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.


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