Alan Whitby's ten favourite radio plays

One of the difficulties in listing my top ten plays is that other members have already beaten me to it. A few years ago, Rod Beacham's "Inter-City Contract" was listed in an article, and I would have automatically have included that amongst my own favourites. Someone also included John Mair's "Never Come Back" in their list with its anti-hero on the run - Richard Hannay as a rat. That, too, is a play I come back to repeatedly. So I have to cheat really. This list is my top twelve - those and ten others!

1. "The Day Of The Triffids" (serial in 6 parts, 2 Oct to 20 Nov., 1957).
I am indebted to contacts in the VRPCC for obtaining a copy of this vintage serial. As a 12-year old, I hung onto every word when it was first aired. My schoolfriends were hooked on "Journey Into Space" but that passed me by. However, I made a date with "Triffids" each week and it sent me to the book by John Wyndham. Listening to it today (compared with more recent versions) it still has an impact.

2. "The Hollow Man" : Saturday Night Theatre 10.1.1959
The fairly recent series of Gideon Fell mysteries starring Donald Sinden have had their moments, although the last suffered from the restrictions of a 55 or so minute time slot. John Dickson Carr's plots have enough twists and turns to fill 90 minutes without any difficulty. However, from the opening jokey music, the Sinden versions are played somewhat tongue-in-cheek. The original rendition of this play from 1959 with Norman Shelley as Fell was played straight and, apart from a slight touch of the "theatricals" in one or two places, stands up well today. My Saturdays in the late 1950s always involved playing out with friends in the daytime, a quick early tea and out to the local flea-pit cinema, and finally home to bed with the valve portable radio by the pillow listening to "SNT" in the dark. This sacrosanct routine was soundly trashed when the BBC in its wisdom brought the starting time for SNT forward from 9.15 to 8.30 - at that stage of life, the cinema won!). "The Hollow Man" with its background of convicts escaping from buried coffins and not one, but two, 'impossible' murders (both observed by independent witnesses but with a rational explanation at the end) started me off as a collector of Carr's fiction, which I read avidly for years. John Dickson Carr was a prolific writer of radio plays himself in the 1940s, and some of his playscripts have been published in recent years. Sadly, very few tapes have ever surfaced.

3. "You Have Been Warned" (serial in 6 parts, 19 Feb. to 26 March, 1958)
Another John Dickson Carr tale from the novel "The Reader Is Warned", this time from his output as Carter Dickson. A man named Herman Pennik claims that he can cause people to drop dead just by thought (which he calls "Teleforce") and apparently succeeds in doing so. A named victim is seen to twitch and fall over with no-one touching him, and there are no signs of foul play when the body is examined. Needless to say, Pennik is nowhere near at the time. How could it happen? Who would be next? Could it be used to eliminate Hitler or Mussolini? (The play was set in 1939). As the play appears to have been lost, I only have memory to go on, but the concept was that there you are at home listening - and, horror or horrors! - Pennik could choose YOU next! The user of Teleforce - ultimately more victim than villain - was played by Irish actor Patrick Magee. His voice of subtle menace always brought back memories of "You Have Been Warned" when he turned up in various films over the next 25 years.

4 "He Wouldn't Kill Patience" (Saturday Night Theatre 4 4.1959)
A final Carr thriller, again from the Carter Dickson stable, and again one that seems to be lost. Patience is a small tree snake. Her keeper apparently commits suicide. The room in which he gasses himself is locked from the inside and completely sealed up from the inside, even down to sticky paper over cracks in doors and windows. But - Patience the tree snake also dies in its cage in the room. Even if he had committed suicide, he wouldn't kill Patience…so, how was it done?

Felix Felton had another rich fruity voice akin to Norman Shelley's, and played amateur sleuth Sir Henry Merrivale, who was a slightly more humorous version of Gideon Fell.

Carr wrote over 20 novels under the Carter Dickson banner. To my knowledge, apart from the two above, only those under Carr's own name seem to have been taken up by dramatisers. They would be well worth some enterprising adapter to consider.

5 "The Last Renaissance Man" (Saturday Night Theatre 14.6.1986)
A nicely moving thriller by T.D. Webster about fake antiques and murder, with a stirring bit of Vivaldi as the theme music. For some reasons this has become a generic comfort blanket in our household, so if someone takes to their bed with 'flu, this play invariably makes the playlist.

6 "The Wench Is Dead" (Saturday Night Theatre 21.3.1992)
John Shrapnel played Morse in 3 excellent radio versions of Colin Dexter's novels in the 1990s. It is a great shame that there were not more. These adaptations were far more faithful to Dexter's novels than the TV series with John Thaw. (There was a feeling of déjà vu when Shrapnel turned up as a main character in one of the TV episodes opposite John Thaw in "Death Is Now My Neighbour"). All 3 plays - "Last Seen Wearing", "The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn" and "The Wench Is Dead" - are excellent. I have chosen the last-named because the TV version seemed to stray even further from the novel than usual, even eliminating Sgt. Lewis. The main plot device (policeman stuck in hospital solves ancient crime) is a steal from Jospephine Tey's "The Daughter Of Time", which was turned into another excellent play starring Peter Gilmore as Inspector Grant.

7 "The Speckled Band", 1992.
This Conan Doyle story is a token of the Carleton Hobbs/Norman Shelley partnership as Holmes and Watson. A grand staple of "Children's Hour" until the adults complained that it was on too early for them. A simple production, which depended enormously on the projected voices of the actors. It was apparently recorded on several occasions by Hobbs and Shelley with different supporting casts. My version is that issued on the BBC's Radio Collection.

8 "Enquiry" (Hi-Fi Theatre 19.10.1979)
From the very opening words of actor Tony Osoba "Yesterday, I lost my licence", this adaptation of a Dick Francis novel rumbles away at a fast pace, and the 90 minutes speeds by. They must have had great fun in the recording studio staging the fight with the hero's demented nemesis at the end. Our off-air recording was almost worn out by the time the BBC issued it with "Bonecrack" - another excellent play starring Francis Matthews - in its Radio Collection.

9 "Daughters-in-Law" (Saturday night Theatre 2.9.1961)
This stands for the entire Henry Cecil output. His books had pages of humourous dialogue which translated effortlessly into radio drama. A protracted legal case about a borrowed lawn-mower, starring two veteran actors, Cecil Parker and Naunton Wayne.

10 "A Shilling For Candles" (Saturday Play 5.12.1998)
Strictly speaking, this play should illustrate much what is wrong with modern radio drama. Pared down to just under an hour, with much of Josephine Tey's novel jettisoned, this free adaptation changes both the murderer and the explanation for the title in the original - just minor details, really..!

However, in spite of this, it trundles along with much good humour, including several references to superior drama on "the wireless", and a number of set pieces that could have featured in an Alfred Hitchcock film. Hitchcock in fact filmed this novel as "Young & Innocent" in 1938 and also took drastic liberties in his version. But, taken on its own, it is a modern play that I have enjoyed hearing again and again.

A personal delight when compiling this review has been to dig out all the plays (where available) and listen to them again. It also reminded the family that, while reading tastes might include "great literature", our listening tastes remain more limited. As long as the play featured a murder or mystery of some sort, and ideally included a policeman or detective in the cast list, we would be sure to listen in and tape it.

Alan Whitby

(reproduced by permission of Roger Bickerton, editor of "The Circular Note", the VRPCC newsletter, where this piece originally appeared - many thanks Alan, and Roger.)

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