it is. This begins to grate after a while.   Grade: C- 

Double Exposure: A mob informant gets placed into the custody of an agency closely related to the government and is then given cosmetic surgery that he’s not told about until afterwards. The story opens with him disheveled in a fleabag hotel. The question is how did he get there? Golden Age Stars; Vic Perrin, Mary Jane Croft, Marvin Miller, Bill Zuckert 

Review: This was a really good crime/suspense story takes a lot of turns. The acting is generally solid, with strong performances from Croft and Perin. There’s a little bit of audio engineering issues when one character sounds like he’s not in the same room when he should. While this is distracting, this is still a fine story. Grade: B+ 

One Dollar Dream House: A young married couple move out of the Suburbs and become urban homesteaders, buying a large home in the middle of the city for $1 and beginning the process of rehabilitating. They also have a zeal to help make the world better, but can that withstand reality? Golden Age Stars: Ilene Tedrow, June Foray 

Review: This story becomes a bit of a counterpoint to the hapless yuppies building their dreamhouse on a mountain in the play two days before. I quite enjoyed this. The idea of “urban homesteaders” particularly in the context of buying, improving, and living in distressed property in urban zones with a minimal payment wasn’t anything I’d heard of, so I appreciated it from an educational level. I also liked the couple. They’re very sincere but run smack into reality. The story walks a fine line, it’s got great heart, but it doesn’t lose touch with the challenges of the real world.  

While like “Let’s Play House,” this play covered a long time period. It didn’t rely as much on narrator exposition but found less intrusive ways to let us know what happened. This type of thing could have the potential to be a really good radio or television series, as a heartfelt family drama in an unusual place. This was solid listening and I enjoyed it. Grade: B+ 

North to Marakesh:  A female reporter goes to Morocco to interview a warlord with grand ambitions. Fearing for her safety, her boyfriend (and competing male reporter) follows her. Golden Age Stars: Hans Conreid and Peggy Webber 

This story sets out promisingly enough with Leonard Nimoy giving great narration, setting the stage for an adventurous tale of danger involving this reporter going into harms way. Unfortunately, that’s the best part of the play.  It is horribly paced with a lot of humor added as padding. You can have a good adventure story with humor, but this uses it in the wrong way. It leaves you wondering how serious is the danger our heroes are going into? Through way too many conversations between characters, it takes more than half the play to get to the villain who’s not that interesting to start with. 

We’re told the female reporter is no fool, but she certainly talks like one in concluding the warlord isn’t a threat because he was educated in English schools. This despite the recent deaths of two reporters who went to interview them. The only remotely interesting character was a corrupt policeman turned guide. But that’s not enough to save this from being a big lowlight for the series so far. If not  for Nimoy’s opening narration, I would have graded this worse. Grade: D 

To be continued next week.

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

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