Thursday, 2 February 2017

La La Land Afterthoughts.

There are quite a few things that started bothering me after watching La La Land. To begin with it is somewhat disappointing that musicals are so rare these days that there are no singers-dancers-actors of the levels of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly or Cyd Charisse, who perhaps wasn't a great singer, but have you seen her dance? And she was a fabulous actor too. So in order to get funding the one musical of the year stars who, while adequate in dancing and singing, actually pale in comparison to some of their background dancers. have to recruited, There is a charm to the fact that they are not professional dancers no doubt, and if one is going to make a musical these days it is definitely the thing to do, I mean both Emma Stone and even Ryan Gosling are quite an improvement to the travesty that was Russell Crowe being allowed to destroy one of the best characters in musicals or Pierce Brosnan butchering Abba, but I can’t help imagining how amazing this particular musical would have looked with better dancers and singers  

However, most of the flaws in La La Land are to do with Ryan Gosling, a weak actor at best, who plays a pretty awful character. To be fair to Gosling, his singing and dancing are adequate and his piano playing looks like lots of fun, maybe he should do that instead of acting. To begin with he never convinces me as either the broody type, he always looks too content, or the struggling artist, it is even worse when he struggles with his conscience. Perhaps the worst bit of acting from Gosling was the scene in which he makes Mia, Emma Stone’s character, dinner. It is the beginning of the end of their relationship and it is agonising to watch, but for all the wrong reasons, he’s just not in it! Luckily Emma Stone is an incredible actress and it almost doesn’t matter how bad Gosling is.

Not all that is wrong is Gosling’s fault. His character, Sebastian, is not the best white dude out there. Let’s say I’m OK with his mansplaning of Jazz, while doing exactly what Mia says people do with Jazz music, talking over it, but fair enough Jazz is his passion it is not hers and he explains it passionately. Let’s say I’m even OK with a white dude claiming to be the “real deal” of Jazz over the one black dude in the film, the one true Jazz artist who would "save" Jazz and bring back its roots. I’m actually not that OK with that, but over the years there were many great white Jazz players and for a long time Jazz music kinda belongs to everyone. But the thing that is somewhat grating is Sebastian, the musician, mansplaining Mia the actress how to be a better actress and how to fulfill her dream.
Judging by the two films I have seen by the rather talented, I must say, Damien Chazelle, Whiplash and La La Land, artistic success and love do not go hand in hand for him. It seems that in order to achieve artistic perfection one has to give up love in order to dedicated themselves completely to their art.

And yet, despite all the issues with La La Land, I find myself going back to my instinctive gut reaction to this film and like all great musicals this film aims to the gut and hit it well. My gut reaction was and still remains a kind of joy and great love for this film. Simply because there is so much love for musicals in this film and that is something I crave in this musical-less world. I could never understand people who, usually without actually watching any, say they don’t like musicals, but even less so could I understand people who say they don’t usually like musicals, but they enjoyed La La Land, a film which could not exist without a rich history of brilliant musicals. It is elating to see a film that so unashamedly celebrates musicals without trying to be cynical or edgy about it, And it’s not just the wonderful and mandatory homages to great past musicals, but the whole feel and brilliant energy of the films gives it its sparks. It is a film that wants to be beautiful and it does it. But even as a great lover of the genre I managed to be emotionally surprised by La La Land and I absolutely loved it! So I forgive its problem and embrace that joyous gut feeling.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Lesser-Known Sonic Gems of Christmastide

By Dr Leslie McMurtry

Last year, 33,000 people voted for their favorite Christmas songs on British radio station Classic FM’s annual poll.  The winner was “Silent Night” with “O Holy Night” taking second place.  On American site Ranker, “White Christmas” takes the prize with “Silent Night” in second place.  While these songs are undoubtedly beautiful and perennial favorites, it occurred to me as I looked over my Christmas song collection that out of nearly 250 songs, I had 192 different titles, and many of them relatively obscure.

I have been interested in the origins of Christmas songs and carols for almost as long as I can remember, looking with interest at the date and composer of songs published in children’s books with lyrics for singing.  With several centuries of tradition, it seems miserly to focus on tunes of the last two hundred years.  I would like to highlight here some of the lesser-known Yuletide songs and their stories.
I applaud the website Hymns and Carols of Christmas which provides not only a wealth of information but keeps the spirit of Christmas all year round.

Corelli’s Christmas Concerto (Concerto Grosso Opus 6, No. 8)

Arcangelo Corelli is remembered as “Founder of Modern Violin Technique,” the “World's First Great Violinist,” and the “Father of the Concerto Grosso.”  However, he is probably not known very well outside of reasonably au fait classical musical listeners. claims that Corelli would have been as well-known for his violin in the 17th century as Paganini was in the 19th, but that he was not a virtuoso in the modern sense.  We are more concerned here, naturally, with his composing technique.  He popularized the Concerto Grosso and made it as integral to music as the symphony became in the classical period.  He wrote comparatively few compositions but all were popular, and he labored hardest on Opus 6, which was not finished in his lifetime.  As a teacher, he influenced a whole generation including Vivaldi.  There actually is not a great deal of biographical information available on Corelli; however, his composition definitely speaks for itself.  What is the Christmas connection, you might ask?  In the notes, the composer wrote “Fatto per la note di Natale,” i.e. written for Christmas Eve.

What is beautiful about Corelli’s composition are the varying moods.  The Adagio is contemplative and soulful—indeed, you could almost describe it as melancholy or wistful.  The first time I ever heard this piece of music, it was not associated with Christmas and was part of the soundtrack of the Peter Weir film Master and Commander.  The film is important to me as it introduced me to Patrick O’Brian’s book series which is the best historical fiction ever written, and to several beautiful pieces of baroque music such as Corelli’s Adagio from the Concerto Grosso.  The scene for which this piece is the accompaniment was the incredibly sad moment when Dr Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), having been accidentally wounded, is brought on a stretcher to the Galapagos Islands by his concerned friend Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe).  Although (spoilers) he survives the surgery, I thought in the context of the film that he had been brought to the islands to die.  Thus, that movement will always be tinged with unwonted sadness and poignancy for me.  I can imagine, though, that Corelli wanted to compose something reflective, as, with much in Christian tradition of centuries past, the joyousness of the Nativity is colored by the knowledge of Calvary to come.  Listening to the Adagio reminds me to be still and reflect on the mystery of Christmas with meditation and focus.

Very different, indeed, is the Pastorale Movement.  Oddly enough, once again I had to rely on another medium to introduce me to this joyful and exquisite piece.  It has featured in years’ worth of Jacquie Lawson computer Advent calendars and though I had often heard it and enjoyed it, it wasn’t until I heard the full Concerto Grosso on YouTube that I recognized its provenance.  Although its tempo is slow, the Pastorale is delightful and full of good feeling.   

This is my favorite rendition of the Christmas Concerto on YouTube, it’s beautifully played and beautifully filmed.  It is interesting to see the faces of the performers as they interpret the soulfulness of this composition. 

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

The beautiful poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, written during the American Civil War in 1863, has been set to various pieces of music, something I did not realize until I came to research the Advent Calendar in 2011.  The poem reminds us that while many Christmas songs have been composed with the abstract (or even the flippant[1]) in mind, some have concrete and sometimes poignant backgrounds.  Longfellow, one of the most iconic American poets of the 19th century, wrote this poem after his son Charley was wounded in Virginia in December 1863.  You can read more about his story here.
In 1872, John Baptiste Calkin arranged a shorter version of the poem “Christmas Bells” with the verses about the Civil War removed, and provided music, which he published in 1912.  There are at least three other tunes which have been assigned to this poem.  This is the version I heard first. 
Here is another version about which I can find little information.  But I like the tune.
A more recent arrangement was made by Christian rock/pop group Casting Crowns’ frontman Mark Hall and Dale Oliver.
More than ever, we need to heed its message and try to take some comfort from it:
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said:
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!"

The Seven Joys of Mary

Like “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” there is a real sense of satisfaction at having got to the end of this carol; it really feels like climbing up toward something important!  The words and music of this carol are traditional English and it is probably medieval; one version was collected by Mrs Milligan Fox and recorded by Richard Runciman Terry in Two Hundred Folk Carols (1933).  
Here is a version of that traditional tune, though personally I think it was best interpreted by the Pro Arte Singers with music arranged by Joshua V. Himes.  (Buy their album.  Buy it now!)
There is another version, called “The Seven Blessings of Mary,” collected by John Jacob Niles in Appalachia, coincidentally also in 1933.  This is quite different from the traditional English version. 
As noted by Erik Routley in The English Carol (1961), the so-called “primitive” versions in the medieval manuscripts have five joys:
The Nativity
The Crucifixion
The Resurrection
The Ascension
The Assumption

The sevenfold pattern of joys or miracles in the familiar version:

The Nativity
Making the lame to walk
Making the blind to see
Raising the dead to life

The version with twelve may date to the mid-17th century.   

Loreena McKennitt sings the lyrics of “The Seven Rejoices of Mary” to a different tune which much resembles that from the Irish folk song “The Star of the County Down.”  This tune, according to Routley, is heard “everywhere,” was recorded at multiple places in England such as Weobley, Lew Trenchard, Kingsfold, Scotland, and appears three times under different titles in English County Songs. 

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

One of the best Christmas album purchases I ever made was Christmas Center Stage by the San Francisco cast of Phantom of the Opera.  Although some might argue the instrumentation is basic—a piano—it’s a wonderfully interpreted album with plenty of variety, from “Merry Christmas, Darling” and “White Christmas” (with the original opening from Holiday Inn intact) to this musical setting of Clement Moore’s famous poem.  (In fact, I blogged about it here previously.)  I didn’t think much about where the music came from; it just seemed a nice piece for multiple voices.

Flash forward several years: This was solved for me when I was carrying out my listening for a previous guest blog.  Writing the blog got me started on my odyssey to listen and catalogue Christmas-themed audio drama, and I heard the piece once again in “Fibber Paints the Christmas Tree White,” an episode of Johnson Wax/Fibber McGee and Molly (NBC, 18 December 1945). 
Like Burns and Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly (written by Don Quinn, sponsored sometimes quite outrageously by Johnson Wax, and played by Jim and Marian Jordan) were a fixture of Depression-era humor.  The real-life married couple started in radio in the late 1920s.  They were Irish-American Catholics, but as you can hear, this is an entirely secular program.  It took me awhile to get into the show, but Fibber’s hapless but well-meaning character won me over at last. This story is one of several from 1945 that address the short-lived craze for white flocked trees.  Evidently, though, the song featured in several episodes of the radio comedy program and was composed by Ken Darby c. 1941.  It was performed by the King's Men and arranged by Harry Simeone and performed by the Billy Mills Orchestra featuring the King's Men.

You can hear it here:

Here is another version on early television by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians from 1951 (it’s a bit strange):

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree (1967)

This must surely rank as one of the most exquisite Christmas carols ever written.  Its unaccompanied sound lends an ancient feel to it while the harmonies suggest a modern composition style.  The text hails from Divine Hymns or Spiritual Songs, compiled by Joshua Smith in New Hampshire in 1784 (though it was apparently first printed in London in 1761 and signed by one "R. H.").  The music is a different story altogether, having been composed by Elizabeth Poston in the twentieth century.  Poston was a talented composer who wrote a variety of music, including scores for television and radio. 
The conceit of the lyrics compares Jesus Christ to an apple tree, with some Biblical precedent, though others have speculated it is an attempt to Christianize the pagan ritual of Wassailing the apple orchards, popular in the West Country.  In any case, it’s beautiful imagery.
Here is a lovely version:

Twas in the Moon of Wintertime

Written probably by Jean de Brébeuf in the early 1640s (I have seen three dates proposed), a Jesuit missionary, at the Sainte-Marie Huron community, with the original words in the Huron language, the best-known English translation was made in 1926 by Jesse Edgar Middleton.  The tune is a French melody, “La Jeune Pucelle,” but as the song went unrecorded for 100 years, it’s impossible to know if this was the original tune.  The carol was collected from the Hurons by Father de Villeneuve, a Jesuit stationed 1747-94 at Lorette, Quebec.  Brébeuf was certainly the author of the first Huron catechism and a French/Huron dictionary. He was killed by Iroquois and the mission destroyed in 1649, and Brébeuf has since taken on legendary status.  The song endured, was translated into French by Paul Picard (Paul Tsaenhohi, son of the famous Huron leader Point of Day).  Father Paul Lejeune wrote in 1634, “The Indians are great singers, they sing like the great majority of nations on Earth for pleasure and for worship; that is to say with them during their pagan beliefs . . . they use few words when singing, using tonal variation and not varying the words. . . They say that we imitate the cries of birds in our tunes” (somewhat freely translated by myself, I must say).

While it is an official Canadian carol and remains a common Christmas hymn in Canadian churches of many Christian denominations, I think outside of Canada it is not particularly well-known (except perhaps in music education where the modest range makes it easy for students to play and sing); in any case, it is not particularly frequently recorded or broadcast on conventional pop radio.

The opening lines in English go,

“ 'Twas in the moon of winter-time
When all the birds had fled . . .,”

making obvious that the carol uses a number of concepts familiar to Algonquin peoples.   Among the Iroquois, specifically the Seneca, the Midwinter Festival took place five days after the new moon following the zenith of the Pleiades.  On the first day there was the “Boiling of the Babies,” the public naming of babies who had been born since the Green Corn Ceremony.  The corn soup was boiled to be eaten the following day.  New Year officially began at dawn on the next day.   Late December was known to the Lakota as “The Moon of Popping Trees,” when it was so cold twigs would snap in the cold.  
Here is a version of “ ‘Twas in the Moon in Wintertime” in English:

Here performed in several languages:

Still, Still, Still

“Still, Still, Still” is a traditional Austrian melody which, as you can imagine from the title, is a lullaby.  The words were first printed in 1865 in a folk song collection. The Salzburg melody dates from 1819.  I’m afraid there isn’t much more I was able to dig up on it.

Here is a version in the original German:

Star in the East

Not to be confused with this version, collected by J. M. Lowrie, in The Silver Song, by William A. Ogden and music from William Augustine Ogden (Toledo, Ohio: W. W. Whitney, 1870). 

I first heard this haunting carol on Anonymous 4’s album The Cherry Tree Carol.  It has also been recorded by the Rose Ensemble who cite The Southern Harmony (1854) as its source.  Not surprisingly, Anonymous 4’s version is more Early Music in approach and the Rose Ensemble is more “southern harmony hymn.”  Both versions are beautiful. 

Here is yet another interpretation with guitar with clear links to the southern harmony hymn. 

Stan Freberg
As this is “lesser-known sonic gems,” you can’t have Christmas (I’ve learned in the last year) without a liberal sprinkling of Stan Freberg.  Freberg (b. 1926) was a maverick, who reportedly entered the world of making commercials on radio and TV because he found most adverts moronic.  He injected everything he did with satire.  Evidently he was even an influence on the Beatles, according to Paul McCartney.  He didn’t impress everyone—while elected to the Radio Hall of Fame, he was never elected to the Advertising Hall of Fame.  He is a bit of a hero to us radio folks as he loved the medium and served it well.  By the way, it’s his voice you hear as the beaver in Lady and the Tramp (1955). 

This is great—though better if you know Dragnet. 

Wow, they even animated it!
Greed is never welcome at Christmas:

Noel Nouvelet

A traditional French carol from the 15th century, numerous versions exist of this New Year’s Carol.  Keyte and Parrott took their version from the 1721 Grande Bible des noels, tant vieux que nouveaus.  Translations were made into English as early as the 17th and 18th centuries.  The tune, as Hymns and Carols of Christmas notes, echoes in its first five notes the Maris Stella Lucens Miseris. 
Here is Loreena McKennitt performing her excellent interpretation.
Here is a more traditional version.
Please be adventurous in your Christmas song listening and discover a tune you may not have heard before.  There are hundreds of them! 

Wishing you peace this holiday season. 

[1] I love the story of how “The Christmas Song” was composed, which you can read about here.

Thursday, 3 November 2016


Ron Howard’s film The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, doesn’t reveal anything particularly new about the greatest band that ever was, especially not if you’re a fan, yet there is something about the film that feels fresh, new and different. It captures a spirit, an atmosphere, a sense of The Beatles and the era they were in, and it captures the heart.

Some of Ron Howard’s best films in recent years have pitted two great men against one another to create an exciting and highly engaging drama. Frost/Nixon was hypnotising and gripping and Rush was thrilling. It would have been easy and right up Howard’s alley to create a battle-of-the-giants kind of film and he would have made it excellent, but the rivalry between Paul and John has been quite open and public at the time it was happening and it was analysed to death later on. Howard has something else in mind and this film is not about who is the best Beatle (Paul!), it is not a film about individuals, a bit like his Apollo 13, this film is about The Beatles as a group.

On the face of it the film does very much what it says on the tin and focuses on the touring years. Being made by an all American filmmaker it comes as no surprise that most of the touring in the film refers to US tours. Unfortunately The Beatles' beginning in Liverpool and their defining trip to Hamburg are only mentioned briefly in the film and not really explored in depth. It seems that the Americans did take Beatlemania to the next level. 

However, The Beatles as a live phenomenon isn’t just about their concerts and Beatlemania, though that is a great deal of it, it is also about their public appearances, their popularity and their image as a naturally funny and fun band. Their photo shoots, films, their live presence and facial expressions and their interviews are all part of what made The Beatles a unique live band like no other. A great deal of what makes this film different is that Ron Howard doesn’t try to analyse The Beatles or explain much. Painstakingly collecting a treasure trove of archive and fan footages, he simply lets The Beatles be. With exceptional editing that weaves together current Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr interviews with archive George Harrison and John Lennon interviews, Howard manages to make the conversation flows over the years. It is as if they are all still in the room chatting and you still want to join the conversation. Like Whoopi Goldberg says in the film, you want to be their friend. Eight Days a Week transports you there and then and you find yourself with The Beatles and with their fans, the social and political events of the era in the background melting away the moment those four went on stage and became amazing.

While the images of screaming, crying and fainting ladies of the 1960s are familiar ones, especially when it comes to The Beatles, Eight Days a Week manages to put the viewer right in the middle of Beatlemania. The film goes into the crazed crowd and by playing the thin, barely recognisable and very real sound from the Shea Stadium, you get to experience Beatlemania as first hand as it can get and again Howard manages to make the familiar new and overwhelming.

At the beginning of the film Paul McCartney says that at the end things got complicated, but at the beginning it was simple. Eight Days a Week chooses to end when things got complicated, with Lennon’s famous remark about Jesus[1], which lead to burning of The Beatles records and the cringing and pointless apology interview that followed. There is something quite sad and at the same time wonderful in their last international performance at Candlestick Park in San Francisco and even more compelling is their rooftop performance on Savile Row at the end credits. Famously this was the end of the Beatles, yet there is still something quite magnificent in them somehow, all the behind-the-scene-drama doesn’t matter and for a brief moment they remind us that despite everything they were incredible.

The cinematic release of the film is accompanied by thirty minutes of incredible remastered footage of The Beatles live concert at the Shea Stadium, which takes you back to the magic. More than anything it is brilliant to see their faces and their dumbfounded expressions of disbelief at the masses and the hysteria when they were at the top. The post credit concert footage were probably the best live Beatles footage I have ever seen. It got close and personal and it was unbelievably amazing.  

[1] In one review that I read about this film the reviewer mentions that a more accurate blasphemy would have been to say they are bigger than Shakespeare was. I can't help wondering what would have been the result of that kind of a remark. 

Monday, 22 August 2016

Star Trek


It is somewhat surprising that I found myself feeling a bit sad at the end of the five days 50th anniversary Star Trek convention in Las Vegas. The celebration was over and I was rapidly plummeting towards reality, which I work hard to avoid, so sadness was to be expected, but there was something else that painted the glorious Star Trek convention with a little gloom. There may have been a moment when I thought “I am too old for this shit”, which followed mostly by exasperation and despair of what has become of Mel Gibson since Lethal Weapon 4. This thought was easily dismissed by my ridiculous excitement at seeing Whoopi Goldberg, Kate Mulgrew, Scott Bakula and others, so much excitement that I look like a crazy psychopath in some of my photos with them. All I need is a glance at my posters, my shirts, my jewellery and my toys to realise, “hell, I am never too old this much fun!” 

Nevertheless, there was sadness, irksomeness and even anger during the five days. Some of it was caused by the impossible furnace outside the hotels. Having to be in a blasting air condition the whole time and moving between extreme temperatures, was… let’s just say challenging. Other parts were caused by Las Vegas and everything it represents. While I enjoy materialism as much as the next person, the loudness of this money sucking, consumeristic desert was turned up to about two hundred and one and was so aggressively in one’s face it kinda crushes the soul a little. Luckily I was in Vegas specifically for the Star Trek convention so at least my contribution to this capitalism inferno came in the form of Star Trek shirts and toys as well as some weird pictures with awesome people. That said, most of the sadness, irksomeness and indeed anger were connected with the convention. It is easy to get irritated when you pay ridiculous monies for a professional photo with your chosen Star Trek celeb only to discover that there are fuzzy selfies that look better than some of these photos. And there was a host, Scott Muntz who is a presenter for Access Hollywood apparently, who made me want to build a test lab just like the one in The Empath and put him through the same torture as Kirk goes through, but without having his shirt torn, just so I can watch him suffer. It started when Muntz decided to call whatever episode of Star Trek he like “the Citizen Kane of Star Trek The Original Series/The Next Generation/Deep Space Nine/Voyager or Enterprise”, but the hate was really fuelled when what was supposed to be a critical discussion of the new film turned into his tales of how much he loves Star Trek, how he started watching it and who from Star Trek did he meet and what was their reaction. Luckily for Scott Muntz I simply decided to leave the auditorium in disgust instead of searching for the means to build that lab. However, not even Scott Muntz from Access Hollywood could ruin such a special event. No, most of the real sadness that seeped in came from some of the discussion panels, which turned out to be very engaging and quite thought provoking.

I was disappointed to discover that Gary Lockwood, who played Gary Mitchell in the Star Trek aired pilot Where No Man has Gone Before and perhaps more famously he played Dr Frank Poole in 2001: A Space Odyssey, is an odd and a little bit troubling man, not in a funny or good way. Denise Crosby (Lt Tasha Yar) and John de Lancie (Q) seemed like they didn’t want to be there, which is strange because I have seen de Lancie in a convention in the UK before and he was a hoot and half. Marina Sirtis was unpleasant to put it mildly, her only interesting contribution was to say she wished the Borg came and took Donald Trump (though arguably than they will assimilate him which will make them worse, or maybe he will break them and they will turn good in comparison to him, or perhaps Trump is too vile even for the Borg and they’d simply kill him. It’s hard to tell the outcome of such happenings.) Jonathan Frakes was sweet but attention seeking and Michael Dorn looked mostly bored. One of the most surprisingly excellent though at the same time kind of sombre was actually the Enterprise panel with Dominic Keating, Connor Trinneer, Gary Graham and John Billingsley. It was a bittersweet panel with some amusing stories about auditions and genuine love and enthusiasm especially from Keating, mixed with stories of unavailable writers, falling out with the network, professional failure as well as failure to impress the fans and criticism of the show. It was an unusually sober and self-aware discussion that stirred the heart. The panel was asked what they thought Gene Roddenberry (creator of Star Trek) would have thought of their show had he been alive to see it. Interestingly, John Billingsley, who is the least interesting character in Enterprise, gave the most poignant and observant answer. He said that he often wondered about the political implications of some of the episodes and felt that maybe some did not sit right with Rodenberry’s vision of a peaceful future. He remembered that following September 11th, Rick Berman (the writer and co-creator of Enterprise) was asked to up the action and increase the violence for the third season of Enterprise, I find this a very odd reaction of a television network to the attack. Billingsley mentioned Anomaly, an episode in the third season, a season revolving the Xindi arc, where captain Archer (Scott Bakula) crosses a line when he pretty much tortures an Oosarian pirate and threaten to depressurise the airlock with the Oosarian in it in order to get information about the Xindi. This, claimed Billingsley, was more of a 24 thing to do than Star Trek.

Star Trek: Enterprise is largely considered the lesser of the Star Trek franchise, at least until the new JJ Abrams films (which I have learned are now called the Kelvin Universe or the Kelvin Timeline) and were even worse. I generally tend to agree that Enterprise is a step down in quality for the most parts and is definitely the inferior amongst the TV shows (there is still the new Brian Fuller one, Discovery, to top that, but I am going to be optimistic about it for the time being). Enterprise was a lot more sexualised, with much oil rubbing, massaging and walking around in underpants. At least men and women were fairly equally naked and sexualised on the show, there might even have been slightly more naked men than women, but while everyone were quite good looking none of it was particularly subtle and just didn't sit well with Star Trek. The crew and the show itself took a long time to find their feet and work as a crew and as a show, it all felt a bit clunky and uncomfortable for the first two season. It might have suited the nature of their circumstances and the premise of the show, set one hundred years before the original series of the Star Trek, the crew of the Enterprise were the first human to voyage into deep space with than a brand new Enterprise, which was a lot more primitive than any of the others. Often it was difficult to watch them making it up as they go along. More than anything Enterprise felt very abandoned by the rest of Star Trek. Given its setting there was no room for any characters cameos,yet there were actors cameos which didn't help. The show just felt detached from the Trek universe and Gene Rodenberry’s vision. I must admit, personally I often felt similarly occasionally even more so about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and that had at least two characters that were transfered from The Next Generation, but that's another story. Billingsley is right in his observation that perhaps the third season has had some problematic political implications, which may not sit well with Rodenberry’s and Star Trek’s world view. It became a little rough, perhaps too bleak, though no bleaker than Deep Space Nine, for Trek. However, it was in its third season that Enterprise became quite good and the roughness of it, its mistakes, political ones and even the violent ones, fitted a pre-federation world when humanity was still recovering from a whole lowasn’t yet as peaceful as it supposedly was in the original series' crew. There are similarities between the Xindi story in Enterprise and the Dominion arc of Deep Space Nine. While they both bare similar themes, I think that the Xindi arc was handled better than the Dominion one. I had a lot more sympathy with the Enterprise crew than I did with the DS9 crew, The Xindi didn’t remain this big scary, unseen enemy as long as the Dominion did and  you got to know the Xindi, which made the Xindi conflict a lot more complex, sadly, over less time. In the end, Enterprise wasn’t all that bad. It could have done with less sexy times and a bit more political times and more subtlety to begin with, but I can’t help thinking that, given more time, Star Trek: Enterprise could have been great. 

Since Star Trek wasn’t a show that shied away from politics neither did the celebrity guests and the topic of the upcoming American election floated around the room during several panels. The celebrity guests desperately trying to push Hillary Clinton over that psycho, Donald Trump and who can blame them? A bag of dog poo would be a preferable choice of president than Trump. Though I don’t know much about American politics, or any kind of politics since 1996 for that matter, as it has become too painful a subject, I do know a little bit about where Hillary Clinton stands with regards to the Israel-Palestine situation, her position about Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East and her general fondness of war. My impression is that Clinton is more of a lesser of two evils than an actual decent candidate. Being a strong woman and feminist is not enough, history is full of strong women who weren't good for the world. It is depressing to think that the next president of the United States of American would either be an insane maniac or a “strong woman” with a questionable foreign policies. The situation is not better in UK, in Europe or the rest of the world. The world has turned right and it is full of hate that I cannot grasp. It is a dark and oppressing place to live in, more so than usual. Or maybe it is this kind of doom and gloom that would bring everything to the surface and into the open and somehow it will be a good thing? I don’t know if I can be this optimistic or this naïve anymore. This is particularly jarring at a convention that celebrates a sci fi show that offered a uniquely optimistic, often quite radical, utopic future that encourage science, peace and vegetarianism instead of violence and war. Yes, Star Trek has its own problem and was still very American in ideals and values, but its intentions were better than most.

The innovation, the political and the socially critical nature of the original show, which mostly continued and flourished with its later incarnations, Star Trek The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek Voyager and even, though to a lesser extent and often as mentioned problematic, Star Trek Enterprise, are simply non-existent in the new Kelvin universe films. Star Trek had an incredibly diverse cast for its time. An Asian crew member, who was the navigator and stereotypically portrayed. The first black woman in science fiction who also had a real job. It is common to joke that Uhura was not but a secretary who looks great in her short dress uniform (let’s face it she looked absolutely gorgeous and Nichelle Nichols still does) and answer the galactic phone, but in fact she was an essential member of the crew with quite a bit to do. She could handle the technology, throw a punch if she needed to and sing beautifully. Star Trek was the kind of show that brought a Russian main character whem in the real world of 1960s America the Cold War was in full swing and the US was probably mostly terrified of the USSR. Indeed the Russian character, Chekov, is portrayed by the very American Walter Koenig, putting on an accent, I doubt anyone in Hollywood actually knew any Russian actors at the time. Though I recently discovered that Koenig does have some Soviet Union family relations. Gene Rodenberry not only tried to fictionally portray a better future, he also tried to make it happen. Today this might sound quite silly, but Star Trek was very much ahead of its time in many ways. Whoopi Goldberg tells that when she met with Rodenberry to explain why she wanted to be on Star Trek: The Next Generation, because just as people today do not believe that she was on Star Trek, so did Rodenberry not understand why she wanted to be on Star Trek, she told him that before Star Trek the future always looked very white and she was happy to see that on Star Trek people like her still existed. There were no black people on sci fi before Star Trek, which is why the show became so close to Whoopi’s heart, since she is an avid sci fi fan. Rodenberry thought that Whoopi must be wrong and went home to do a little research. He was surprised to discover that she was not. He casted Nichelle Nichols, as well as George Takei for their talents and not for their race and without necessarily any agenda behind it. Nichelle Nichols herself only realised what a symbol she became after she received a letter from Martin Luther King asking her not to leave the show.

The new Star Trek films completely lack the bravado, imagination and creativity that Rodenberry had and it is, to me, not particularly surprising since JJ Abrams has openly admitted that he never really understood Star Trek and was in fact a fan of Star Wars where violence and war do the talking instead of characters and the human condition. The new films simply duplicated the old characters, which by now, following several additional Star Trek shows that continued to political and social themes, have lost their edge. The gender ratio and human to alien ratio remained the same and the one alien, who in the show was a true outsider and really provided a different point of view, is becoming more and more human with every new film, so much so that I have to wonder for what was the point of making new Spock a Vulcan at all?  In order to ignite some politically correct spark, it has been decided that the new film would bring an LGBT representative on board, something that Gene Rodenberry, according to George Takei who says he had many conversations with him on the subject, simply couldn’t do. Just think of the difference between the first unaired pilot The Cage, where Majel Barrett played a commander, she was captain Pike’s second in command, and was, believe it or not, wearing trousers. She came back as a short dress wearing nurse Chapel in the aired pilot and in the series because the network was not happy with a woman in a position of command and wearing trouser. That awful kiss between Uhura and Kirk, awful because it was a terrible premise and a terrible episode not because of the kiss, cost the series major rating because certain American states would not air it. It was understandable to Takei that the issue of one’s sexuality has remained untouched in the original series American wasn’t ready and even in later reincarnation of Trek the issue is only been very gently hinted, that and the topic of abortions are still very much a no no in American mainstream culture. Takei continued to explain his very public opinion with regards to the decision to make the new Sulu gay. He said that he was happy that the new film wanted to represent the LGBTQ community, but would have preferred it if they have created a new character with his or her own story rather than force the issue on a character that already has a history. Takei didn’t say it, but to me it is rather obvious that Sulu was chosen as the token gay character for the new film because George Takei who happened to be playing the character originally also happens to be gay and not because there is an actual reason or justification for it in the story and character’s development in the films. “Have you seen the new film and have you changed your mind about gay Sulu following it?” someone asked Takei. It was not but a whiff, Takei thought, a blink-and-you-missed-it kind of moment, which is not really worthy of the LGBTQ community or Star Trek. And I had to agree. I understand the wish of the filmmakers to normalise the idea of being gay, but a brief moment that includes introducing new characters, Sulu’s partner and daughter, which kinda comes out of nowhere just doesn’t cut it. When Rodenberry brought in Chekov he and his Russian origin were a major part of his character, in addition to being a crew member and a success with the lady that would almost threaten Kirk’s reputation, his Russian-ness wasn’t a sudden “oh by the way, Chekov is from Russia” it was there all the time right from the start. And so new Sulu, played by John Cho who is rather excellent actually, becomes a box the filmmakers can tick and not a particularly interesting one. This, in my view, is what characterises the new films which become enjoyable yet generic sci fi adventure films instead of food for thought the way the original series and films were.

Captain Pike and his Number 1 Majel Barrett
Star Trek Beyond’s biggest problem, however, is that Idris Elba’s character, who is potentially brilliant, is really weak, which isn’t Idris’ fault, because the little bit he is in the film he is absolutely fantastic. It was more important for the film to focus of Spock’s and Kirk’s personal crises and Spock and McCoy’s friendship (I hate the term Bromance) than the actual story, which could have been amazing. And so Idris Elba’s character become an annoying nuisance instead of a serious rival who can actually pose a real threat to Kirk and the Federation the way Khan or the Klingons were in the original series and the Borg were in The Next Generation. On the plus side I think that Chris Pine was at his best Kirk performance since the new Kelvin universe films started, he finally settled into the role, stopped doing bad Shatner impersonation and made Kirk his own. In fact most, apart from Karl Urban who still feels like a bad parody of DeForest Kelley’s McCoy and is still really annoying, seemed more confident in their roles and even the Spock Uhura romance, which is infuriating and seem to have turned Spock not just into a boring human but also into a woos, was slightly less irksome than before. The Star Trek spirit and the Star Trek potential are definitely more present in this film than in any of the others in the Kelvin universe films and it is a more interesting film, if nothing else but for the fact that they have come up with an original and an independent story that doesn’t rely on the previous series (if there’s anything positive about Leonard Nimoy’s passing is that now they cannot turn to old Spock to solve all their problems every time they get stuck).  

George Takei continued to discuss growing up in a prison for American Japanese. Rohwer and Tule Concentration Camps. Following the Second World War he and his family, as well as many other American Japanese, were given a form from the US government to fill, which was phrased in such a way that any answer would pretty much result in imprisonment. On a more optimistic note, Takei also told the story of meeting his husband Brad and his unique and very funny sounding experience in zero gravity, an experience he is grateful to Star Trek for as he wouldn’t have gotten to do that otherwise.

Many of the discussion panels were highly entertaining and interesting (you might note that I haven’t been to any of the Deep Space Nine panels I was never a great fan. I would have gone, but most of their panels fell on either other panels I was more interested in or some photo opportunities.) Almost always they were mixed with a pinch of woe that added an air of melancholy to a joyous convention. Kate Mulgrew, who by the way is the queen of everything that is good ever, now also famous for playing Red in Orange is the New Black as well as for her brilliant captain Kathryn Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager, was, as I expected her to be, strong, passionate, charismatic and wonderful. She talked of a great tragedy in her life, her baby sister died of pneumonia and Kate Mulgrew was, and often still is after all this time, convinced that she is responsible for her death because she was angry that her mother forced her to take care of the baby while she wanted to go out and play and instead of warm milk she gave the baby cold water. This heart-breaking story was accompanied by a lot of positivity from Mulgrew and a show of a great personality. She said that everything in her life has always been quite extreme and that she found that everything great that had happened to always happened side by side with something terrible and vice versa. This, she claims, has shaped her and made her the person she is today. I don’t know if I see the mystical or balance of life in such things, I generally think life is always a mixture of great and terrible, but I certainly think that this dichotomy marked my feelings about the convention. Mulgrew also talked, quite openly about her views on acting, studying with Stela Adler, she feels being an actor is doing your job and acting, not making demands or asking for more money. Indeed all her fellow actors from Voyager mentioned in their panel just how disciplined and hardworking she was on set, they were all in awe of her ability to never miss a step and remember all her lines despite working ungodly hours, and, might I add, having two children at home. Finally, she talked about how much she enjoyed the process, especially in her writing (she wrote a book and currently working on another one) in which she is as disciplined as she is in her acting. Her attitude and manner were different to anyone else in the convention, very confident, not that anyone else wasn’t confident, but hers was a different kind, very unapologetic and quite refreshing.

There was Star Trek: The Next Generation panel with Levar Burton, Gates McFadden and Brent Spiner who were delightful and funny. McFadden pointed out that while she loves Jonathan Frakes and was very happy to work with him as a director, he was given the opportunity to direct over her who not only expressed her directing desires before him, but actually had more directing experience than him, yet it wasn’t until season seven that she got to direct and only one episode. The real world of Hollywood took a lot longer, and still does, to progress than the world of Star Trek.

It was William Shatner who has left one of the strongest impressions on me, which I wasn’t expecting. Shatner seems to enjoy playing the buffoon. He often comes out with the most stupid and ridiculous things to say and the worst kind of way to say them or better yet sing them. Then, just as you think “he is lucky he is William Shatner cause no one else can get away with this” he suddenly strikes and wows you with intelligence and knowledge that is as baffling and dumbfounding as his singing and general idiocy. This is not the first time that Shatner has shown he can be a fascinating man if he wanted to. The history of Greenpeace and its sister whale saving movement and their inception, were some of the topics that Shatner discussed very knowingly when he was on stage. He made quite profound observations regarding Star Wars and Star Trek: he pointed out that without Star Wars there wouldn’t be any Star Trek films because everybody wanted to make the next Star Wars and that is why Paramount decided to fund a Star Trek film. He also noted that Star Wars is a grand space opera (interestingly, soap/space opera is how George Takei branded the Kelvin universe films) that is rich with special effects and grandiosity, while Star Trek explores human condition (that is why I think, Star Trek has better characters and better stories… but that’s beside the point). When a child asked him if he played Pokemon Go, Shatner replied with a plea to read books and interact with people instead, he then talked about how difficult it is for men his age to make other male friend and that he sometimes felt lonely because of that. Though his bizarre relationship with Misha Collins has to be mentioned here. Shatner formed an interesting and unexpected friendship with the Supernatural cast and especially Misha Collins, very well documented in social media. He is currently helping Collins with his charity treasure hunt which reached the convention as well. All this and more makes me wonder why is he chooses to play such a fool, not in a Shakespearian sort of way and not the kind of fool who asks question, but just plain dumb, when in fact he has some interesting insights and intelligent things to say and I am not sure if people, especially those who are not Trek fans, would ever take him seriously. It also makes the animosity between him and the rest of the remaining Star Trek The Original Series cast, most famously Takei, especially sad and unnecessary. I understand and will not be surprised if he was impossible as a young and cocky actor, but I would have liked to believe that he has become better with age. Publicly at least he definitely has. Takei claims the feud between he and Shatner is not but Shatner’s attempt at publicity, which to me sound somewhat bitter and was not supported by Walter Koenig, who actually said that he regrets that there is so much hostility between Shatner and the rest of the cast. His silliness and often worrying stupidity, makes him funny and even likeable and in a way I have developed a kind of respect for his ridiculousness with which really only he can get away with, but I think it is probably a bit difficult even for Star Trek fans, let alone non Trek people, to take him seriously and that is a real shame because occasionally he might have something interesting or important to say.

The Las Vegas Star Trek convention, celebrating fifty years of Star Trek, was an incredible experience. The cosplayers alone were jaw dropping, from a guy with a shuttle hat to an uncanny old Scotty lookalike, Mudd, several Khans and many more. My top favourites were a woman dressed as the IDIC, the symbol representing Vulcan philosophy meaning Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination, a beautiful concept and wonderful costume. Incidentally, or not, Whoopi Goldberg wore an IDIC necklace on her stand up show and when she was asked about it by a non Star Trek audience member she brought Rod Rodenberry, son of Gene Rodenberry and Majel Barret, onto the stage to explain they symbol. Other favourites were a huge Balok, Captain Picard as dressed in The Inner Light story and General Trelane, retired, “just squire now”, coupled with Yeoman Teresa Ross in her fancy gown. It was truly a beautiful and exciting celebration of something rather magnificent.

Friday, 26 December 2014

A Box of Audio Delights: Christmas Drama on Audio

Written by: Dr Leslie McMurtry
For the past few years, I’ve been trying to assemble a guide to good holiday-themed audio drama (there’s plenty of spooky/Halloween stuff out there already).  Last year I failed to get it out in time, and this year I was determined to have something meaty if not comprehensive after I heard The Plot to Overthrow Christmas in November for the first time.  As suggested, I can’t pretend this is all-inclusive—I’ve only spent a few Christmases in the UK so my knowledge of British seasonal audio drama is limited, and I have been cherry-picking US OTR only for the last four years or so.  However, I can assure you I listened to nearly 100 broadcasts for this and have winnowed the field considerably.  Big thanks go to WA4CZD on who assembled the mother-of-all collections of holiday-themed OTR; anything not otherwise indicated can be found there.

I will proceed more or less chronologically rather than attempting to qualitatively review—everyone’s tastes are so different, I have at least tried to give a smattering of something for everyone.

And let this be an invitation to YOU to comment and link to YOUR favorite seasonal offerings on audio.  As you’ll note, things get a bit thin between the 1960s and 2000s!  I’d also love to hear classics from non-English-speaking audio.
The earliest radio drama, of course, went out into the ether and was never recorded.  I am drawing the line at including items which I have read in script form (for example, Dorothy Sayers’ impressive The Man Who Was Born to Be King (1940) would qualify but I’ve only read the script) or have only heard of (the first French radio drama, for example, Paris-Bethléhem from 1922, or The Truth About Father Christmas from a Newcastle, England station in 1923).  By the mid-1930s we are lucky enough to possess recordings of some radio.  I won’t bore you by giving you a crash course in European/American audio drama origins but will comment as we go along.

Many hold the mid- to late-1930s as the high watermark for radio drama in the US.  While this is debatable, it is true—as Neil Verma[1] pointed out—that competition and anti-monopolization legislation of 1936 created a pressure cooker environment between NBC and CBS that has given us some truly fine work (the old standards are The Fall of the City[2] and War of the Worlds).

  1. The Plot to Overthrow Christmas (CBS, 24 December 1942)
ANNOUNCER:  It happened down there that fiends held a meeting. / The fiends held a meeting for the purpose of defeating-- / Christmas. / With the aid of a fade, / A fade on the radio, / We’ll take you there with a hi and hey-di-ho! / To hear first hand the brewing of a plot /Down in the deepest Stygian grott. 
SOTTO VOCE:  (Confidentially) “Grott” is a poetical term for grotto.
If anyone is a demi-god of US OTR radio drama (Orson Welles doesn’t count), then it’s Norman Corwin, who achieved a rare supremacy as one of the finest and most prolific writers for the medium.  The work speaks louder than the hype, and TPTOC, one of his most famous works, is an inventive and joyful romp (and surprisingly lacking in formal religious preachiness, despite its Christian trappings).  Do you remember the scene in Hell that opens Book 2 of Paradise Lost (of course you do—the coining of the phrase “pandemonium”)?  Corwin has recreated the sniping of a bevy of colorful but disaffected demons and devils, including among them classical tyrants like Caligula and Ivan the Terrible.  Unlike Dante, however, he goes no more contemporary than Lucrezia Borgia[3]--the only female speaking part but, indeed, shown to be the most original thinker of the roll of devilry.  Corwin stops short of presenting Satan, instead giving us a Hell presided over by Mephistopheles (this was a family program).  The original version was broadcast in 1938; in this recording from 1942, I don’t know who wonderfully voiced the demons, Santa, and Sotto Voce (the narrator). What is the plot?  The denizens of Hell decide to assassinate Santa Claus in their attempt to made headway on the souls of Earth. Oh, and they all speak in verse.  It’s delightfully written, very funny, and the music has been beautifully composed to accentuate every scene (including lifting quite appropriately from Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz).  It’s no wonder that this, along with the Lionel Barrymore Christmas Carol, became a network standard on radio.  You can read the script here.

  1.  “Uninhabited” – Lights Out (NBC, 22 December 1937
MELVIN:  Straw . . . from a stable.  And that smell? 
GASCOIGNE:  Gentlemen, I have been in the East.  I know what that smell is.  It is myrrh and frankincense. 
Lights Out, which ran throughout the ‘30s, was well-known for its verisimilitude in the horror genre, which makes the fact that “Uninhabited” is successful all the more impressive. “Uninhabited” takes many of the same storytelling risks as did TPTOC; its year of transmission seems to prove that the stuff coming out of American network radio at the time was unusually complex, nuanced, and ambitious.  The play presents its story in a non-linear, non-chronological way that challenges the listeners, and it’s one of the first to tackle the Christmas story through a Biblical setting without slavishly recreating the Gospel of Luke.  The frame story takes place at a train station in France on December 25th, 1918 where three soldiers (Ballentine from Australia, Gascoigne from France, and Melvin from the US) meet for the first time (so they think).  One of the abiding messages of this piece is about equality and the basic traits of humanity; Melvin is a Black soldier, and seeing him facing discrimination on the platform, Ballentine and Gascoigne welcome him in.  Disappointingly—it’s the year of the Mercury Theater’s all-Black production of Macbeth—but perhaps unsurprisingly, Melvin is played by an actor in aural blackface.  However, the message is deepened in an eerie sequence set in Bethlehem on the original Christmas (though the writer has chosen to pitch his Biblical dialogue with a lot of Shakespearean “verily”s).  That said, there’s something about this play that raises the hairs on the back of my neck.  

  1. “The Stockings Were Hung” – The Shadow (CBS, 24 December 1939)
LAMONT:  After all you said about organized charity?  You give one isolated newsboy five dollars at Christmas? 
MARGO:  Well, Lamont, this is different! 
Like any long-running program, The Shadow can be a bit hit-and-miss.  However, I have a big soft spot for the Shadow as he had a hand or two in Batman’s creation, and I can’t help feeling a bit swoony over Orson Welles’ voice. (Furthermore, The Shadow comics are also really cool, despite being a lot more violent—I guess it just wasn’t enough for the Shadow to be invisible and “cloud men’s minds”—he also needed guns and ammunition).  I absolutely adored this Christmas program from the long-running serial—to me it really captured the true selflessness of the Shadow and proved that to be a hero, he didn’t have to be a violent jerk. The Shadow’s cover is his wealthy playboy personality (sound familiar?), Lamont Cranston, which he plays to wonderful effect here (Welles is on top form as both the sinister Shadow and the voluptuously-voiced Cranston).   It also features Margo Lane (Agnes Moorhead)—the Shadow’s “constant companion,” and the only person to know his secret identity, who in the comics is (naturally enough) his lover.  Words cannot describe how much I love this team.  I realized only later as I continued to listen how unusual it was for the male lead to even have a female sidekick.  Beyond the attraction of the leads, whose wisecracking is pure ‘30s screwball with a glamorous edge, there is a sweet (albeit somewhat lifted from A Christmas Carol) story about crooks cooking the books, motherless children, missing parents, and a hilarious cabbie named Louie who isn’t upset when puppies bite his fingers.  This is also one of the few programs where the incessant organ playing doesn’t bother me.

    1. “Miracle in Manhattan” – The Columbia Workshop (CBS, 21 December 1941)
    ARCHIE:  It starts like all Christmas plays do.  The band plays ‘Silent Night,’ and we’re into it. 
    There must be something about Christmas and cabbies (actually, as you’ll find from this, American OTR radio at Christmastime seems well-served by reporters, cabbies, and service professions who have to work their holidays).  The Columbia Workshop is presented as the pinnacle of OTR radio drama achievement “amid hours of shlock,” to quote Verma again.  There are quite a few really enjoyable touches on this New York City-centric standalone play by Charles Vanden, but the story is actually somewhat basic (and echoed, unsurprisingly, in “A Stable in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania” five years later).  In a world saturated by the heavenly hijinks of Clarence the Angel in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), it may be more difficult for us to appreciate how unusual the divine intervention of the unassuming fare that cabbie Archie picks up actually is.  Archie begins as a cynic who maddeningly can’t get anything on the radio other than “Silent Night” (I love when radio is self-referential).  While miracles happen all around him, the true miracle is his reawakened faith.  Characters in these stories repeatedly stress that they “aren’t religious,” but the values of compassion, charity, and faith reveal them as more susceptible to the Christmas message than they thought.  MiM is particularly noteworthy for its “Silent Night” played on car horns. 

    It must be said that I found the early 1940s BBC broadcasts, including King George VI’s 1940 Christmas message, to be extremely moving and understated.  However, that’s not drama as such, so . . .

    Into the 1940s we go, and America’s radio audience, too, becomes a wartime one.  This is reflected in the Lux Radio Theater[4]’s adaptations of Remember the Night[5] and I’ll Be Seeing You[6] and a surge in religious programming (such as The Light of the World (1940-50) which dramatized the Bible chapter by chapter).
    I have stayed clear, for the most part, of radio drama adaptations from other media simply to prioritize the brilliant written-for-the-ear material that exists (for example, Loretta Young did a nice reading of The Littlest Angel for MBS’ Family Theater[7] and the “Christmas Scenes from the Pickwick Papers” from NBC’s The World’s Greatest Novels[8]  were amusing and enjoyable).

    1. “The Happy Prince” – Lady Esther Presents Orson Welles (CBS, 22 December 1941)
    Christmas is a time for high spirits and warm feelings. . . . The only time of year that for ten cents’ worth of mistletoe, you can kiss anybody you want to.
    Lady Esther Presents Orson Welles was a short-lived Mercury Theater collaboration with, of all things, Lady Esther cosmetics.  But it got the job done; it featured Welles and many of his collaborators such as Joseph Cotton, Agnes Morehead, Rita Hayworth, and John Barrymore.  The program nicely balances the explicitly Christian element (Welles reads from the Gospel of Luke) with something Welles claims was “one of the first things” his mother read to him.  “It’s not new,” he explains; it’s a short story by Oscar Wilde.  Here I break one of my general dictums not to present adapted material, partly because, though I like Wilde’s writing very much, I had never heard this story before.  Welles reads it beautifully, movingly; it’s a sentimental story about the statue of a prince who learns charity and compassion and a sparrow who helps him accomplish good deeds by making the ultimate sacrifice (sadly, it isn’t clear who is playing the Sparrow).  The music, by Bernard Herman, also has an important role in making a seamless production. 


    1. “Valley Forge” – We Came This Way (NBC, 15 December 1944)
    I’m not going to lie.  This made me bawl.  I’ve done quite a bit of research on Valley Forge during the American Continental Army’s stay there the winter of 1777/78, and I was pleased as punch to find this dramatization almost[9] entirely accurate AND that it was so beautifully, understatedly written and moving.  We Came This Way was something of a precursor of one of my favorite radio drama programs of all time, You Are There (CBS 1947-50), but We Came This Way, in its 34 episodes, focused mainly on issues of democracy and freedom (its inaugural story was, appropriately enough, “Magna Carta”).  The story is simple:  through the travails of three ordinary Continental soldiers, we are given a very solid understanding of the impossible positions of everyone in the Continental Army during that bitter stage of the conflict.  Technically, the dramatization only mentions Christmas in passing, but the sentiment in the story—surprisingly for the time it was broadcast, wartime, it’s never preachy—is appropriate to this season.  My only criticism is that Washington is written strangely.  The ideas ring true, but the way they are expressed—griping openly, and especially admitting to anyone his failure during Braddock’s Campaign during the French and Indian War, which he never would have done—feel a bit under-researched.  Nevertheless, this is a highly recommended play.

    1. “A Christmas for Eve” – (SYN, 1948)
    It was always the same for me, every Christmas. 
    This is one of the darkest entries in this list, and I still feel slightly unsettled having heard it—a happy ending it purports to have, but I’m not so sure. It stars Laraine Day as Eve, a woman so mentally scarred she makes the Phantom of the Opera look like a wimp.  As a child, she accidentally set fire to the family Christmas tree, killing her mother, burning the house down, and scarring her face.  Her father blamed her, and she is understandably self-conscious about her appearance.  After her father’s death, she goes to live with her friend Barbara in New York, where she refuses to leave the apartment for fear of rejection.  She takes up correspondence with an immigrant named Paul Passick who understandably falls in love with her personality.  However, when he asks for a photo of her, Eve sends Barbara’s picture, and dire consequences ensue.  A Christmas for Eve strays a bit into melodrama, but it also feels like the kind of story that can best be told on audio. 

    There were some great wartime UK/US radio collaborations, the fallout of which was that American radio journalism (by the likes of Edward R. Murrow) became top-notch.  This carried American radio through the end of the ‘40s, but the general notion is that radio drama became weaker after this point, more formulaic and tired.  I haven’t listened enough myself to say whether this is a fair statement, but I have heard a lot of post-war radio drama which I absolutely love. More saliently, however, the late ‘40s give you quite cynical, sarcastic, hard-bitten lead characters, as you will see in Candy Matson, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” “Five Days Off for Christmas,” and “Rain on New Year’s Eve.” 

    1. “Jack Frost” – Candy Matson (NBC, 10 December 1948)
    CANDY:  You don’t think that Jacky boy here caught the Christmas spirit?  The kind that comes in pints? 
    Candy Matson is one of those programs which gets dismissed with a sentence in radio drama histories, but, based on what I heard in this episode, it deserves a lot more scrutiny.  I totally fell in love with the format and Natalie Masters’ performance as a confident, chic, tough and level-headed private eye based in San Francisco with a vocabulary moulded by Raymond Chandler.  I loved the way she narrated the case with such audaciously hard-boiled circumlocutions as “I was greeted by something very like the phone ringing.  Using my keen instincts I deduced it was the phone.  It was.”  Unfortunately the program was short-lived; it’s a shame, really, considering that so much of the Christmas OTR I listened to for this project featured quite quiescent females, not just on radio but in the Lux adaptations from film, too.  But enough of singing Candy’s praises; what’s the plot in this festive offering?  Candy gets a plea from her friend Myra who works in advertising at a local department store as their Jack Frost (their version of the Christmas Elf, Santa’s helpers) has gone missing.  Candy then gets hired by Myra’s boss to find the missing Jack Frost, even as she convinces her friend, recovering alcoholic (or, as they said in those less politically correct times, “now that he doesn’t have the sherry shivers or the port palsies,”) and photographer, Rembrandt Watson, to fill in as Jack Frost.  (I have a feeling Rembrandt might be in the closet with his good friend Diogenes Murphy.)  Candy is clever, but she’s got a sense of humor and isn’t heartless (when her on-again, off-again squeeze, Detective Ray Mallard, makes her think he’s going to propose and then tricks her, she gets mad and then laughs it off).  That makes the rather chilling conclusion to this story all the more surprising.  Henry Leff was Mallard and Jack Thomas was Rembrandt; it was written and directed by Natalie Masters’ husband, Monte Masters.

    9.      Twas the Night Before Christmas” NBC Radio City Playhouse (NBC, 15 December 1949)

    PERRY BROWN:  Oh, darling, if you play ‘O Holy Night,’ I’ll cry.  Yes, I will.  I get very sentimental about Christmas.  Vogel will cry too, won’t you, Al? 
    AL VOGEL:  Oh yes, I will. 
    If you’re seeking something completely different, you might want to try “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”  NBC Radio City Playhouse was a late 1940s anthology series, using New York-based actors, which made its name with thrillers.  TTNBX, however, is not a thriller, nor is it an adaptation of the Clement Moore poem.  Paul Gallico, veteran short story writer, has penned a madcap, slightly woozy story coming from the desks of the Daily Blade news offices.  Hack writer Perry Brown and his idealistic camera man, Al Vogel, are all set to go to Perry’s girlfriend Rusty’s party on Christmas Eve.  They are then sent, not on assignment, but to collect two goats and a wagon for the newspaper mogul’s wife.  If you think you know how this is going to turn out, I wouldn’t be too sure.  It’s a wonderfully humorous and light-hearted piece that defies expectations at every turn. 
    1. Five Days Off for Christmas” – Nightbeat (NBC, 23 December 1951)
    RANDY:  What’s with this place?  Where is everybody? 
    BOBBY:  Well, haven’t you heard, it’s Christmas! 
    RANDY:  Yeah, I’ve heard . . . 
    Randy Stone in Nightbeat, too, was a reporter, but “Five Days Off for Christmas” is quite a different story, and ties with A Christmas for Eve for sheer darkness amidst the light.  Randy Stone was played by Frank Lovejoy with a voice that is instinctively trustworthy and centripetal.  Here is the natural progression of John Cawelti’s “mystery literature” character (chasing the best news story, Stone is as much as sleuth as a reporter) from the slightly OTT Candy Matson; we haven’t quite gotten to Sgt. Joe Friday and Dragnet (NBC 1949-57) and the cool recitation of facts or Pat Novak for Hire (regional West Coast stations, 1946-7) with its post-war grimness, but there is a real bleakness and burden and cynicism to Stone’s character that sums up the era on radio drama perfectly.  Stone is a loner who has worked every Christmas at the Chicago Star since he can remember; with no family, he finds himself feeling increasingly frustrated and self-pitying on Christmas Eve when he is unexpectedly given 5 days off and no one to spend them with.  “Don’t spend it alone” cautions Bobby the barman; where the episode excels is that Stone is cagey and doesn’t take advice (the barman plot is unresolved even as Bobby tries to help Stone) but he is also doggedly moral.  Stone has a mystery to solve which leads him to a block of tenement flats to tell a mother her son has been killed.  With such a jagged story, I was pretty sure weren’t going to get a happy ending, but there is one, of sorts. 

    By the early 1950s, radio drama was starting to feel the competition with television—at least, in the US.  In Britain, television innovation proceeded a bit more slowly.  This allowed BBC Radio Drama to scoop up coveted awards at the Prix Italia (this is the era of celebrated playwrights Giles Cooper, Samuel Beckett, and Henry Reed, and Under Milk Wood is from 1953).  However, in the post-war years, the BBC had to face up to the fact that the Forces Network’s more humorous and light-hearted tone had really made a dent in the listening habits of its audiences; BBC head William Haley created the cultural pyramid which gave life to three networks where there once was one:  Home Service, the Light Programme, and the Third Programme.  Though Val Gielgud called serial drama in the American style “daily Dope for the lunatic fringe,” serials like Scotland’s The McFlannels (1947-9) had already proven very popular.  Furthermore, the kind of zany aural humor pioneered in It’s That Man Again (1939-49) and Band Waggon (1938-40) soon became further refined with The Goon Show (1951-60) and The Navy Lark (1959-1975).  Life with the Lyons, I think, is a perfect representation of the cross-currents on the BBC of the time.

    1. Christmas Shopping” Life with the Lyons (BBC, 17 December 1953)
    RICHARD:  Jingle bells, jingle bells / Jingle loud and clear / I’m gonna give to my all my friends / What they gave me last year![10]
    I was choked with laughter as I listened to this; I had heard much about this serial but was not prepared to like it this much.  Hilarious as I found “Jack Frost” and “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” “Christmas Shopping” is in its own league.  In common with many European soaps (The Hansen Family springs to mind), Life with the Lyons centers on one family with a few supporting characters (mainly neighbors).  Verisimilitude is striking in this finely rehearsed and refined comedy; the Lyons were an actual American family who lived in Britain, and the honesty of the cultural clashes gives it both warmth and humor.  Ben Lyons and Bebe Daniels elected to stay in the UK after war broke out in 1939, sending for their children Barbara and Richard after the war.  Together, they make up the Lyons family.  The scripts were written by Bob Block, Will Harding, and Bebe Daniels herself.  Mark McKay calls the humor “trite and obvious,” and perhaps it was—nevertheless, the characters/actors never seemed to be afraid to make fun of themselves.  The main incidents in this episode involved the Lyons wrapping presents, Ben sparring with neighbor Florrie Wainwright (Doris Rogers), fights with bizarre shop floor attendants (a precursor to Are You Being Served?) and the mystery of an abandoned baby.  Mr Wimple (Horace Percival) steals the show as the father of 13-odd children.  However, there isn’t a plot speak of, it’s just an excuse to hang the jokes on!

    1. Arctic Rescue” – Suspense (CBS, 31 January 1956)
    STEWART:  Picture this if you can:  Christmas night, miles of empty, open, unbroken white ice.  An ice floe drifting somewhere in the vicinity of the 77th parallel, north of the Arctic Circle.  Nothing but ice. 
    From the late 1950s and into the 1960s, a few stalwart American radio drama programs remained, among them Suspense, by then showrun by Antony Ellis (beloved by me as the man behind Frontier Gentleman (1958)).  “Arctic Rescue” features an outstanding performance from John Stevenson who really goes for it at the microphone.  He plays Stewart, the first mate of a ship sent off by Lady Franklin in 1852 from New York to seek out the Erebus and the Terror, her husband’s ships which sought out the northwest passage and disappeared into the Arctic.  It’s interesting how radio drama often intersects; I listened to a wonderful BBC play called Erebus by Jo Shapcott in January 2012 which charted, in a slightly more poetic fashion than “Arctic Rescue,” what happened to the doomed ship.  That said, “Arctic Rescue” is a thriller supposed to put you in SUSPENSE which it does.  The play is bleakly atmospheric; there’s something about creepy nautical voyages that work extremely well on radio (The Captain of the Pole Star by Conan Doyle adapted by the BBC in 2010, for example, or The Voyage of the Demeter, another BBC play, this time from 2008). The crux of the story sees Stewart and his captain stranded during an ice floe on Christmas Day 1853.  Despair is upon them, but so is a Christmas miracle . . .  

    1. Crisp and Even Brightly (BBC Radio 4, 1987)
    Then the King called down for young Mark.  That’s his page.
    Mark the page? Nasty habit.
    Thank you, Crone.
    A Sony Award-winning comedy (and playwright Alick Rowe’s most famous radio play) starring Timothy West as “Well-Intentioned” King Wenceslas which I first heard on Radio4extra in 2011 as directed by Sean McLaughlan.  I would never have been able to tell you that the play was more than 10 years old when I heard it; it seemed fresh and, if you’ll forgive me, crisp, and side-splittingly funny.  It tells the “true” story of King Wenceslas.  It isn’t true in the historical sense (Wenceslas was a Duke and a martyr and the story was winningly falsified by J.M. Neale in his mid-Victorian carol), but in the “here’s how it really was” sense.  This means that the King is a spoiled brat, the poor Pageboy Mark keeps getting beat up (“nobody likes a smart-arse”), and the beggar is actually a spy in disguise, who falls in love with the king’s spy.  It’s a very imaginative fake politically correct satire.  You can read part of the script here.  

    1. The Chimes of Midnight – Doctor Who (Big Finish, 2002)
    THE DOCTOR:  The sixth chime:  time is marching on.  You can’t hold it back forever, what are you going to do?
    I can’t praise this story highly enough; it is one of my favorite audio dramas of all time.  Written by veteran Doctor Who writer Rob Shearman, I believe it is a story that transcends its genre so that you don’t have to be a Doctor Who fan to appreciate it.  You don’t need to necessarily know all the backstory of the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann), although you do gain a rich additional aural palate if you do.  Big Finish, of course, have been producing Doctor Who fan audios since 1999, though before that their members have been dabbling in Doctor Who audio drama since the mid-1980s.  They, therefore, have a lot of experience, and since it is their business, they have had to walk the fine line between experimental drama and crowd-pleasers.  I would like to think Chimes is both.  I could give you all the elements that make it such a wonderful play, but I don’t know that I would be any closer to uncovering its appeal.  It’s extremely well-written, beautifully acted, and it makes you care about the Doctor and his companion, Charley Pollard (India Fisher).  You see, Charley is from the early 1930s but was taken out of time, and there are consequences to that sort of thing . . . The other characters are servants in a batty, rather sinister old house nestled somewhere in an Edwardian imagination. One of the central characters is a scullerymaid who is cast as the scapegoat, whose secret connection to Charley’s childhood is masterfully revealed.  (Whether he realized it or not, Shearman was alluding to the often awkward fashion in which Victorian and Edwardian servants celebrated Christmas.)  A grotesque and amusing element of is the centrality of the plum pudding (characters die by being choked on by plum pudding). There are some very funny lines, as well, and it perfectly captures the Dickensian chill of a Christmas story in front of a roaring fire.

    1. Christmas Eve at the Mermaid (KUNM, 26 December 2010)
    BURBAGE:  Good mistress of the Mermaid, we drink to thee and to thy tavern . . . Cradle of sorry scribblers whose only wealth is their talent . . . [the fire has] warmed our shivering bones, and given us light so that we may see to scribble, and the ale whose glow has done for the inner man what the fire has done for the outer.
    New Mexico-based writers David Dodge and Loyall McLaren wrote this script in 1930, but director Linda López-McAlister and her team turned it into a radio drama starring public radio acting stalwarts Busterlee Monarcho, Brianna Stallings, Craig Myers, Scott Sharot, and Neil Faulconbridge for Albuquerque’s NPR-affiliate, KUNM.   The alehouse suggests one of Pete Brown’s cardinal definitions of the collective appeal of the pub, which is “comfortable, like home, and gives you a sense of security.”  This is nowhere more apparent than in Christmas Eve at the Mermaid, in which the Mermaid Tavern serves as a convivial haunt for struggling scribblers William Shakespeare, Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher, Ben Jonson, and actor Richard Burbage (leading man for Shakespeare and, after 1598, Jonson).  The year is 1597, and the running joke of the play is that Shakespeare keeps getting interrupted as he tries to write Hamlet.  Song is important in this writers’ tale, linking Christmas festivities, an image of London and specifically Shakespeare in a convivial tavern, with centuries’ and continents’ distance.  The opening music, “Kemps Jig” by the Broadside Band (from Songs and Dances from Shakespeare) establishes atmosphere both obviously Elizabethan and seasonal.[11]  Fletcher and Beaumont, after arriving to the strains of “Deck the Halls,”[12] sing a song in praise of ale.  The datedness of the dialogue can sometimes be a bit much (à la “Uninhabited), but overall this play is full of festive fun.

    And a handful of New Year’s Eve-themed programs: 

    New Year’s Eve 
    There was a real rash of great, spooky New Year’s-themed episodes of US OTR programs during the late 1940s; Neil Verma suggests that US radio drama of the 1950s featured as its theme “the running out of time.”  Whatever the reason for the thematic link, the stories I’ve picked run the gamut of the sensational to the unsettling to the thrilling.

    1. “Angel of Death” - Suspense (CBS, 3 January 1946)
    This has the distinction of being the second episode of Suspense I ever listened to (the first was at the very beginning of the run and was a marked disappointment).  “Angel of Death” is an unashamed thriller, nothing more or less; however, I found myself utterly hooked while listening to it, having a “driveway moment” (or, in this case, a rock-up-to-work-with-your-headphones-still-on moment).  It concerns a mysterious European prodigy who thinks he has engineered the perfect crime.  He does, in a sense, “get away with it,” but his stint in a British[13]prison comes back to haunt him, quite literally, on New Year’s Eve. 

    1.  “The New Year’s Nightmare” - The Mysterious Traveler (MBS, 5 January 1947)
    The Mysterious Traveler is one of those anthology shows that sprang up in the wake of Lights Out, The Whistler (1942-48), and other assorted thrillers.  The episode’s insistence on inappropriately bombastic organ-playing has doomed it to melodrama, but I still found it very gripping while listening to it.  In fact, it really bucked the trend as I thought it was going to have a happy ending—in fact, it presented cold-blooded murder.  It concerns Chris Andrews, an amnesiac who gains back the knowledge of the man he was on New Year’s Eve, setting into motion horrendous and disastrous events.  This story is notable for using a non-chronological time travel presentation that seems to anticipate Groundhog Day.  

    1.  “New Year’s Eve Off the Scilly Isles” – The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (MBS, 28 December 1947)
    What a trip!  This rendition upon the familiar theme of Sherlock Holmes’ unofficial cases (ie, not canonically Conan Doyle) was utterly mental, throwaway fun.  And I say that as a person who isn’t really into Sherlock Holmes.  That probably made me appreciate it even more, as a true Holmes buff might have been a bit miffed at the utter madcap plot.  It begins with Watson—somehow still sprightly in 1947—recalling an event during 1912 which saw his and Holmes’ quiet cottage New Year’s interrupted by an assignment to save the British Empire from entire economic collapse!!  Holmes and Watson dash off to save the Gigantic from being sabotaged by infamous arsonist Smokey Joe, who utters the immortal words as he gets away, “Happy New Year—IN HELL!!”  It’s an exciting chase with a twist I didn’t see coming.  Masterful a storyteller as Conan Doyle was, I haven’t found his work particularly funny, while Watson and Holmes here come up with torrents of delightful one-liners like you wouldn’t believe (all said straight-faced, of course).  I was very surprised that I enjoyed this quite so much.

    4.      Rain on New Year’s Eve” – Quiet, Please (MBS, 29 December 1947)

    Of all the OTR I listened to for this project, “Rain on New Year’s Eve” has perhaps made the biggest impression.  Since listening to it, I have discovered that Quiet, Please has the reputation of one of the most innovative and well-told programs in OTR history.  Conceived by Wyllis Cooper (who originated Lights Out before Arch Oboler took over) and usually headlined by Ernest Chappell, the program has a reputation for cerebral and stunning aural tour-de-forces, and if RONYE is any indication, they definitely belong to the gallery of stars that late 1940s OTR produced. (I thought the dark theme tune sounded familiar:  it’s Franck’s Symphony in D Minor.) Chappell indeed takes on the part of Ramsay here and tells it with a soulfulness and honesty that not only sells the whole story, but made me think of Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard.  Like Gillis, Ramsay is a Hollywood hack.  In a narrator slowly, artfully teased out, Ramsay describes his torturous position of being go-to writer for Doty, an unbearable bully and talentless, pretentious director.  I found myself utterly wrapped up in the story to the point that I didn’t realize until my second listen that there are only three speaking parts, Ramsay, Doty, and Ramsay’s resigned secretary, Mary Lou (who for some reason I pictured as Bill Murray’s long-suffering PA, played by Alfre Woodard, in Scrooged).  Nevertheless, the character’s voice (both literally and figuratively) is so outstanding and poetic, you never feel the confines of this tightly-wound world.  Ramsay, you see, has written a picture that has to be finished by New Year’s Eve, about a monster who only gains his powers for a few hours on New Year’s Eve . . . (There must be something about rain, too, as one of the best audio thrillers I’ve ever heard, and my first introduction to one of Britain’s greatest radio writers, Nick Warburton, was through his Afternoon Play Fridays When It Rains in 2008.)  

    1.  The Chimes (BBC Radio 4, 2009)
    Charles Dickens’ five other Christmas books are not nearly as well known, which is mostly because they are amusing but faint echoes of the true brilliance of A Christmas Carol.  That said, I admire some of them and none more so than The Chimes, which is a distinctly New Year’s-themed tale.  The fact that I read it in the first place is down to the professionalism of this production, which I heard in 2010.  Adapted by John Clifford, it really succeeds on the performance of Ron Cook as poor but honest Trotty Veck.  Trotty is a hard-working but ageing runner who does errands for townspeople and looks for work by standing under the church porch.  He is visited by the spirit of the bells, and justice is served.  The Chimes critiques the unfeeling middle- and upper-classes, perhaps even more so than ACC, who are ridiculed and made objects of disgust.  Perhaps it is that bleakness which has made it less popular than ACC.  PS:  It will be replayed on Radio 4xtra on New Year’s Day 2015! 

    And a few runners up if you’re desperate for more!!!

    1. “A Stable in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania” - Vicks Matinee Theater (NBC, 24 December 1944)
    If you like “modern” adaptations of the Nativity, I recommend this one.  It has an unusual framing story of two old codgers who seem like they’ve stepped out of a Rhys Adrian play—they are criticizing the commercialism and hypocrisy of modern Christmas (Raymond Williams’ escalator in The Country and the City, anyone?).  A mysterious waiter tells them the story of a long distance trucker who has to help new mother Mary and her GI husband Joe in a snowstorm.  It’s a little bit too sentimental and formulaic for me to include on the main list, but it warms the cockles.

    1. “The Santa Claus of Bums’ Boulevard” - Casey, Crime Photographer (CBS, 25 December 1947)
    This was a strange play; Casey (Staats Cotsworth) belongs with Perry Brown, Randy Stone, Joe Friday, and the rest of the hard-boiled policemen/journalists, though unusually his journalist-partner is a woman, another on-again, off-again dame named Anne (Lesley Woods).  The two of them are stuck in the Blue Note lounge on Christmas Day as they’re off to cover a story of a man who gives away dollar bills on “Bums’ Boulevard.”  Politically correct, this story is not.  It can’t seem to decide whether it condones the actions of the philanthropist (who, as in “A Stable in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania,” is hinted to be divine) who gives money to those who will just buy booze with it.  Nevertheless, its unusual qualities made it hard to forget.

    1. “And Her Name Was Mary” / “And There Was No Room at the Inn” - The Greatest Story Ever Told (American Forces Network, last 5 weeks of 1947)
    Another in the series like The Light of the World, The Greatest Story Ever Told is a series breathing dramatic life into Biblical stories.  TGSET goes into remarkable depth, however, with this 5-part story, taken from the Gospel of Luke, broadcast on the Forces Network in late 1947.  “And Her Name Was Mary” is notable for not even having Mary speak!  The first half, instead, focuses on Joseph and his incendiary friend Samuel, who recounts a story his spies have heard about Herod the King.  I loved the way Dorothy Sayers approached Herod in her The Man Born to Be King series, and this takes a slightly different tack, emphasizing Herod’s ambition to the point where he orders the execution of his son for having sympathies with the Jewish rebels. Samuel is chomping at the bit to topple such a monster, but Joseph is characterized as a peace-loving man who is consumed by faith in the prophecies of Isaiah.  Joseph announces he is in love with a woman he has never even spoken to; Samuel, observing her, too, notices her preternatural grace.  I’m not so keen on this characterization of Mary simply as a divine vessel of God, by function rather than personality, but it’s one that carries through the fourth play, “And There Was No Room at the Inn.”  Joseph and Mary befriend a companionless man on the road to Bethlehem who in turn helps a widowed woman.  The inn keeper is quite a modern figure, begging his wife to close the door so that no one else on the road will see them and try to get a room.  The wife, divinely inspired, is guided by the light of the Star to help Mary; this is in marked contrast to the inn keeper in “Uninhabited” who helps because he, too, is touched.  GSET is written by a far more skilful writer who is willing to take storytelling risks than the much more pedestrian “The Nativity,” broadcast in 1952 on the overtly Christian MBS Family Theater.  

    1. The Snowman” – The Halls of Ivy (NBC, 21 December 1951)
    This proceeded at a very sedate pace and is properly a winter story, not a Christmas story.  Nevertheless, I did find it quite funny and rather charming. Halls of Ivy was a comedy presented by Mr and Mrs Ronald Colman which told the story of fictional small eastern Ivy College.  Though the storytelling is much more prosaic than in Hawthorne, the university town in Against the Storm (1939-42), there is something comforting about a serial about the lives of academics (not doubt because I’m a product of academia!).  It’s a harmless story about the Dean of the University feeling he may have fulfilled the college in a managerial function but has not done the students justice.  That his wife is a charming actress plucked from a London stage contributes to the gentle humor.  Dunning calls it “a warm, literate comedy” and it was originated by Don Quinn of Fibber McGee and Molly fame.  

    1. The Big Little Jesus” – Dragnet (NBC, 21 December 1954)
    Jack Webb knew what he was doing when he created Dragnet. It was one of a handful of properties that achieved equal success on radio and TV.  I’ve never gotten into it myself (in either medium), but there was something quite arresting about this simple drama set on Christmas Eve in Los Angeles.  Los Angeles’ oldest church, a Catholic mission from 1721, has lost the figurine of Baby Jesus from its Nativity scene.  The padre, Father Rojas, is especially concerned because “We have children in the parish, they’ve grown up and married.  It’s the only Jesus they know.  And we’ve had children who died.  It’s the only Jesus they knew.”  The rest is pure police procedural, but the ending comes out of left field (perhaps too far out of left field).  Still, it was interesting for featuring Spanish-language radio drama (indeed, Webb strove tirelessly for authenticity). 

    1. All Is Bright” – CBS Radio Workshop (CBS, 23 December 1956)
    In contrast to commercials for cigarettes, cosmetics, soup, California wine (“R-O-M-A, that’s Roma wines”), Schlitz beer, and other assorted flimflam, the CBS Radio Workshop throughout its run was a sustaining program, and that makes all the difference here, with an episode that needs musical continuity.  The frame story takes place aboard the Queen Mary, but it’s an excuse for an elderly Austrian to tell the story of Josef Mohr and Franz Gruber’s “Silent Night,” from its humble beginnings in 1818 in Tyrol to its catching the ear of the Prussian Emperor, whose musical adviser erroneously attributed it to Michael Haydn. 
    And finally, a word on A Christmas Carol.
    You may be wondering why there isn’t a single adaptation of ACC here.  Don’t I like it?  Of course I do, but that’s part of the problem:  ACC’s ubiquity in visual media means that, to me, I’d have to find an audio version that really innovated in the medium in order to recommend it.  I’ve heard some quite good ones, all with their quirks.  I don’t know if Neil Brand’s musical 2014 adaptation from BBC Radio 4 will stand the test of time, but I found it quite enjoyable.  Any of the Welles/Barrymore collaborations from the 1940s are also recommended.  If you enjoy subverting the formula, you could do worse than Stan Freberg’s musical satire on modern commercialist greed, his 1958 Green Christmas (this links up nicely with Tom Lehrer’s 1951 “A Christmas Carol” and, of course, the Bill Murray film Scrooged).
    If you’ve ever wondered what happened to Scrooge after ACC, then I have the play for you, although be warned that it is bleak, and while Dickens would have understood where Ted Gerard, the writer, was coming from, I doubt he would have approved.  It’s The Last of Scrooge from The MBS Radio Theater, 1980.  Although one would hope that Scrooge might have acted shrewdly in turning over a new leaf and apportioning out his wealth, this story posits that he decided to give everything away immediately, creating jealousy and hatred between the Cratchits and Scrooge’s nephew Fred’s family.  This story truly reveals the ugly side of Mankind and suggests that perhaps Scrooge never saw any spirits but was certifiably insane after a lifetime of being unloved (in a tradition that the 1984 George C. Scott ACC would take up, Scrooge’s misanthropy is blamed on his father’s irrational hatred and neglect of him as a child).  It is brilliantly narrated by Vincent Price; Hans Conreid stars as Scrooge, though not Scrooge as we know him (a decade before Michael Caine, he gives us a Cockney Scrooge—and of course, Caine didn’t play Scrooge with a Cockney accent).  MBS Radio Theater was produced by Elliot Lewis. 

    I enjoyed listening to these audio dramas for the purpose of making this list far more than I could ever express.  I have grown to love the audio medium so much in the past seven years, and I deeply and sincerely love sharing it with others.  I also love the Christmas season, so it was wonderfully fulfilling to hear the many variations on a seasonal theme (and the gold far outweighed the dross).  Thank YOU for reading this; it has meant a lot to me to be able to share it with you.  And thank you, Aya, for letting me guest on your blog! 

    Happy holidays to you!

    [2] Archibald MacLeish’s 1937 verse-play presented on The Columbia Workshop.
    [3] From what I’ve read she was hardly the evil woman of historical supposition, just caught up in her ambitious and bloodthirsty family.
    [4] NBC/CBS 1934-1955.
    [5] 1940
    [6] 1944
    [7] 1947-56
    [8] 1944-1948
    [9]  The men keep talking about being in tents when one of the main activities of this winter was to build huts—in fact, most of the men had huts by early January 1778. 
    [10] Richard was built up as a Jack Benny-like skinflint. 
    [11] “Kemp’s Jig” may be related to “Tempus adest floridum,” the medieval tune used as the basis for “Good King Wenceslas.” 
    [12] Originally from the Welsh New Year’s Eve song of the 18th century, “Nos Galan,” it is a fairly blatant anachronism. 
    [13] I found myself very amused by the Cockney accent of the cell mate; in general, American OTR Cockney accents sound more Australian to me.  But one must admire the ambition and scope of this story, which is set mainly in London and Paris.