DailyAudio is our regular blog that offeris review and recommendation on easy-to-find audiobooks. Here you will find all of the past entries in this blog from the newest down to the oldest.
THE DEATH OF GRASS narrated by David Mitchell
Full cast drama by John Christopher First broadcast in 2009 on BBC Radio 4 (UK) 2009 in five fifteen-minute segments Total running time 70 mins approx.
A grass virus from China spreads all over the world, sparking a food shortage crises that’s so dire governments resort to atom bombs to prevent their nations from slipping into barbarism. Two families from London set out to journey to the North West of England where one of their relatives has already prepared his sprawling valley farm for the worst.
Despite the slightly sci-fi premise of a root virus that turns grass black, this tale is a fairly dour post-apocalyptic struggle to survive in a new, scary world. The predictability is tempered by just one character, Perry a former gunshop owner who begins to enjoy the new land of lawlessness and self-administered justice a little too much, proving too handy with his shotgun to ever be trustworthy. This stark, unpleasant character punctuates the plodding narrative with his increasingly violent actions.
This production is a mixture of narration, provided by actor and comedian David Mitchell, and full cast drama. Anyone expecting Mitchell to emphasise any comic potential will be disappointed because there are no light or even vaguely humorous moments to milk. To my ears it is odd to hear a voice I usually associate with comedy describing bullets slashing a looter’s body to bits as an outraged mother pumps an entire magazine into him, and it may be odd for your ears too. But Mitchell carries this play along, where the other characters do not. The main protagonists, apart from Perry, are indistinct ciphers. Some attempt is made late in the play to retcon some additional motivation but it’s too little too late.
Adapted from the novel by John Cristopher (The Tripods, The Lotus Caves) , Death of Grass feels fairly perfunctory for a play that’s over an hour long. This, I think, is partly down to the reliance on plot over characterisation and the interchangeable mediocrity of the leading players, rather than something inherently lacking in Christopher’s original. Having not read the book, it’s difficult to say, though I remain fairly convinced the actors were a little too fond of the dark tone and violent deeds to inject much in the way of personality. By the middle of the play, I realised I don’t care about these people and wished they’d stayed to perish in London. Whether or not Perry would meet a sticky end was the only thing holding my interest, and the odd juxtaposition of Mitchell’s better known comedy voice describing horrific deeds and situations.
The Death of Grass is a solid play that goes into the ‘might is right’ aspects of other post-apocalyptic drama of the time such as Day of the Triffids and Survivors. It’s in the same mold and a little the worse for it however it is an entertaining and diverting way to spend an hour nonetheless.
You can order this audiobook via Amazon or stream it for free on YouTube, just type the title and the author’s name to find it
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TIMESLIP by Waly K Daly
Full cast dramatisation starring Paul Daneman Comedy originally broadcast 1983. 55 minutes..
Not be confused (as I was) with Timeslip the cult children’s television programme, this is a comedy about two practical jokers, Paul and Frank who test new technology for producers boys’ toys. Or should that be big boys toys? Trouble ensues when head office send a prototype 3D copier to be tested. Being such jokers they copy themselves and send their duplicates (plural) home to their wives while they have a night on the town. But their game backfires on them.
There is much hilarity to be had as Daly’s farcical comedy unfolds over 50 minutes. There are two Pauls and two Franks, and both think each is the original. The only way to tell is after 3 hours when the unstable reproductions will explode. But before we get that far much fun is had as the copies fight over the one pair of slippers and argue about who gets the most casserole at dinner time.
Pity Paul’s poor wife Fay who’s had enough of her husband’s practical jokes and now finds there are two of him to put up with. She announces a permanent headache, until the situation is resolved, whilst Frank’s wife contemplates being bookended in bed by a pair of Franks.
The boys are no better. When they realise their reproductions are exact copies, even down to mannerisms and memories they see the four of them dividing their time between work and the golf course, which they eventually decide against and leads to the funniest line of the play “That’s a lot of golf to give up “. Of course they soon realise this won’t work when they remember the copies have a inbuilt lifespan (due to the experimental nature of the tech) The situation deteriorates until they eventually join their wives for a game of bridge (“two husbands each and we still can’t make a four”). There are some great jokes, “I had no idea I’d let myself go to seed so much…. My bald patch, that paunch, my shambling gate”.
Timeslip is honest to goodness easy listening. There’s a small cast of just five players, each likeable and just the right side of ridiculous. It’s all very middle class and posh accents abound but this is such delightful fun, criticising of any nature seems like bad form. Witty, silly and ever-so-slightly thought provoking. I love a bit of farcical comedy but that goes double for Timeslip.
Timeslip can be found on YouTube or Radio Echoes.com.
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12x 60 minute full cast original drama.
Four seasons released as box sets containing four episodes apiece via Bigfinish.com 2012-15
The 1960’s were a tense time for international relations. Spies coming in from the cold were one thing but the shrinking British Empire was also affecting ardent imperialists in the aftermath of the second wolrd war. In the wider geopolitical landscape, leaders of wealthy nations wanted any scientific advance that might give their country an edge over enemies old and new, usually the Russians. There really was a post-war scramble for any technological developments from the recently collapsed Nazi empire. Scientists whose research had been funded by the Nazis were gladly snapped up the formerly allies in the following years. Counter Measures is a drama set in these dark cold war days; a secret department created to expand the frontiers of knowledge, even if that knowledge comes from slightly dubious sources.
Starring Pamela Salem, Karen Gledhill and Michael Williams, the Counter Measures team encounter a wide range of odd scientific advances; mind control, teleportation, communication with the dead – there is many an old sci-fi trope inserted into this series, but that old maxim holds true here; it isn’t what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it that counts. Counter Measures nets all this standard sci-fi stuff but sets it loose in a realistic post-war world.
Counter Measures is a department set up by the British government and commanded by Professor Rachel Jenson (Salem), who joins the team in episode one, ousting the organisation’s former head, Group Captain Ian Gilmore (Williams) who has been seconded from the RAF. Watched over by civil servant Tobias Kinsella (played by Hugh Ross) and joined by the third member of their team scientist Alison (Gledhill). It is the team of Gilmore, Jenson and Alison who are the main protagonists but the most interesting character in the series is Kinsella. At first he comes across as a reliably stoic British government type, forever trying to satisfy his own superiors, ministers and serve his nation, he soon develops into a character with ambiguous morals, presumably to counteract the straight forward heroism of the Counter Measures team.
This is another Big Finish production where fine British actors are given some meaty material to work with. Simon Williams (Upstairs,Downstairs) and Pamela Salem (Bergerac) have been familiar faces on UK television for decades. As you’d expect they absolutely leap at the chance to do something different, and do it in a series that is so brilliantly off-kilter with most audio drama it must have been a complete surprise and pleasure. At least the first two series of Counter Measures (each comprising four hour-long stand-alone episodes) is very much made in the same vein as television programmes such as Department S, The Baron, The Saint and all those wonderful 1960’s series produced by the powerhouse that was ITC productions. There really is no radio drama equivalent to make comparisons but if you ever saw any of those aforementioned shows (which you may as they are still repeated on British television to this day) you will see a very definite similarity of style. It’s warm, kind of cosy and it absolutely should not work in today’s audio drama landscape. That style of television, and to a lesser degree radio, is now very much in the past, and putting such a visually-heavy type of production on audio should fall flat on it’s arse. But it absolutely does not. The slight kitsch helps rather than hinders Counter Measures to develop it’s own unique style. And when things occasionally happen that absolutely would not be allowed in the more culturally sensitive post-war climes of 1960’s television it’s ups the ante in a most existential manner. Once again Big Finish demonstrate that not only do they know their audience, but they are skilful at bending the rules of a genre they gleefully ape.
The series theme and incidental music shows it’s ITC roots pretty blantantly. It’s eerily authentic but eschews the conventions of the genre by being far more politically aware, bringing to mind would-be stable mates Undermind and Doomwatch, swapping international intrigue for British grit and double-think.
The Counter Measures team aren’t always running up against alien tech – in fact the most chilling stories are where the threat comes from within. Sometimes within the establishment, or from unscrupulous businessmen, sometimes from miltary men craving the thrill of war and sometimes from the very corridors of power that Kinsella walks every day. Counter Measures turns the clock back to when drama television drama was less sophisticated than it is now, and shows us what it would be like if that style was still in vogue in the twenty-first century. Can you put on modern spin on a television show like The Avengers or Jason King? Download a box set or two of Counter Measures and you will see that you absolutely can – and totally nail it too.
Counter Measures can be purchased from Bigfinish.com. We are not affliated with Big Finish, we just love audio drama.
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JAGO AND LITEFOOT
Starring Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter >>> 13 x 4-part full-cast series released as ‘box sets’ from 2010 – 2017 >>> Written by various writers >>> Produced by Justin Richards and Lisa Bowerman
Henry Gordon Jago (Benjamin) is a theatre impressario, master of ceremonies, booker of talents and king of the able art of alliteration. His best friend is one Professor George Litefoot, police pathologist and all-round quality upper-class gent. It’s a rum set up for these stories set in the fog bound cobbled streets of old Victorian London but it’s a familiar world of horse drawn cabs, lamp lighters and erm, aliens made of wood.
You’d be forgiven for thinking the premise, two investigators of infernal machinations dealing with odd, unexplained ghostly and (sometimes) alien things the police can’t cope with sounds a little bit Doctor Who. That’s because the two characters did indeed originate in one of the Tom Baker serials from the 1970’s, created by one of the most prolific writers the show ever had, a chap called Robert Holmes. Holmes should, by rights, have become a famous television playwright but confined himself too much to niche, cult programming, forever shunning offers of more prestigious work. Whether due to low self-esteem or simply a desire to write for a genre he enjoyed and felt gave him freedom, we’ll never know. One thing is certain – apart from being adept at world-building in the most effortless manner, Holmes wrote astonishingly good characters. Henry Gordon Jago and Professor Litefoot are one such pair that – they proved popular enough in their solidary outing, the BBC almost commissioned a spin-off series for the duo. Unfortunately that never came to pass. Well, not on television anyway. Happily, some thirty years later the actors were able to reprise their roles for Big Finish audios in a new series of hour long dramas.
So who are they? Litefoot is refined, dignified and holds his head high in polite society. Henry Jago on the otherhand, whilst pefectly repectable, is something of a raffish rogue. By rights these two are at opposite ends of the social spectrum and should never have met, much less enjoy a firm friendship – but they have something in common; one day they met the Doctor and realised there was more to London than they could ever have imagined – a dark underbelly where evil festers, occasionally bubbling to the surace in the form of something nightmarish. It’s a fantastic premise for a series. Being at oppossitte ends of the class spectrum instanstly gives the characters a little frission, and their occupations offer possibilities for a wide range of stories.
There have been at least ten box sets released since the series was launched, to great acclaim in 2010, and each has its own distinct favour. The first series provides four chilling tales, with plenty of horror and only a dash of science fiction. The second set of four adventures comprising series two is much the same, but gives a larger part to the supporting characters such as barmaid Ellie Higson and police Seargent Quick. Series three sees the duo joined by a recurring character from Doctor Who, whilst Series Six sees them transported from Victorian London to the 1960’s. Over the years there have been many such developments and ideas brought in to mix things up , each with the potential to dilute the Victorian gothic that made the first few box sets so evocative, such as series nine where the the stories took place on a cruise ship bound for Monte Carlo. But Benjamin and Baxter inhabit their parts so completely they make the series absolutely fire-proof. You could put the intrepid investigators in virtually any setting and still they would be the same; which is why they were eventually returned to their own time period. A fine testament to the characters and the actors who gave such wonderful, immersive performances.
And that really is the strength. By the time the wrongs of history were righted and these characters were given the series they should never have been denied, Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter were near the end of their working lives (Baxter sadly passed away in 2017) but each had graced many a stage and screen up and down the decades, mostly in small character parts, so it is lovely to know Jago & Litefoot reinvigorated these fine thesps of the old school. That they stepped back into the roles they had only occupied very briefly some thirty years ago so effortlessly is a testament to the strength of the characters Holmes created. Throghout the series they continued to be served magnificently by sparkling, witty dialogue and superb, evocative mysteries.
As ever with Big Finish, the listener can expect first-class priduction values, convincing soundscapes, original and engaging tales and directors who absolutely love what they do. Jago and Litefoot is the kind of audio drama winter evenings were made for. If you like your detective stories with a hint of gothic penny dreadful about them, then this series is absolutely for you. As witty and wonderful as the show that spawned it, it is entirely possible to ignore the associations with Doctor Who – this series bounded out from the shadow of its parent show with the first box set and never stopped moving. These ‘infernal investigators’ will win your heart in the first twenty minutes with their feisty banter and their fractious but fond friendship. It doesn’t matter if they’re coming up against dead sailors, futuristic alien savages or vampires, Jago and Litefoot delight in these awesomely adventerous audio stories.
Jago and Litefoot is available to buy from Bigfinish.com
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DAD’S ARMY – The Radio Series
Written by Jimmy Croft and David Perry. 67 x 30 minute episodes transmitted: 1973– 76
“Here is the news and this is John Snagge reading it…” And so is the opening to every radio produced episode of Dad’s Army. It’s a tidy way to introduce the show, seems to lend these (mostly) faithful adaptations of the classic BBC television comedy a sense of place in the ongoing struggle against the Nazis. Hasn’t Dad ‘s Army always felt a little like somebody’s ( Private Pike’s?) latter day reminiscences, being played out at length in front of us? Or is that just me?
For those that don’t know, Dad’s Army is about a World War II Home Guard unit on the English south coast. The Walmington On-Sea platoon commanded by Captain Mainwaering are a particularly inept example of the Home Guard, a real life organisation attached to the British army made up of local volunteers and ex-army officers who were too old to be called up. Often these units were a melting pot of class struggles, local rivalry and ageism, all beneath raining bombs and beside a 20 mile strip of water separating Britain from Nazi occupied France. Britain’s finest hour for sure, but this show is never afraid to show us the in-fighting, backbiting and bloody-minded bureaucracy involved in protecting the nation.
Snagge’s intros are the exception rather than rule because other than him these episodes are a fairly straight retelling of their television counterparts, you would certainly have to be very familiar with the television episodes to notice. A few days ago I criticised To the Manor Born a little for failing to offer anything new to those that had seen the television series, so why am I not using that same stick to beat Dad’s Army? I think because it is Dad’s Army. The brilliance of it translates seamlessly to radio. The chemistry between every character arrives in tact and ever-so-slightly polished. The jokes all hit their mark, even those you might think too visual to work on just the audio alone.
Three of the early television episodes are still missing from the BBC archives. Fortunately, their radio counterparts survive for us to enjoy in their place. They’re a decent stand-in and lend this series a little bit more importance that it didn’t enjoy when originally transmitted.
The excellence of the classic TV comedy has been espoused at length elsewhere but this radio series usually gets overlooked. Radio programmes are often regarded as the poor relation when a series moves from, or to, the visual medium, and sometimes that is justified – but not here. This is a comedy classic given the full radio treatment, and was such a hit spawned a radio spin-off series, It Sticks Out Half a Mile. Featuring the post-war characters Wilson, Pike and Hodges, the series followed their attempts to run a family seaside fun pier. How many other radio shows based on a TV show can boast a spin off series? I don’t think any.
So with every impecable comedy beat in tact how could Dad’s Army the radio show be anything other than sheer undiluted brilliance? It’s no replacement for the television original but will help you enjoyably while away the hours in the company of familiar voices, and much-loved characters.
Dad’s Army the radio series (and the spin-off It Sticks Out Half a Mile) can be downloaded from radioechoes.com and selected episodes can be streamed via the BBC Sounds app.
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THE HITCH-HIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY
>>> Audiobook >>> Read by Stephen Moore >>> Science fiction comedy >>> 2hours 40mins approx >>> First released om tape cassette 1982
So this blog has been running for a month now – that’s a whole month without so much as mentioning the king of radio shows. The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy stands proud next to Desert Island Discs, The Archers and the shipping forecast as one of the most iconic, representatives of British radio and just as timeless. But the fact is, the audiobook is even better.
Gulp! Did you really just read that? How can anything be better than those landmark six radio episodes? Even the television series only managed to be as good as the original, so how can this audiobook ( which you’ve probably never heard of) possibly be better?
Well, firstly Douglas Adams manages to be even more hilarious than usual in prose and because this abridgement (which must be sacrilegious in certain quarters) filters some of the bits from the radio play to alter them slightly or re-work them work better. Of course this was done in the service of presenting an adaptation suitable for the printed page, but what we essentially get is something with of spit and polish.
Stephen Moore, voice of Marvin the depressed android, reads this audiobook. He’s got a warm, pleasant voice that suits the off the wall humour. The jokes all hit the right beat and he has a surprising range. Moore manages to give a different voice to almost every character, instantly evoking the radio versions, but at the same time giving us something fresh. I think having ine of the original cast members on board was a really smart idea and gives these readings a kind of official status. And though it might be blasphemous to say this, he’s almost better than Peter Jones at being the voice of the Guide. High praise indeed!
Douglas Adams was famous for being one of the most undisciplined writers ever to sit in front of a typewriter, and sadly that is in evidence here as this audiobook suffers in the same way as the printed version. Adams was forced to finish writing the book (based on the original full-cast radio series) because he had gone so far past his deadline the publisher had to send everything he’d written to the printers. With just three quarters of the story committed to the page, Adams tacked on an ending and began work on a second book. This audiobook features that underwhelming, tacked on ending but it does succeed in being mildly amusing, and helps to make this audio, read by one of the original cast members more than a mere curio.
Adams picks up the story in the sequel book, Restaurant at the End of the Universe, bringing the page count up with material that would appear in the second radio series. This is where Hitch-Hiker’s convoluted and confusing diversions and disparities between the books and the radio series begin, so it is nice to enjoy this inaugural instalment completely unchained from that maddening myriad, on it’s own terms.
Sometimes audiobooks successfully compliment their printed originals, but in this case the audiobook actually manages to improve upon it. Considering Hitch-Hiker’s was written over forty years has won and been nominated for some extremely prestigious literary awards ever since, saying it can be improved upon in any way automatically opens me up for criticism and derision, but I firmly believe Moore doesn’t just do justice to the original text – he actually manages to lift it even higher. Adams had wrote almost rhythmic prose but Stephen Moore rises to the challenge, and seems to be having an absolute ball.
Perhaps I’m heaping praise on this audiobook because it was one of the first ‘grown up’ audiobooks I borrowed from my local community library, twenty-odd years ago. I was a Doctor Who fan so of course I had heard of Hitch-Hiker’s and my dad had mentioned it a few times, telling me I would like it, so when I saw it there on the shelf in the library, it was an absolute no-brainer. And it was a game changer for me. I found something new that I could explore and revisit. And when I want to revisit The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I don’t go for the TV series, the movie, the radio series or the book. I go straight for this audio book read by Stephen Moore because even the abridgement can’t deny the fact that they’re faultlessly fantastic
This audiobook goes against the intention of this blog – to provide review and recommendations on easy to find audios – because The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy read by Stephen Moore has until recently proved very difficult to find. But I have done my homework for you, loyal reader. Feel free to shower me with thanks in the comments section. Enjoy! https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=dPbr0v_V-cI
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TO THE MANOR BORN
Radio series starring Penelope Keith >>> Full cast comedy >>> 10 episodes >>> 1997
Audrey Fforbes Hamilton is widowed and forced to sell the family estate. As if this weren’t indignity enough, the new owner of the manor is a supermarket chain owner with no knowledge or experience of the countryside or how to run the estate. Richard Devere moves into the manor house with his mother, Mrs Poo who immediately sees possibilities of romance between her son and Grantly’s former owner.
This radio series is not a continuation of the BBC television series that ran between 1979-81 , mostly comprising renactments of the most popular episodes, with Keith Baron replacing Peter Bowles as Devere and several other key roles re-cast. This is mainly because these episodes were made in 1997, after many of the original actors had retired or died.
The television series had always relied heavily on the characters and shot in the static multi-camera style of the day, making To the Manor Born perfect radio material. But it doesn’t quite work.
To me, re-casting key roles merely to re-play stories many of the audience already know is a risky move. Going back in time to a period before Audrey and Devere got married (in the final episode of the television series) is a good idea because it’s the set-up everybody fondly remembers, with the former lady of the manor in the lodge complaining to Marjorie about whatever Richard’s done to annoy her. Some new material, set between the TV episodes has been attempted for this radio series, with four episodes out of the ten quite new. This softens an otherwise wholesale re-tread.
The performance of the impressive cast successfully evoke the era of the early 1980’s, and the cosy comedy of the decade. As an ensemble the actors play well against each other and do justice to the familiar material. The parts that have been re-cast have been skilfully managed by all concerned and are most definitely not simple karaoke versions.
Having Penelope Keith on board to reprise one of her most famous TV creations is an absolute gift. She slips back into Audrey’s shoes easily and is one of the biggest reasons why this series successfully recreates the atmosphere of the television originals. Sadly, it is difficult to shake the feeling this was a missed opportunity . In the main these radio versions simply invite comparisons with their superior TV counterparts.
These episodes are fine for anyone not familiar with the TV episodes, and enjoyable if you don’t have access to you DVDs collection. But when the episodes are repeated with such regularity on TV and the DVDs so easily available, these radio versions offer little that is new or interesting enough for me to revisit.
To The Manor Born the Radio Series can be found on radioechoes.com or purchased on Amazon
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MORE OR LESS with Tim Harford
Presented by Tim Harford >>> BBC Radio 4 >>> 253 episodes >>> Latest Series 2021
More or Less is a show about statistics but it’s nowhere near as dry as that might sound. Segments are presented by statisticians , mathematicians and probably a few other ‘stician’s besides, giving us the facts behind the figures in an accessible but informative way.
Tim Harford, Radio 4’s resident smart cookie, presents and he keep things light and free flowing. But don’t read ‘light’ as ‘fluffy’ or ‘insubstantial’ because often there are mightily weighty topics under the microscope. But we’re in safe hands. More or Less does not dumb down, if something is hard to grasp the presenters find imaginative ways to lift the understanding of the audience. Trimming the fat from around the stats, this show goes to great efforts to ensure everyone is involved, regardless of their intelligence quotient and it is this inclusive atmosphere that makes the show not just penetrable but palatable. The producers obviously know numbers can be horribly dry , but the way the facts are disseminated (with sometimes curiously off-beat framing devices) by ever so kooky academics is one of the key ways in which the audience is helped in appreciating the data on display.,
That More or Less concerns itself merely with facts is another thing that sets this show apart. The only ‘agenda’ this programme has is to give substance to the cold facts and numbers, put them in context and present this crucially important, and often incorrectly reported, information accessible to a casual daytime audience.
The UK government uses it’s own statisticians, which is curious when the public funded Office of National Statistics does such a comprehensive job. Governments the world over massage numbers to provide stats that fit their narrative and spin. So far so ordinary. But recent successive Conservative governments have been giving those numbers the full spa treatment. Where some figures are simply spin in the traditional fashion, others are pure fiction. But then along comes More or Less to quietly but entirely debunk and demonstrate, mostly in words of one syllable, where the real numbers come from and how they compare. In a world of ‘fake news’, clickbait and sensationalist journalism, there is something oddly comforting about these hard facts, and a programme that doesn’t need to dress up data in order to be informative or entertaining.
The British Broadcasting Corporation always has a hard time when the Conservative party are in government. The BBC has suffered a string of bad publicity of it’s own making whilst the Tories attack the organisation from every side. The BBC says it’s impartial and not aligned to either the political left or right, yet comes under fire from both sides. Both left and right attack the BBC over the corporation’s impartial mandate but since 2010, it has been legislation presented by the right that has forced the BBC to reduce spending and axe services, amid growing opposition from online platforms. But here is More or Less, quietly flying under the radar and giving British politicians more headaches than there is aspirin in the world to cure them – if they had the wit to tune in! Tucked away in a quiet time slot on Radio 4, this gem is well hidden from Tory ire, and fire.
There are a lot of misleading floating about circulated by information fraudsters or spin doctors (assuming they’re not one and the same). I know this because Tim Harford and his clever friends told me so. On a weekly basis. Week after week, show after show, quietly but comprehensively debunking the UK government’s statistics, and highlighting the increasing gulf between truth and lies. Stats inform government policy you at least want to be sure it is based on sound data. More or Less demonstrated time and again the facts and figures shaping government policy has been constructed on particularly shaky ground.
Other programmes concern themselves with hype, embellishment and discrediting government advice and data but that isn’t what this programme is really here to do, it’s not what the show is for. And yet it has been utterly essential during the pandemic.
If you prefer facts to fiction, like your radio shows to dispense information instead of jokes, and can handle dry academic wit, More or Less will become your totem of truth in a land of disinformation. If you enjoy stats and maths, you will be in your element. And if you enjoy hearing official data being thoroughly crapped on by the brightest minds on the radio, enjoy yourself. And don’t say a word!
More or Less can be found on the BBC Sounds app (UK residents only)
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DOCTOR WHO: MEDICINAL PURPOSES
Starring Colin Baker as the Doctor with Maggie Stables and Leslie Phillips >>> Original full cast play >>> 2 hours approx >>> Produced by Big Finish
Burke and Hare, the famous Edinburgh murderers and body snatchers are not as they appear in this excursion into Earth history. Who is the mysterious Dr. Knox, and why isn’t befriending the killers’ documented victims the ill advised tragedy waiting to happen that it should be?
Anyone who remembers Colin Baker’s occasionally lamentable tenure as TV’s Time Lord may not be queuing up to hear one of his audio adventures. But one should remember the unforgiving TV landscape in which the good Doctor existed at the time and understand that in 1986 the BBC’s priority – much less its cash – were not lined up in Doctor Who’s favour. Add to that much turgid tumult in show’s own production office and you have a recipe for disaster. That Baker’s two seasons see him confidently seizing the role as his own is a small miracle, a victory, a triumph over adversity. Almost. The tragic truth of Baker’s brief era is that he had all the qualities needed to be an outstanding Doctor. So, in steps Big Finish productions – valiantly squaring circles and determined to succeed where the television series patently failed. A new lease of life for the colourful sixth Doctor then?
Working on the premise that a man is measured by the company he keeps, Big Finish wasted no time in giving ‘Old Sixie’ a new travelling companion. Unencumbered by pre-judgment and continuity, it allows Baker’s Doctor the chance to mellow. Accompanied here by sexagenarian lecturer Dr. Evelyn Smythe, she is the medicine this doctor badly needed. She pricks his pomposity, mocks his verbose vocabulary and won’t let his bluster go unchallenged. The sixth Doctor we meet in Medicinal Purposes is a much changed man than that of the TV series, and all the better for it.
It is a shame then that having made such strides in successfully softening the character that he starts this play actually praising Burke & Hare for their crimes, arguing that without them and the bodies they sold to the burgeoning medical profession, many lives would have been lost without the knowledge the victims helped to foster. This ‘ends justifies the means’ philosophy doesn’t just runs counter to the spirit and the letter of the series but endangers this Doctor’s new found humanitarian instincts. Colin Baker has always spoken vociferously about the character’s inherent alien outlook but when he’s condoning the murder of innocents I think it takes the theme too far. It’s out of step and not just a bit nasty.
Thankfully, the Doctor’s attitudes are adjusted after he befriends two of the infamous duo’s future victims. Character-wise it gives the Doctor somewhere to go in this story, a journey to make. But I don’t buy it. The Doctor knows the ends never justify the means, something he’s said many times, so to me this character ‘arc’ feels more like a circle.
Leslie Phillips guest stars in these four episodes as Dr Robert Knox and makes a great impression. He’s a silky cat of a baddie, purring softly and never once getting particularly cross. The revelation halfway through the play that Knox is not all that he appears is welcome lifting it from the realms of moribund run-around.
The supporting characters are harlot Molly and Daft Jamie, both destined to end up on the surgeon’s cold slab. Ladies of the night, blood in the gutter and a noisy alehouse are not areas the TV series would have been allowed have wander into. That the series can enter such a seedy, all-too-real world and still be silly old Doctor Who is an achievement, thanks to the dexterity of the script. And Knox is such a delightful rotter, it’s all good fun.
Colin Baker is THE audio Doctor. He’s got a great voice, gets some tremendous lines and allows us to wistfully wonder what might have been had his telly run not been cut short. But why continue to harp on about these old injustices when plays like this are around for us to enjoy. It’s time to erase the overbearing sixth Doctor from your memory and embrace this new, nuanced and far more accessible incarnation. Never waste a good crisis, as they say, and on the evidence here Big Finish and Colin Baker certainly didn’t. Give ‘Old Sixie’ another chance. After this play, I certainly will.
Doctor Who – Medicinal Purposes is available to download or stream from Bigfinish.com
We love audiobooks on NoScriptForLife so please check out our exclusive short Coffee Break Audio stories read by the author by clicking HERE
FEAR ON 4 (3 Episodes)
Starring Edward De Souza as The Man in Black. 30 minute episodes
There can’t be many people not familiar with the BBC Radio 4’s long running anthology of scares and frights presented by the Man in Black. Originally titled Appointment With Fear and presented by Valentine Dyall in the late 1940’s, the series was warmly received by audiences in the UK. Many famous writers of the day such as Edgar Allen Poe had episodes based on their stories, but the series also focussed on new writers, producers and directors to keep the fresh ideas coming.
The series returned a few years later, renamed The Man in Black, acknowledging for the first time the immense popularity of the now eponymous narrator who must surely be the original framing device for this type of series (copied from a similar show in the US titled Suspense). The idea has been resurrected several times over the decades and successfully travelled the world. At various times in the 1950’s and 60’s North America, Canada and Australia each had their own ‘Man in Black’. Mark Gatiss can now be heard on BBC Radio as the latest actor to assume the mantle, presenting new tales of evil and suspense. The framing device may be out of fashion at the moment but it’s an idea too simple and too malleable to ever truly disappear. On radio at least the great legacy continues on.
Today I’m reviewing three instalments made by the BBC in 1988, after the strand was renamed Fear on 4. It ran for about twelve years and continued the excellent standard set by it’s forebears. Edward De Souza provides his silky, deep voice greeting us genially before presenting chilling tales from the darkest depths, starting with
THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS by William Fryer Harvey
The ‘disembodied hand returned to life’ shtick has long been a stable of horror, but this is one of the better examples.
When a slightly pompous scientist finds he is the only one who can care for his elderly uncle, he’s troubled by one of the old man’s hands as it twitches and clenches, even when he’s asleep. Later, while the old boy sleeps, his hand picks up a pen and begins to write! At first the words are nonsense, but then the hand writes the scientist’s name, over and over again.
Sometime after his uncle’s death the scientist takes delivery of a package containing a wooden box, but something scuttling about inside. At first he think it’s something that will help with his studies, so he can hardly believe what he sees, or the strength and ferocity of the disembodied hand that escapes from the box.
Whether this was based on the pulp horror movie of the same name, and how this compares I can’t say because I’m not familiar with it, however I can tell you this is by far one of the strongest and best remembered of all the many stories presented by the Man in Black, thanks to the taught, frantic performances and a economic script. The sound design works hard, to fine effect providing dread sounds of the hand crawling , knocking things over, and at one point playing the piano.
By the 30 minute mark I think you’ll agree this episode definitely deserves a thumbs up!
MIND WELL THE TREE by William Ingram
When a man unexpectedly inherits a manor house and accompanying grounds, he finds the fractious relationship with his wife deteriorates further following his insistence she stay in the isolated country house, whilst he’s away on business. At first she’s reluctant but after warming to her new housekeeper and gardener, the idea of taking on the estate becomes appealing. But her attempts to enjoy the idyll is spoiled by the worried and confused note scribbled frantically on the bottom of the deceased’s last will and testament. Just four words – “mind well the tree”. It becomes apparent the note refers to an aged and dead elm tree which stands rotten and alone on the outskirts of the garden.
This is an edgy piece and the tension begins very early on, however I found this difficult to enjoy. There is a whispering voice that was so quiet I couldn’t make out what it was saying, and the revelations about the tree seem to come in one unmanageable splurge of information. It’s an evocative play, but I felt it somewhat lacking, not helped by a fairly abrupt ending.
THE SNOWMAN KILLING by J.C.W Brook
Anne’s son is having night terrors, always calling out the same things – relating to a snowman. The boy’s older brother is little comfort as he seems to take delight in terrifying his mother by claiming he can see a snowman in the garden. Even when it’s not snowing.
Predictably, the boy’s father puts it all down to growing pains, and dismisses his wife’s claim’s that something strange and uneasy is going on, simply telling her to get out of the house more. Eventually she takes his advice and for the first time in months meets a friend for lunch. Conversation turns to the family’s new home, which is revealed to have a tragic history involving the death of a young boy – and a snowman.
That’s as much plot as I’m going to reveal because this is excellent, and revealing the end will spoil it for you. I’m no great horror fan, so to me this a thoroughly creepy tale. I’m not in any way an authority on the genre so, to me, this feels like a really original story. It’s eerily engaging, thick with unsettling images and a fine turn from Imelda Staunton as Anne. The plot is direct and functional, as you’d expect for the Fear on 4 strand and satisfies the listener with an unexpected, if slightly overwrought, ending. This has to be the high water mark for this series, and one of the best from this incarnation of The Man in Black.
That’s it for today. I hope you enjoyed this review and I hope you’ll check back here tomorrow for more.
We love audios here on NoScriptForLife and you can hear some quick and fun audios read by the author HERE. Each is less than 5 minutes, just perfect for your coffee break.
These episodes of Fear on 4 can be streamed or downloaded from Radioechoes.com and can also be found by typing in the episode titles on Youtube.
Thanks to http://www.otrplotspot.com/fearOn4.html for providing factual information about this series.
THE PRISONER OF ZENDA
Written by Anthony Hope
Feature-length BBC Radio Dramatisation
Starring Julian Glover, Nigel Stock and Martin Jarvis.
Sometimes titles are so memorable, so vivid you feel know the story already. Sometimes they’re the best thing about it. I wonder if Prisoner of Zenda has been afforded ‘classic’ status and been adapted for film and television so much, not because it rises above the pulp trappings of other novels printed around the same time but because it has a interesting and evocative title. So what can we make of this radio adaption?
I doubt if feminism was a word in the common lexicon when Anthony Hope wrote his novel so there are no decent roles for the women of the fictional Germanic kingdom of Ruritania, except the countess Flavia, a love struck plot device.
This is a 100 minute full cast adaptation of the classic, and archaic novel. The Prisoner of the story’s title is the soon-to-be-crowned Prince Rudolf who is the spitting image of a tourist to the country, Rudolf Rassendyll, even down to their distinctive red hair. They first encounter each other whilst the prince is out hunting but this chance meeting is fortuitous because his rival, Black Prince Michael tries to prevent his cousin from attending the coronation first by drugging him, then by kidnapping him and holding him in castell come fortress at Zenda. Rassendyll must attend the coronation and be crowned king and continue with the impersonation until the royal personage can be rescued: if he doesn’t Black Michael can use the no-show to highlight how his cousin is unfit for high office. It’s an intriguing and involving tale built on a huge coincidence. Though perhaps not one for feminists.
The men are all honourable swordsman types, socially gifted aristocrats or utter cads, while there are really only two parts for women; the insubstantial Madame, who wishes to protect Black Michael from ascending the thrown (out of fear that his power would see him find someone else) and Countess Flavia, your classic princess; reserved, well spoken and honest. Both thinly characterised purely by their devotion to the men in their lives.
It is when this play strays from the bearable political machinations to the love story between Flavia and the imposter king that things became trying, for me. All the great and grand proclamations of love become ever more elaborate as the play goes on. What plays in the book as something delicate and mostly unspoken is ground down to two haughty people telling each other how they feel in increasingly over the top ways. I’m a bit of a sucker for a love story but this subplot is not a love story. He’s infatuated because she looks terrific in a frock, and he’s the king. They’ve got nothing in common, and actually he isn’t the king. Price Rudolf himself is a womanising, wine drenched fop but the moment the crown gets plonked on “his” bonce she believes he’s suddenly changed by responsibility. The story here is that she loves Rassendyll (not the prince) but can never know for sure. In the book its all sparkly eyed looks and star crossed admiration. Here it’s grotesque parody that doesn’t even realise it’s parody.
Romantic subplots are meat and drink for melodrama such as this, so really I have criticised this for being what it is however the over the top lovey-wovey stuff did wear me down and obscured the body-double element of the story, which is the main thrust of the narrative, and the apparent threat from Michael. In this radio play he is a slightly more sympathetic than the character in Hope’s book. Here, he is shown to have loyal subjects among the people, and though he is a cad, may be a benevolent and capable one. It almost lends pathos to his plot to gain the throne, but not quite. Given a slightly stronger emphasis, this adaptation might have found a new angle with which to approach the character, to make him more than just resident moustache twirling baddie. He’s just an archetype, but then in fairness so are all the characters.
Flavia, your archetypal breathless damsel, Rassyndyll the typical swashbuckling hero, albeit a reluctant one and the King’s right hand men, Colonel Sapt and Fritz Von Tarlenheim are the sound council and loyal soldier archetypes respectively. Zenda, whilst set in a believable grown-up world, is really a fairytale. Kidnapped princes, sieges, castles moats, derring-do – it’s all here. If that’s the bag that you’re into, you’ll have a lot of fun with this.
Nigel Stock plays Colonel Sapt, is always a reassuring presence in any production, as is Julian Glover the famous film and stage actor who lifts the clichés of the script yet still fails to make us believe he really loves Flavia, as opposed to merely infatuated. That’s not Glover’s fault though.
So is Zenda more than just an enticing title? As you’d expect from a BBC Radio production, this play boasts fine performances and high production values. Zenda, like Rassendyll prompts us to ask ourselves what’s in a name. So, if you’re in the market for some classic romance and adventure melodrama then this is fine fare . You may even enjoy it more than I did.
You can download The Prisoner of Zenda or listen online at radioechoes.com
KING STREET JUNIOR (SERIES ONE)
Starring Peter Davison as Eric Brown and James Grout >>> Comedy-drama developed for BBC Radio in 1985 by Jim Eldridge >>> Series 1 >>> 7 episodes.
Peter Davison is one of many actors I enjoy listening to on audio. Here he plays Mr Eric Brown, a newly qualified school teacher with a class full of juniors. Davison once excelled at playing slightly inept and put-upon stalwarts – All Creatures Great and Small, Holding the Fort, At Home with the Braithwaites – it’s quite a list list but typecasting is nothing new for any actor, and Davison has least approached his with pleasure. Brown is keen to impress in his first job but his over enthusiasm is frequently his undoing.
Each episode centres on a new issue for the school, whether that be the government’s plan to re-deploy teachers to struggling schools, efforts to open a language unit, or dealing with a child who’s abusive home life has led to acts of vandalism in the school. Not many episodes are carried by Brown’s altruistic but misplaced motives but his modern ideas and naivety are often the instigators.
James Grout plays headmaster Mr Beeston. He’s the hilariously constantly put upon one here. Davison is the first name in the credits but it’s Grout that gets most of the best lines. Supporting characters are high-minded and difficult to please Mrs Rudd, pragmatic soul Mr Holliday and overworked secretary Mrs Lewis. All are well drawn played in a nicely understated way by a cohesive cast, bringing to life sparkling, witty scripts where the characters lift from the page. It’s immaculately written by creator Jim Eldridge and equally well performed throughout. This may surprise you.
Radio comedies, especially vintage ones, often suffer from a lack of naturalism and, though I hate to say it, staginess. This certainly surprised me. The rat-a-tat dialogue, the humorous asides and the sound design really sell us on a the time, the place, and the pettiness of the teachers and situations Beeston is forced to deal with.
This isn’t a slow plodder of a sitcom, and neither does it ascribe the idea that studio laughter doth a radio show make. It’s surprisingly modern in many ways and wouldn’t be out of place if it was made today (the series was later revived as King Street Revisited) The humour stands up well because it’s character driven, and the teachers, as well as the pupils, are all easy to engage with.
King Street Junior won’t be the first mentioned when people talk about classic radio comedy, and that’s a shame because it’s solid, entertaining stuff, raising laughs and pouring from the speakers / headphones easily. The humour isn’t designed to challenge you and doesn’t offend. It’s pre-watershed so no sweariness, this is simple, funny stuff that’s aged surprisingly well. As well Mr Davison himself in fact.
We love audio stories here on NoScriptForLife and you can hear some exclusive short funny stories HERE
King Street Junior is available on radioechoes.com.
THE MIGHTY BOOSH RADIO SERIES
Comedy radio series >>> Written and performed by Julian and Noel Fielding >>> 6 episodes >>> Broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2001.
Where do you start to describe the Mighty Boosh? Some random samples of dialogue should give you an idea.
“I talk to the animals .I’ve got the gift. I’m like Mowgli in flares”
“Your logic is making me look like a dick”
“Do you want to visit the lions little boy? Come over here and put on this meat suit”
“The loneliness, the emptiness, the endless-ness”
“The written word is like a drug. If you cut me, I bleed ink.”
It’s the only show that makes Monty Python and Spike Milligan appear normal and is probably the spiritual successor of The Goodies or the Goon Show. And it’s so good, Boosh sits comfortably among those loft comparisons.
The series follows zoo keepers Howard Moon, a jazz obsessed virgin and Vince Noir an ultra vein mod with ridiculous hair. The two must deal with the bizarre mood swings of their boss Bob Fossil (Rich Fulcher) who runs the Zoo. Their adventures include a journey into the forbidden areas of the zoo, an encounter (and possession) with the ghost of jazz, and a memorable run in with the zoo’s newest innovation – mutants.
The Boosh originated at the Edinburgh Festival in 1998 and from there built up a cult following, but it was these six radio episodes that proved popular enough for BBC Three to commission 7 episodes three years later. Three series and two sell-out UK tours later, the Boosh became a genuine UK phenomenon cracking the mainstream and tapping in to the cultural zeitgeist of the time.
I’ve been familiar with the TV series since 2006 but this is my first time listening to the radio version, mainly because I wrongly assumed the first TV series was a rehash of their predecessors. Whilst anyone familiar with the TV episodes will easily recognise many of the routines, skits, jokes and songs, these radio versions are structured differently, with at least one episode (Taken) almost completely unrecognisable from it’s nearest television counterpart. Where things had to be cut, presumably for reasons of expense (such as a helicopter rescue in Taken and large crowd scenes in Mutants), all the best jokes are here, in their original form. Perhaps the most noticeable difference is the radio series offers us more of the classic Vince and Howard interactions. These bits often play identically to those in the TV series but because almost everything else is different you get a different feel, and many of the plot twists you might be familiar with are passed over in favour of something less flashy and, it has to be said, less funny. Although Dave Brown was already on hand his familiar character, the gorilla Bollo is absent. Some other characters are also missing such as shaman Naboo and the recurring series one characters Harvey Bainbridge and Miss Gideon. The small casts make these episodes fairly intimate and puts greater onus on the plots and jokes.
It’s really easy to see why this series quickly moved on to telly, this was mould breaking stuff in 2001 with plenty of improvisation from the leads. I’m not sure what the contemporary, fairly conservative Radio 4 audience made if this at the turn of the century. There are three two taboos in radio; dead air, characters talking to themselves to describe things we can’t see and people talking over eachother. The last of those taboos is extremely prevalent here, turned into something of an art form every time Howard and Vince argue like stick insects in trousers, frequently talking over and interrupting one another when their discussion/ arguments get more heated (and silly). It really works. The only other comedy troupe that used unfinished, interrupted and tripped up sentences to comic effect was Not the Nine O Clock News. Their sketch characters could often be heard interrupting each other, hesitating and mispronouncing words, just to serve the act. All of which lends a pleasing naturalistic element, often missing in scripted comedy but used to great effect here to juxtapose bizarre conversations, and even stranger situations.
Barret and Fielding aren’t mentioned in the same breath as Cook and Moore, Vic and Bob or Armstrong and Miller but they should be. The two may not have clocked up as many comedy hours as those just mentioned but they are in complete and perfect synch with each other throughout these episodes. Their comedy timing is always bang on. Like the greats Cook and Moore before them, it’s their bickering and hollow bragging that is often the highlight of the episodes.
The Mighty Boosh is very original, but the concept is twenty years old now. What was once new and cutting edge looks almost old hat, but this series has an ace up it’s sleeve; the meandering plots are odd and unpredictable, serving the originality of the comedy just as effectively now as it did in 2001.
If you think you know The Boosh but never experienced these radio episodes you really should listen to this series. If you know nothing about it and only know Noel Fielding from Bake Off and panel shows, this is a great place to start. A passing coyote might even take pity and lend you his headphones (or sun glasses).
The Mighty Boosh Radio is available on vinyl or CD, and can be found on YouTube.
THE SLIDE by Victor Pemberton
BBC Radio Dramatisation in seven parts >>> Starring Roger Delgado, Miriam Margoyles and Maurice Denham
Victor Pemberton, bless his heart, was one of those writers that had one really stonkingly good idea and then spent the rest of his career plagiarising himself. That sounds kind of harsh, but this landmark production from 1966 is one of those things that really creeps you out, so it is easy to see why the author used this story as the basis of an original novel, and a Doctor Who script in 1967.
Whenever I refer to The Slide, I always describe it as “Quatermass for radio”. If you have no idea who or what Quatermass is, I will move swiftly on, but if you do know what I mean and this excites you, you will not be disappointed. This could easily have been written by Nigel Kneale, and you can’t help thinking he listened to this on the original transmission and thought, damn this Pemberton fellow has beat me at my own game.
The MP of Redlow New Town is the outspoken and highly territorial Hugh Deverell, so when random bits of nature starts to die off just outside the town he’s eager to hush it up, despite pleas from his constituents to send for an expert. When a fissure opens in the middle of one of the country lanes near the town Professor Gomez (Delgado), fresh from a controversial scientific expedition, is soon on the scene, There’s instant friction between Gomez and Deverell, and when his wife takes a shine to the scientist it all begins to unravel for the respectable politician. Soon the hospital is full of people who can’t bear any kind of light, and it becomes apparent there is a link between the increasing number of patients and the peculiar, sliding kind of mud that spills from the widening fissure.
I tried listening to this with my girlfriend but whilst I was gripped by the atmosphere and slightly manic performances she got bored and gave up after episode two. The first couple of episodes are fairly plodding scene setters, but there was enough tension and menace to keep me involved and intrigued. I splurged on the remaining five episodes in one marathon sitting, and I have to tell you I was thoroughly creeped out by the end.
Special praise must go to Maurice Denham for the all too real portrayal of a control freak who’s used to getting his own way lose control of himself and his town. Gradually succumbing to the frustration at the professor, and the science he doesn’t understand and a strange force he cannot resist. A different, more personal type of slide than the one threatening the town. It’s a real masterclass performance, and one that still haunts me now.
I wonder how a more sensitive 60’s audience took to this. It is a properly grown-up kind of scary,without resorting to body horror or violent moments. This is adult in a very real way, most notably in the character interactions. It is the things not said, the words that are almost danced around that lend this production real power and punch. The relationships are incredibly believable, and although there is a glut of characters to meet in the early episodes, and you may find yourself becoming lost, they soon come into their own. It’s worth keeping track of who’s who because it unquestionably heightens the drama when later their lives become threatened by what they think is just some mud.
A word must also be said for the sound design. I reckon Pemberton must have asked himself at some point when writing his script exactly how he could convey the sliding mud of the title, as it begins to engulf and infect all around it. I wonder if the answer – to give the mud it’s own distinctive sound – is one of those gorgeous serendipitous writing moments; when necessity gets into bed with creativity and has a memorable night together. The sound effect of the mud is fantastic. At first quiet, in the background until it becomes a deafening cacophony by episode seven. The BBC used to have a special in-house sound department, which seems to have been money well spent because the work here still feels original and clever. It is an essential ingredient to the increasing menace, as much a part of this serial’s tremendous success as the writing and the acting.
The Slide is one of those dramas that lives on in your mind, long after the final instalment. I can’t see myself being up for a repeat listen for a good while yet because the vivid nightmarish pictures it painted are still fresh in my memory. The Slide. It just slid into my head. And now it’s solidified.
This was recently repeated on Radio 4 Extra so you may find this still available on the BBC Sounds app. If not, YouTube will likely come to your rescue, or if you prefer, a commercial release is available from Amazon.
We love audios at NoScriptforLife so you can find exclusive short stories and flash fiction read by the author by clicking HERE
THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS by John Wyndham
Audiobook read by Robert Powell >>> Running time 2 hours approx
Day of the Triffids has been my most favourite book to read since I was a teenager. We studied an excerpt in English lit class one day, so when I saw the audio book on the shelves of my local library a few weeks later I was sure I’d like it. It helped that it was read by Robert Powell because I knew him from a comedy programme he starred in at the time with comedian Jasper Carrot. Does anyone remember The Detectives?
This is an abridged reading, about two and a half hours long, so that’s a lot of book cut out. Mostly character backgrounds, revealing dialogue and the entire chapters set in Brighton. The abridgement is a very neat job but what is left is a bit of a basterdisation of the original, amountimg to little more than a pulp thriller. But as a teenager this audiobook was my way into the more complex story told in the book, my way in to Wyndham’s other books, and my way into early twentieth century science fiction. Despite many elements of the book being absent, I still return to this audo, and that’s chiefly because Powell is such a magnificent reader.
He never puts on voices. Often he changes the inflection, tone and volume of his speech but he doesn’t really do voices. But if my voice was half as commanding and easy on the ear as his, I wouldn’t bother either. This is in no way detrimental. Powell’s voice is undeniably the audiobooks biggest virtue, second only to the first rate tale.
Most people are familiar with this tale of walking plants running amok in the aftermath of a meteorological light show that leaves 90% of the world’s population blinded. It’s a fairly pedestrian post-apocalyptic fare to a modern audience but the Triffids make it immediately different because the walking plants, chained and cowed see how weakened humankind has become and break free from the Triffid farms. The plight and abuse the plants suffer as they’re harvested for their oil is, predictably, skipped over here. In fact most if not all films and TV series to have adapted the book have mainly failed, in my reckoning because the book is dense with detail and nuance, and most writers / producers / directors just want to get straight to the walking plants attacking humans bits, because that’s what the public perception is of this story. Unfortunately, as good as this audio is, it doesn’t entirely eschew those sensationalist urges. But its saving grace is Powell.
One of the things I’ve always liked about John Wyndham is the deceptive simplicity of his style. Never one for flowery prose, his delivery is always stark and matter-of-fact, a real economy of words. He was either supremely disciplined or keen to press on with the plot. Perhaps a little of both, I don’t know but the un-showy prose suits Powell’s gentlemanly narration. When he reads Wyndham’s words they gain new, immediate efficacy. When he speaks the dialogue of the characters he gets each one of them. Whatever is lacking due to the abridgement is compensated by the reader’s firm grip on the text.
I do think John Wyndham was also a bit of a softie. His stories very often have an unyielding sentimentality at their core and whilst this can occasionally become a little trite, it is never made so here. Again, at risk of banging relentlessly on the same worn drum, it’s down to Powell who allows his voice to crack and falter when things get emotional.
Wyndham’s style is seldom replicated in prose, especially almost a century hence, but the heart of his characters always beats loud and even though you sense they share his post-colonial stoicism, he’s never fearless about sharing the emotion of his characters when those same hearts quicken, break or change. Again, Powell gets this. He was either familiar with the text before he entered the recording booth or he simply has a natural affinity with it. Either way, Wyndham suits Powell, and vice versa.
As an introduction to the far more satisfying read of the book, this for me is by far the most successful attempt at an adaptation of Day of the Triffids – in any medium. It’s a must for teenagers, possibly with a short attention span and if you are already familiar with the book, Robert Powell adds a new dimension and undoubtedly makes this a very worthwhile and satisfying audiobook.
This can only be found on YouTube by typing “Triffids / Wyndham” into the search.
Originally released in the early 80’s by Sounds for Pleasure, there is no digital version of this audiobook around, say for YouTube. I have a digital version in my possession, so if by some chance the legitimate copyright holder is reading and would like a digital version so you can claim your copyright, please do get in touch
THE TOFF AND THE RUNAWAY BRIDE by John Creesey
BBC Radio Dramatisation in Six Parts >>> Starring Terrance Alexander, Robert Dorning and Rosalind Shanks >>> First broadcast 1976
The Toff is one of prolific novelist John Creesey’s less well remembered creations. Creesey wrote over 600 novels in his life, so some are bound to be more remembered than others. Despite featuring in several novels, The Toff never made it to the small screen, and the only adaptations for radio appear to be The Toff on the Farm and The Runaway Bride.
The Honourable Richard Rollison is more than just a high society drifter. Otherwise known as The Toff, he is a Simon Templar type character, an all-round thoroughly respectable and honourable gentleman, a relic of a bygone age in the modern era. A good humoured Batchelor who is often called upon by friends (and friends of friends) to help with delicate matters, such as when his good friend Guy finds his bride has run away just, mere minutes into their marriage.
Terrence Alexander (whom you might remember better as Charlie Hungerford in 80’s police potboiler Bergerac) plays Rollison, gamely assisted by his man servant Jolly. Typically his investigations and earnest determination to help good folk out of tricky situations leads to trouble and brushes with the police, and this story is no different. We follow the eponymous amateur sleuth as he struggles to find out if there is any truth to the warning given to the bride of the title, that good egg Guy is already married. Having been acquainted with this chap for some time Rollison knows he’s no bigamist but when he hears stories that his friend suffered head trauma whilst serving in the armed forces, and then finds he played it all down and kept it quiet from everyone he knew – including the blackouts he suffered, then Rollison begins to ask if it is possible good old Guy married another woman during one of these blackouts? Is it possible there are entire swathes of his past The Toff knows nothing about? And why did the bride’s father forbid them to marry and then change his mind?
It’s an intriguing set up but despite following the trail all over London and to Paris, this six part serial does descend into a bit of a run-around. Albeit a well cast and well crafted one. There are several longeurs (such as the business over the trip to France which seems to exist merely to pad out episode five) and dead ends, but on the whole this is gently enjoyable stuff. If you’re looking for something to put on whilst you potter about the house, or to give you something of a Sunday classic feeling, then this would be right up your street.
I can’t say whether or not this mystery will leaving you guessing up until the final minutes because I’m hopeless at solving mystery stories, whether in this case that’s down to Creesey or me being dim in this regard I don’t know. It kept me guessing up until the end, that I can say.
As with most things I listen to, there’s little violence, no swearing – nothing at all to offend your granny. Plus, it’s made by the BBC so it’s dripping in class and good performances. If that’s your kind of bag then you should definitely track it down and enjoy it. I might try one of the novels next.
Find this on YouTube.com. Just type in The Toff and the Runaway Bride. This can also be purchased on Amazon
Copyright Martin Gregory 2020
We love audios at NoScriptforLife so you can find exclusive short stories and flash fiction read by the author by clicking HERE
ODYSSEUS – THE GREATEST HERO OF THEM ALL by Richard Curtis and Tony Robinson
Audiobook read by Tony Robinson >>> 2 hours 30 mins duration
“What do you mean you’ve never heard of Odysseus,” I exclaimed incredulously to my girlfriend one day. “You know, siege of Troy, the wooden horse.” She shook her head. “Homer? Iliad ? The Greek legend?” She looked blank. Okay then, so I guess that means I’m an intellectual . Goodness! If that’s true then I obtained my in intellectualism from a most un-intellectual route (and I just used the words un-intellectual to help you glimpse the philistine beneath the mask!). I was in the habit as a young teenager of borrowing audiobooks from the local library, and none were more prolific in the audiobooks for children market than Chivers. One of their releases was Odysseus – The Greatest Hero of Them All.
I had vague memories of Tony Robinson on a beach gesticulating wildly and talking to camera, telling a great swashbuckling adventure. These I later found, were Jackanory specials edited together for repeat showings early on Sunday mornings. I remembered this when I picked up the audiobook in the library, with it’s gaudy, colourful cover depicting the eponymous hero, General Agamemnon and Menelaus. Nowadays I’d see the names Robinson and Curtis on the cover and be heading over to the library’s check out desk before you can say “shush!”. I found out later, that yes, those Jackanory instalments were Robinson acquainting viewers with either this, the sequel – The Journey Through Hell or another story in the Greek myth vein, Theseus and the Minotaur.
This is, essentially, BlackAdder doing Ancient Greece, but for children. Taking Home’s Illiad as it’s starting point it is perhaps more correctly history told in the mould of Curtis and Robinson’s later hit for Children’s BBC, the peerless Maid Marion and Her Merry Men. History, but with comic west country accents, generals who are nothing better than dumb meatheads and heroes with precocious pre-occupations, such as Achilles who does nothing but brag about what a great archer her is, and Paris, a dim upper-class toff who would rather hide behind the walls of Troy than face the husband of his kidnapped lover. There’s Helen, whose once slender face becomes more rotund the longer the siege of Troy continues because she’s got nothing better to do than pop chocolates and listen to her husband’s whining, and the ersatz homo erotic relationship between Petrocles and Diomedes. It’s a blood thirsty myth given a blood thirsty spin for the junior market. I didn’t batt an eyelid when I was a kid at this or the other gruesome things that go on, it’s only as an adult I listen to it and go “eesh, nasty”.
So what of this reading? Well, if you’ve seen Tony Robinson on TV, you’ll know he has quite a distinctive natural voice. Here he provides an excellent range of voices, from his west country twerp Ajax to the rapidly expanding Helen, but because his voice is so distinctive you never find yourself happily lost in the dialogue. By saying that I’m basically criticising a tomato for having the audacity to be red and rounded but when my girlfriend was finally introduced into this world of heroes, princes and cowards it was the one thing she didn’t like about it. Personally, I adore Robinson’s voice and I loved the personality with which he imbued all of the characters.
Of course, this was co-written by Richard Curtis, and there are jokes and pathos here that are pure Curtis. It might seem odd finding his name on something for children but remember, this is the guy who lent his might to Comic Relief and the aforementioned Maid Marion series. You can sense Robinson’s writing chops in the well fleshed-out characters, even the bit parters are memorable and all of the exploits, both heroic, deadly and cruel provide a sense of time and place, despite the BlackAdder-isms. Odysseus himself has more than a hint of Blackadder about him. In his formative years his grandfather tells him, “when the going gets tough you have to be a bit crafty” and the youngster takes this to heart. He’s a manipulator with a hard exterior which bellies a sensitive man just desperate to get back and rule his little island. He is one of the rank and file, too clever to stay in his place, and too bright not to shine amongst the dimness of his generals. But for all his smarts he, like Blackadder himself, is unable to stop himself being swept along by events.
Clocking in at about two and a half hours, the tale is told with brisk confidence and does not slow down, not for a moment. Funny and at times shocking, this would be a lovely way to while away a long car journey with your 10-14 year old. There is a sqequel too, Odysseus – The Journey Through Hell based on Homer’s Odyssey, and the aforementioned Theseus story, so if this floats your boat, you can find more to enjoy.
Audiobook available on Amazon and can occasionally be found on YouTube
THE CASEBOOK OF SHERLOCK HOLMES – THE LION’S MANE by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
BBC Radio Dramatisation by Bert Coules >>> Starring Clive Merrison and Michael Williams.
Okay, let’s get one thing out the way now; For me Clive Merrison is the definitive Holmes. And these radio episodes are, for me, the definitive take on the character, employing all the rich detail and lightness of touch of Conan-Doyle’s original short stories, whilst still being able to shock and surprise me.
“The Lions Mane” is one of the later stories in the series and is one of the few to have been “written” by Holmes himself. By now the former resident of Baker Street is in his 50’s and lives in a remote spot by the sea, alone and contemplative say for his housekeeper and the bees he keeps. Since their Baker Street days, Watson has re-married and the two see each other infrequently. Holmes having escaped London to shelter from his growing renown, thanks to the doctor’s published accounts of their adventures.
I have poor recollection of the original short story. I seem to recall it as a fairly brief affair but with a good central mystery. On the days shortly before Watson’s arrival, Holmes is forced to solve a mystery on his own doorstep when one of his acquaintances painfully expires in front of him.. Having taken a swim, and then apparently attacked, the man struggles up the cliff path from the beach in search of help. A likeable and respected fellow, there seems to be nobody who would wish him harm, and on a beach overlooked by cliffs, where could the killer possibly hide? A second death helps Holmes solve the mystery before his friend arrives for his weekend visit, but that doesn’t stop him passing the case to Watson to solve. For fun.
This episode is basically Holmes and Watson role playing at being Holmes and Watson. If that sounds slightly meta textual, then hold on to your deerstalker because we’re about to dive into deeper waters.
This a gently paced. There is no urgency, no lives are hanging in the balance and yet the listener can’t help wanting to get to the bottom of the mystery. Perhaps Watson’s despondency at the beginning of the story plays on our sympathies. He’s smarting from having seen a play based on his accounts of Holmes’ cases in which the consulting detective is played by an actor named William Gillet and portrayed as a wily eccentric with Watson as his doting sidekick, a deferential oaf, forever saying “good lord Holmes” and remarking often on his friend’s vastly superior intellect. Terrified history will remember him merely as a bumbling cipher, he is in a bad mood throughout this play. But just how meta is this?
A play was indeed put on and Gillet the first actor to play the fictional detective in any medium. This occurred in the real world, during the years in which “The Lions Mane” takes place. In real life the play was of course based on Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s stories originally published in The Strand magazine, itself lent verisimilitude when the author described how Watson’s “tales” are “published “ in the same magazine. So you have Merrison playing Holmes (created by Conan Doyle but made famous in the fiction by Watson) discussing a play based on him. He discusses the performance of a real actor who played the same part as almost one hundred years earlier. All this in a story where Watson, like the listener, is presented with a mystery to unravel , even though it’s already been solved and written up by Holmes. To the casual listener all this is through away stuff but if you’re a Holmes fan you’re sure to appreciate these little touches. And if you want to study meta textulism, this must be a suitably head scratching place to start!
I like these plays because even though these, like their printed counterparts, are presented out of order, Williams and Merrison have clearly taken the time to consider how to pitch their performances. Only a handful of years separated this production, which is set late into Holmes and Watson’s acquaintance, and the recording of the pair’s first meeting in A -Study in Scarlet, yet they’re clearly playing subtly different versions of their of characters. Here Holmes is less contentious, more at peace while Watson is getting used to married life again and, like many men at a certain time of life, slightly anxious and pre occupied with how he’ll be remembered. It’s rather powerful, in an understated and typically British upper lip kind of way, as time tests their once unbreakable bond.
The sound is rich and evocative, transporting the listener effortlessly to the reclusion of Holmes’s seaside estate and happily there are hardly any guest characters in The Lion’s Mane, giving us plenty of interactions from the leads. After a while, when Lestrade’s gone back to his desk, Mrs Hudson returned to her pantry and the villains are behind bars, all we want is interplay between Holmes and Watson, be privy to their discussions beside the fire and perhaps eavesdrop on their reminiscences.
This is a strong character piece, adapted by someone happy to play with characteristics we think we know and an almost fannish understanding of the Holmes cannon. All this adds to the excellent central mystery and helps the actors perform beautifully and honestly the melancholy of aged, fractious friendships and the futile railing against the drumming of time.
One of the strongest episodes in the series – in the cannon – and well worth a listen.
Sherlock Holmes starring Clive Merrison is available on the BBC Sounds App, Amazon and can be streamed on YouTube by searching the relevant key words
DOCTOR WHO – BANG BANG A BOOM
Full cast audio drama >>> Originally released in 2002 >>> Produced by Big Finish productions >>> Starring Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor, Bonnie Langford and Rula Lenska >>> 2 hours approx.
Confession time. I love audios from Big Finish. Love ’em. But how many have I listened to all the way to the end? Well, let’s not go there. Because I didn’t. Part 4 of a Big Finish Doctor Who story is something I rarely get to. I think maybe, three or four out of the dozen or so stories I had on CD did I actually ever get round to finishing. Really there’s no excuse for this because Big Finish quite sweetly structure these full cast plays like the television series of old, in four twenty-five minute segments. They are tailor made to be dipped in and out of, so really it’s just my poor attention span. I approach audios like my writing, soon I get bored and want to get on to the next thing. But lately I’m learning a new discipline with writing and applying that discipline to these audios. As such, this is the first one I’ve finished in eighteen years. That’s shocking, isn’t it. A self confessed Who fan, and a huge back catalogue of these audios languishing on a hard drive. What have I been doing with my life? Let’s not go into that. Let’s look at Bang, Bang A Boom instead.
We’ll start with the title. Dyed in the wool readers will recognise it as an inversion of the famous Eurovision song contest ditty from years ago (Boom Bang a Bang) but that’s okay and entirely apt because this story is set on a space station that’s about to host the Intergalactic Song Contest.
After finding a body and assuming the identity as commander of the space station, the Doctor and Mel (Langford) are determined to keep a critical intergalactic peace summit, erm, peaceful. Except they haven’t rocked up at the peace conference, as is the norm for Doctor Who. The “peace” delegates are actually participants in the contest, the conference itself is on another space station entirely. For once this is not a story where success is a matter of life and death, but a matter of fame and music. And jealousy and murder because somebody is bumping off the pop stars one by one to ferment discord between the competing aliens, and endanger the peace conference.
I never watched Eurovision. But if it was ever half as fun as this story then I must have missed out big time. If you ever stayed in on Saturday night getting increasingly merry as Europe’s finest ran the full gamut between genius and toe-curling, you will get a bigger kick out of this than I did, and you’ll probably get more of the jokes and in-jokes too. But this not a brutal deconstruction of the once annual tradition by any means, but neither is it a kindly homage. The serial takes the tropes and traditions and pokes gentle fun at them whilst telling an original, fun story at the same time. Can the Doctor and Mel uncover the killers? Why is the Doctor suddenly in love with one of the aliens? And can you really trust the shrill, furry Paca delegate who keeps the other aliens under her watchful eyes?
This story doesn’t just play with the conventions of the Eurovision Song Contest but takes the archetypal setting of a space station and does what most – in fact all – of Doctor Who never, ever does and goes all Star Trek on us, which is akin to characters in Coronation Street sitting down in the Rovers Return to talk about what happened on EastEnders last night. It is that much of a no-no; an unwritten taboo. But not here. Because here panto stalwarts McCoy and Langford bring that same knowing wink to the proceedings. There’s the ship’s doctor with her “personal log”, the doors that go “schkze” and the fact that this the space station is called Dark Star 8. Which most definitely is not Deep Space 9. Except it has aliens, a command deck, a bar and intergalactic machinations aplenty.
McCoy and Langford are, it must be said, not the most popular of Doctor / companion partnerships the series ever had. Their time on screen was dogged by crappy scripts, dodgy production values or unsympathetic directors. Not here. Big Finish pride themselves on attention to detail and righting the wrongs of the television serirs. Before they reached a bigger audience these immaculately written and produced audios were made by fans and sold to a mostly fan market on compact disc. Say what you like about fans, but they know their onions. This Doctor / companion partnership had only one short season on TV in 1987 before Langford quit and before McCoy’s doctor was teamed with the streetwise teenager Ace. The latter partnership is what comes to mind when people think of the McCoy era, and I never really paid the four adventures of that short 1987 season much attention. But I have warmed to Langford’s portrayal of hyper active computer expert, Mel, and now having heard this I have transitioned into a proper affectionado. There’s a real lightness of touch in the performance, the two have an easy going relationship and they’re affectionate sparring is one of the highlights of the play. The leads are never less than spot-on here, not just recreating a brief partnership from many years ago, but reprising their roles to discover new facets. They’re two happy turns having a right old giggle and it’s so infectious, you really need to hear it to fully appreciate their interactions. It’s given me an appetite for more Doctor and Mel stories, so I might just head over to Big Finish’s website and see if I can buy a few that I’ve missed. Hopefully they’ll be going for a song.
Available to download from Bigfinish.com
THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS by Kenneth Grahame.
Abridged audiobook in three parts >>> Released by Harper Collins >>> read by Richard Briers >>> 3 hours approx.
Call me old fashioned (thanks!) but nothing warms the cockles like Wind in the Willows. If you’re unfamiliar with the tale of Mole as he leaves his familiar home to explore the nearby river bank with his new friend Rat (a thoroughly agreeable specimen with a nose for adventure) meet the gruff Badger and the naughty as nuts Peter Pan of the river community the motor car obsessed Toad of Toad Hall, then you could do far, far worse than seek out this audiobook to introduce you to these seminal characters.
Briers was once a fine stalwart of that endangered beast, the gentle British sitcom and known for his fine comic timing. He imbues each character, even ones that appear for only a few lines, with a distinctive voice and personality, demonstrating his fine vocal range. I first heard him lend it to a reading of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, an audiobook I borrowed from the school library when I was 14. Yes, I borrowed audio books from the school library at 14, so obviously I was bullied mercilessly. But I digress. Which is funny because that’s precisely what Grahame does in the original book, so it is perhaps a relief that this is an abridged reading clocking in at just under three hours. Perfect if you’re looking to be pulled gently into this world of boats, rivers and, erm toads in drag. Though in some ways, the abridgement robs us of more hours of Briers’ wonderful narration. If you are familiar with the story before coming to this telling it’s possible you’ll find it lacking depth.
Those unfamiliar with the story need to remember this was written almost a century ago, so the character archetypes may feel well worn to modern audience. You need to unplug your grown-up brain for a bit and pretend you’re five years old again. That’s easier for some people than it is others (not me I can be virtually embryonic if I so choose) but the effort is rewarded.
It took me a while to finish this because I didn’t want it to end. I was savoring every minute. It’s warm and cuddly, self-effacing fun with a narrative that gives itself a good shove up the arse every time things get too cosy and sweet. Funny, fun and utterly charming.
You can find this on Youtube, just search key words ‘Wind in the willows Briers’ or purchase from Amazon
MISS MARPLE – AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL
BBC Radio Dramatisation in five parts >>> Original broadcast; 1994 >>> Starring June Whitfield as Miss Marple with Maurice Denham, Geoffrey Bayldon and Fredrick Jaeger.
I love Agatha Christie’s books but I never got on with Miss Marple. Something about a nosy old lady who sits and earwigs conversations seemed a bit creepy and sad to me, and the short stories that I’d read starring Miss Marple only confirmed what I already thought – that this was a character who was nothing more than a poor relation to the great, the magnifique Hercule Poirot. Then, quite by random I stumbled upon a repeat of this five part serial on Radio Four whilst driving home one night found myself hooked.
No doubt catching the tale from episode two might just had done it. Sufficiently intrigued by the mystery surrounding the doddery Cannon Pennyfather and the amnesia he suffers one night after setting off from the hotel of the title was enough. I say that, but the following day I had forgotten all about it, and that might well have been it for me and Miss Marple, but two nights later I was driving home and caught most of episode four, by which time the police are investigating the Cannon’s disappearance. Sufficiently intrigued I went home and downloaded the episodes from BBC Sounds to listen to later. And I’m so glad I did.
June Whitfield sealed the deal for me. This was no creepy old lady with “pearl white hair” as had been written in the books. This was a legend of the acting profession, the great, the irreplaceable June Whitfield, she of Terry and June, Absolutely Fabulous and many a Carry On, playing one of literature’s most famous creations. And she absolutely nails it. Fantastic is all I can say, really, Whitfield is so completely the Miss Marple of your imagination (though not mine because as we’ve established the Jane Marple of my imagination is a decidedly creepy old girl), she is reticent, slightly bumbling, demure and just about the fiercest intellect in any room she finds herself. Understated in some ways, but in others a fireball of dead pan wit and ingenuity. I can’t rate her performance high enough.
The cast list reads like a who’s who of the stage, screen and speaker so the script takes flight from the first few minutes and soars high for the next two and a half hours until it is satisfyingly guided into land.
It’s a mystery story so you do have to pay attention and, as is typical of this long form adaptation, there are a lot of characters that come and go which can get confusing if you’re crashing about with dishes and plates in the washing up bowl whilst you listen. But what kind of philistine am I for washing up while listening to this!? Best enjoyed with a glass of wine with your feet up, this is the kind of radio drama your Gran would listen to, and none the worse for it. A lively tale, brought to life by a first rate cast, I recommend this.
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All content copyright Martin Gregory. 2020