A British Dramatic Radio Review
by David Vineyard.


         1. Dead Man’s Bay by P. M. Hubbard. BBC Saturday Night Theater.
         2. Fire, Burn by John Dickson Carr. BBC Saturday Night Theater.
         3. The Silver Mistress by Peter O’ Donnell. 15 Minute Serial in 5 Parts

   Radio drama lasted far longer outside the US in most countries with the BBC keeping up the tradition even today with adaptations of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and recently Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe (both starring Toby Stephens who replaced Ed Bishop as the BBC’s Marlowe) among others and even the Saint in adaptations of Leslie Charteris’s novels.

   The great thing is many of these shows both modern and from the past are available to listen to on YouTube and at Internet Archive presenting a rich mixture varying from classic mystery, romance, adventure, science fiction, horror, and mainstream plays and books, sometimes with unknown cast and others more familiar names.

   BBC’s Saturday Night Theater was a rich series producing original and adapted radio dramas from a variety of sources including many outstanding mystery writers.

   P. M. Hubbard (Philip Maitland Hubbard) was a successful mystery writer whose career, though short (1963 to 1979) included numerous highly regarded suspense and adventure novels such as Kill Claudio, High Tide, The Dancing Men, and Causeway Bay, varying from international intrigue, to straight adventure, to some decidedly left hand turns into near Gothic or horror fiction along the way.

   Dead Man’s Bay is an original play written  by Hubbard for the BBC about Peter Robinson, an ordinary fellow who falls in with Joe Benson, a bad sort, who convinces Peter, against the wishes of his wife Letty, that his beloved sail boat and knowledge of local waters means he could pick up some much needed money with a little side of smuggling.

   Avoiding the excise man is an old British tradition practiced less as crime than a sort of game played for centuries by British smugglers and subject of many a classic tale from Daphne DuMaurier’s Jamaica Inn to Graham Greene’s The Man Within, Russell Thorndyke’s Dr. Syn books, and Geoffrey Household’s comedic “Brandy for the Parson.”

   Also along the rugged coast where Peter plies his game with the Inland Revenue is a top secret British installation referred to only as The Establishment. Peter and Letty’s close friend Jim Hardwicke is in charge of security there and Peter’s wastrel brother Ricky, who knew and loved Letty before she met Peter, a Naval officer under him.

   But when Joe Benson reveals to Peter he has really been smuggling dope in from France and threatens blackmail to force Peter to make one last run and something occurs at the Establishment that has police roadblocks up all over the area Peter confronts something more sinister than even dope smuggling and a heartbreaking choice.

   There are no surprises in the story. You will likely be well ahead of the cast in figuring where it is going, but the story is told in bright smart dialogue and the atmosphere and storytelling make for an entertaining and vivid drama.

   Fire, Burn, John Dickson Carr’s classic historical mystery comes with a strong adaptation by John Kier Cross (author of, among others, a fine collection of his own weird fiction), and explores once again Carr’s fascination with the Berkeley Square (after the classic play and films) plot device of a romantic minded man thrown back in time through little but sheer will and his adventures there.

   This time the gentleman is Scotland Yard’s John Cheviot who gets in a taxi in 1960’s (the date of the radio play) London and after a bump on the head finds himself in 1829 London just appointed to the newly formed Police under Robert Peel as Superintendent of the Detective Force, and for his first case assigned to solve the mystery of who stole the bird seed from an influential dowager.

   Almost before you or Cheviot can digest this humiliation, he finds himself witness to an impossible crime, the murder of one Margaret Renfield (a witcherly type of whom Edmund Kean, the actor, once quipped ‘Fire burn and cauldron bubble’ in reference to), concealing evidence to protect his mistress, dueling with the most dangerous man in London, and determined to use modern methods to solve the crime, even though he is rapidly forgetting the John Cheviot from the 1960’s.

   Cross manages to hit all the right notes from the novel in a quickly paced hour and eighty six minutes, replete with a raid and brawl in a London gaming house, and a classic impossible crime solution. There is even an epilogue from the book explaining who was real in the story and the real life crime Carr based the book’s solution on.

   You can almost feel the fog in your chest and see the gaslit streets of 1829 London.

   There have been five books in the Modesty Blaise series adapted for the fifteen minute daily serial, a BBC feature that tends toward lighter popular fare, but with no letup in quality. These are faithful adaptations of the popular books with Modesty and Willie Garvin and the other characters from the books brought vividly to life.

   The Silver Mistress came about midway in the book series and features Modesty and Willie’s friend and sometime boss Sir Gerald Tarrant kidnapped and held prisoner in the haunted mountainous region of France. Along with Tarrant’s aide Fraser they set out to find Tarrant and rescue him leading to one of Modesty’s most deadly fights in the darkness of an underground cave system with a freezing cold river running through it.

   As you can imagine the radio drama plays that scene for full blooded fun.

   All the Blaise adaptations have been good and faithful, but this one works particularly well as radio drama.

   Radio drama differs from audiobook versions of the same material in that it moves at a much faster pace (it can take up to eleven hours or more to listen to many audiobooks), and because a good radio play choreographs not only the dramatic highlights, but also allows for a varied cast of talented voice actors to bring the material to life.

   Entertaining as it can be for an author or actor to perform an audiobook well (Stacy Keach reading Mike Hammer or Kevin Conroy Travis McGee come to mind), it can’t rival a cast of talented actors and sound crew giving full performances.

   There are many other examples to sample easily found at the two sources I mentioned including books by Mary Stewart, Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, Andrew Garve, Michael Gilbert, Joyce Porter, C. S. Forester, and many other names familiar to this blog. It’s a particularly attractive way to revisit an old favorite you might not want to reread, but one you don’t want to forget either and often adds a new dimension to the original.