On This Day in 1930: Old Sleuth Re-emerges in New Medium

Well, before taking a moment to give my page a bit of a makeover and getting all gimmicky by setting up a poll to encourage reader participation (despite my own difficulties with such surveys), I tuned in again to BBC 4 last night and watched another fine British thriller: Edward Dmytryk’s Obsession (1949). Sufficiently motivated by the experience, I promptly cast my vote at IMDb, which is something I am just getting into the habit of doing.

Obsession is told mainly from the perspective of the criminal, a jealous husband determined to do away with his wife’s lover; eventually, Scotland Yard is on his case, and the storytelling loses some of its focus as the inspector keeps calling and occasionally takes the camera along with him. Still, with its emphasis on the execution and prevention rather than the detection of a crime, Obsession is a psychological thriller as opposed to a whodunit, the genre revolutionized in the 1880s by Conan Doyle and his famed Sherlock Holmes stories.

I have always enjoyed a solid whodunit, even though I prefer them in print instead of visualized on the screen or dramatized for radio, as I explained previously. I nonetheless put aside my copy of Agatha Christie’s Poirot puzzler The Clocks to commemorate a milestone in radio mystery drama. It was on this day, 20 October, in 1930, that master detective Holmes and his sidekick-chronicler, the logic-deficient Dr. Watson solved their first mystery on the air.

The mystery, “The Speckled Band,” was a familiar one, to be sure, as was the actor who assumed the role of the brilliant if conceited armchair detective. The performer before the microphone that night was none other than William Gillette, who had not only played Holmes more than a thousand times before but had rewritten some of his adventures to create a stage melodrama that was to serve as his star vehicle for over three decades.

As a Theatre Magazine critic pointed out, Gillette “himself cut the radio score, arranged by Edith Meiser [. . .], directed his cast, and spoke into the microphone from the special glass-curtained stage of the National Broadcasting Company’s Times Square studio” atop the theater that had been “the scene of Gillette’s farewell return to the footlights” earlier that year.

Gillette was already in his late 70s and did not return to the microphone for subsequent episodes; but, being described by a New York Times reviewer as standing “erect and unbending” and as having a “clear, precise, vibrant” voice, the aged thespian was lured out of retirement now and again to play the part for several years longer, returning to the airwaves once more for the 18 November 1935 Lux Radio Theatre production of his stage success.

Holmes survived Gillette’s death in 1937 and continued for another decade to solve mysteries on US radio, even though he had to face plenty of competition on the blood-speckled bandwidths. Like the motion picture series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, the Holmes adventures on the air also played an important role in home front motivation, endearing Americans to their at times veddy peculiar and snobby sounding allies in Britain. After the war, the British reclaimed Holmes and continued to dramatize his adventures on BBC radio.

Although I was not immediately taken by such pastiche, the American dramatizations eventually won me over with their charm. Retaining Watson as the narrator added much to the cozy atmosphere of these miniature mysteries; the banter between Holmes and his friend supplied the wit; and the thrills were not wanting either, as aforementioned writer-adaptor Meiser managed to keep the guessing game going despite the challenge of making the short plays intelligible by reducing the number of suspects and dropping fairly conspicuous hints.

So, as the sun is setting earlier or refuses to appear altogether on these gray autumn days, I will sit back more often to join Dr. Watson at his fireside, listening attentively to his tales of intrigue and murder. Just don’t call it an obsession . . .

On This Day in 1948: Boris Karloff Gets Himself In and Out of a “Beastly Silly Wheeze of a hole!”

“Hole!” said Mr. Polly, and then for a change, and with greatly increased emphasis: “‘Ole!” He paused, and then broke out with one of his private and peculiar idioms: “Oh! Beastly Silly Wheeze of a hole!” —H. G. Wells, The History of Mr. Polly (1909)

Well, we’ve all been there, I guess; call it a rut, a depression, or down in the dumps. A hole by any other name is just as deep. To look on while someone you love is stuck in one can make you as miserable as dwelling there yourself; it seems difficult to find a way out either way. One could throw a book, I suppose, in lieu of a rope. Light enough to be hit by without sustaining injury, but profound enough to make what you might call an impact, The History of Mr. Polly is just the right volume to toss. While not exactly a guide to better living without chemistry, it sure is comforting—a friendly reminder to anyone who is deeply dissatisfied with the “hole” of life that it is possible to get out or on with it somehow.

In Mr. Polly’s case, getting out involves a botched suicide attempt, arson and insurance fraud, an unreliable pistol, a pair of stolen trousers, and the fortuitous departure of an abject scoundrel. I didn’t suggest there’s an easy way out, and neither does the author, H. G. Wells.

Middle-aged, mismatched, and miserable, Mr. Polly has very nearly gone crackers; but he learns, at last, that a change of luck or pace is not beyond his own powers. On this day, 17 October, in 1948, Boris Karloff assumed the role of the man in the proverbial ditch, seizing the rare opportunity to step onto the stage for a noteworthy stab at reinvention.

Karloff could probably identify with Wells’s antihero, considering that the actor had been in the beastly hole of typecasting for far too long and was, after a string of horror movies, in danger of becoming a mere caricature. The Grinch of box office calculations had absconded with his thespian options.

The NBC University Theater, a radio program that featured adaptations of literary works of fiction and provided brief lectures between the acts, gave the soft-spoken Londoner an opportunity to take off the Halloween costume he’d been dealt by Hollywood’s costume department and put on the mask of comedy instead.

Some three years later, when Anthony Pelissier’s motion picture adaptation of the novel opened in New York City, the audience was faced with a Mr. Polly who had the features and figure of John Mills; but on radio, it was Karloff who inhabited the role in a moving study of malady conquered and hope restored.

Let’s assume life is a broadcast studio. Consider the possibilities. Grab that microphone, my friend. I’ll be listening.

Avian Flu Threats and “The Birds” on the Wireless

“What’s on the wireless?” he said.
“About the birds,” she said. “It’s not only here, it’s everywhere. In London, all over the country. Something has happened to the birds.”—Daphne du Maurier, “The Birds” (1952).

Lately I have been eyeing our bird feeder with considerable apprehension. Not because I am anticipating some sort of Tippi Hedren incident while taking care of my feathered charge, but because of the recent news about the deadly avian flu that has been spreading in the east. Some time ago, a UN health official warned that a pandemic “could happen at any time” and might “kill between 5 and 150 million people”. Today, the EU decided to “ban all Turkish live bird and feather imports,” after as many as sixty people had succumbed to the disease in Turkey and Romania. Should I banish the feeder from its prominent spot to some remote corner of the garden? Should I stop treating the local tits and finches to their daily allowance of choice peanuts? Back when Daphne du Maurier conjured up ornithological horrors with her short story “The Birds,” at least, the threat was posed by bills and beaks instead of bacteria.

Long before Alfred Hitchcock trained them for his big-screen spectacular, “The Birds” came to US radio in two noteworthy productions by the Lux Radio Theatre (20 July 1953) and Escape (10 July 1954). Unlike Hitchcock’s thriller, both radio versions were remarkably faithful to du Maurier’s simple tale of (wo)man versus nature. The 1953 production, starring Herbert Marshall, was probably one of the most imaginatively soundstaged melodramas ever to be presented on the Lux program. The terror generated by an imaginary army of shrieking birds was a veritable tour de fowl in sound effects engineering. Even Marshall had to admit that he was “scarcely the star of the piece when you consider the gulls and the gannets. Villains that they were, they ran the whole show.”

The story of a family under attack in an avian air raid on a remote farmhouse was rendered more intense by the fact that the terrorized characters, like the listener at home, had only the radio to keep them updated to the minute about the world around them. In du Maurier’s “Birds,” tuning in became disquieting, the wireless a source of anxiety to a public dependent on and attuned to the comforting predictability of the precisely timed broadcast schedule:

. . . they’d been giving directions on the wireless. People would be told what to do. And now, in the midst of many problems, he realized that it was dance music only coming over the air. Not Children’s Hour, as it should have been. He glanced at the dial. Yes, they were on the Home Service all right. Dance records. He switched to the Light programme. He knew the reason. The usual programmes had been abandoned. This only happened at exceptional times. Elections, and such. . . .

At six o’clock the records ceased. The time signal was given. . . . Then the announcer spoke. His voice was solemn, grave. . . .

“This is London,” he said, “A national Emergency was proclaimed at four o’clock this afternoon. Measures are being taken to safeguard the lives and property of the population, but it must be understood that these are not easy to effect immediately, owing to the unforeseen and unparalleled nature of the present crisis. . . . The population is asked to remain calm, and not to panic. Owing to the exceptional nature of the emergency, there will be no further transmission from any broadcasting station until seven a.m. tomorrow.” 

They played the National Anthem. Nothing more happened. . . .

Here, as in “The War of the Worlds” (the fictional acount of a war won by airborne bacteria, no less), the silencing of the relied-upon media is even more alarming than the tumult and the shouting it carries into our homes. . . .

Agatha Christie and Mutual: The Case of the Airlifted Detective

Well, my gray cells had little to do with it, mes amis. Once again, coming up with the facts merely required some amateur sleuthing inside the ever-widening web. Both Agatha Christie (the Dame who gave birth to Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple) and the Mutual Broadcasting System (the network that delivered The Lone Ranger and The Shadow) came into being on 15 September, albeit decades apart. It was in the stars that the two would team up some day, but the meeting itself proved a not altogether fortuitous one.

Christie, whose Mousetrap opened in 1952 and just won’t shut, is still the most widely known exponent of the British whodunit. Her novels, particularly those involving her two most celebrated detectives—Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot—are frequently adapted for television. Such page-to-screen transfers rarely turn out to my satisfaction. A cleverly convoluted whodunit is best enjoyed at one’s own leisure, allowing ample time for the careful consideration of clues and an occasional consultation of one’s own roster of likely suspects.

Dramatizations dictate the duration of this experience, turning the reader-detective into a mere observer of the fictional one at work. Sure, there are pause and rewind buttons to be touched if one is not pressed for time or pressured by fellow viewers; but technological gadgetry gets in the way of the pleasures derived from being absorbed in the chase for the culprit. This was hardly the only problem mystery lovers faced when Hercule Poirot was airlifted to America back in 1945.

Listeners tuning in to the premier broadcast (22 February 1945) were greeted with the following promise:

From the thrill-packed pages of Agatha Christie’s unforgettable stories of corpses, clues and crime, Mutual now brings you, complete with bowler hat and brave mustache, your favorite detective, Hercule Poirot, starring Harold Huber, in “The Case of the Careless Victim.”

The Poirot impersonated by Huber, a character actor who had screen-tested his affected French accent in Charlie Chan in Monte Carlo, was far removed from the “unforgettable”—and very British—stories conceived by Christie. Indeed, this Poirot, sent overseas for a series of “American adventures,” was nothing but an impostor. And the very authority who was called upon to offer her endorsement, the famed authoress herself, acknowledged as much in her peculiar shortwaved message from London:

I feel that this is an occasion that would have appealed to Hercule Poirot. He would have done justice to the inauguration of this radio program, and he might even have made it seem something of an international event. However, as he’s heavily engaged on an investigation, about which you will hear in due course, I must, as one of his oldest friends, deputize for him. The great man has his little foibles, but really, I have the greatest affection for him. And it is a source of continuing satisfaction to me that there has been such a generous response to his appearance on my books, and I hope that his new career on the radio will make many new friends for him among a wider public.

So, who then was being washed onto America’s shores if the great detective was engaged elsewhere? As I put it in Etherized Victorians, Christie’s preface attempted at once to sanction the broadcast fraud and to distinguish such ersatz from the authentic portrait only the artist friend of the “great man” himself could render. It was a case of careless writing—but listeners to the spurious, anonymously penned misadventures that followed refused to be victimised.

Suffice it to say that the series died quickly, quietly, and largely unlamented, whereas the happily separated partners in crime—Mutual and Christie—continued their respective careers for decades to come.

“Reviewing the Situation”: Catching Up with Fagin in the Way West End

Moving from Manhattan to Mid-Wales was bound to lower my chances of taking in some live theater now and then (not that Broadway ticket prices had allowed me to keep the intervals between “now” and “then” quite as short as I’d like them to be). I expected there’d be the odd staging of Hamlet with an all-chicken cast or a revival of “Hey, That’s My Tractor” (to borrow some St. Olaf stories from The Golden Girls). Luckily, I’m not one to embrace the newfangled and my tastes in theatrical entertainments are, well, conservative. I say luckily because even if you’’re living west of England rather than the West End of its capital, chances are that there’s a touring company coming your way, eventually.

What came my way last night was a well-oiled production of Oliver!, with Peter Karrie in the role of Fagin. It was my second reunion with Oliver Twist this year, having watched playwright/composer Neil Brand at work on a new score for the 1922 silent screen version in his London studio last June. Apparently, the age of political correctness has not yet torn down or effaced all the melodramatic caricatures in the western portrait gallery of villains and scoundrels.

Never mind the play’s eponymous tyke, who wriggled through the miseries of his youth predictably well, in keeping with the plans laid out for him by “Mr. Popular Sentiment” (as Dickens was mockingly called by fellow novelist Anthony Trollope). Aside from Lionel Bart’s eminently hummable tunes, it was Karrie’s con brio portrayal of Fagin that kept this superannuated warhorse of a melodrama from coming across as lame and lumbering.

While often considered sure-fire, revivals are not quite so easy to pull off; too often they are self-conscious about the dateness of the material. Apart from the half-heartedness of uneasy reverence (as achieved by the Old Vic production of The Philadelphia Story I saw earlier this summer), there’s nothing worse than camp, the postmodernist disease of arrogant, willful misreading and flaunted emotional impoverishment. Oliver! was refreshingly, that is unabashedly, old-fashioned, brought to life by force of Karrie’s sense of bathos, at full throttle in the musical number “Reviewing the Situation.”

Well, it was not difficult for me to identify with the situation under review, that is, with Fagin’s assessment of his outsider status and his pondering of the pressure to adjust: “I’m finding it hard to be really as black as they paint,” he sighs, addressing the audience. Twice authored—by the creators of the play and the society they depict—Fagin conforms both to melodramatic conventions and societal expectations (he’s a “bad ‘un” who cannot change) while all along defying such standards (aware of his “situation,” he grapples with it and implicates the class system that stamped him an outcast):

Left without anyone in the world,
And I’m starting from now,
So how to win friends and to influence people?
So how?
I’m reviewing the situation:
I must quickly look up ev’ryone I know [. . .].

So where shall I go—somebody?
Who do I know? Nobody!
All my dearest companions
Have always been villains and thieves.
So at my time of life I should start
Turning over new leaves?

There simply aren’t enough leaves in the book for old Fagin. So, having reviewed the situation, he is very nearly resigned to a condition that a less reflective person would call fated:

I’m a bad ‘un and a bad ‘un I shall stay!
You’ll be seeing no transformation,
But it’s wrong to be a rogue in ev’ry way. 

I don’t want nobody hurt for me,
Or made to do the dirt for me.
This rotten life is not for me.
It’s getting far too hot for me.
Don’t want no one to rob for me.
But who will find a job for me?
There is no in between for me,
But who will change the scene for me?
I think I’d better think it out again!

Between a rock and a hard place, between Scylla and Charybdis, Fagin is forever reviewing a situation he is at a loss to improve; for him, there’s no silver lining (like the one above, which I spotted in the sky this morning). Taking advantage of the anonymity and visibility technology can offer the latter-day rogue with a touch of Hamlet and Werther, he would probably be blogging about it today.

The (T)error of Their Ways: Conrad, Hitchcock, and the Aftermath of the London Bombings

He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the image of ruin and destruction. He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable—and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men.

Thus ends Joseph Conrad’s long-in-the-works novel The Secret Agent. First published in 1920, the story had been conceived decades earlier, inspired by the terrorist bombings that took place in London during the 1880s and 1890s. In particular, it was the infamous 1894 attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory that served as a plot for Conrad’s narrative.

While based on events that occurred well over a century ago, the above passage could describe any suicide bomber today. Of this—Conrad’s The Secret Agent and its obvious connections to the recent acts of terror in London—I was forcefully reminded when I screened Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 thriller Sabotage last night. I had not seen this film in years and, being unprepared, was startled by its up-to-dateness.

Even though Hitchcock was not particularly pleased with it, Sabotage is one of his most mature earlier thrillers. It has none of the adventure or intrigue of his better known pre-Hollywood films, such as the seminal but perhaps overrated caper The Thirty-Nine Steps; nor does it have the romance and humor of his lesser efforts, such as Rich and Strange or Young and Innocent. Instead, it offers a portrait of a terrorist so stark, so dark, so nearly naturalistic that it remains startling today.

Hitchcock claims to have regretted the scene in which the innocent young boy, Stevie, the brother of the terrorist’s young wife, is blown up while unknowingly delivering a bomb as instructed by his stepfather. Compared to the inane Hollywood endings we are still expected to endure—such as the infuriatingly contrived reunion of Tom Cruise’s character with his teenage son in The War of the Worlds—Hitchcock’s Sabotage comes across as relentlessly true-to-life. According to the conventions of Hollywood storytelling, characters with whom we identify are not generally blown to bits—especially not children.

The reality of our everyday, however, does not heed such conventions. The innocent are victimized without remorse, either by indiscriminate terrorists or their persecutors, as the story of Jean Charles de Menezes, wrongfully shot as a terrorist suspect, forcefully drove home in recent weeks; his story continues to unfold as the probing into his death lays bare some of the criminal errors of anti-terrorist actions.

Hitchcock always enjoyed telling the story of The Wrong Man—innocent people unjustly pursued by the authorities the director had dreaded since childhood. During the chase that is essentially the Hitchcock experience, our sympathies are more often directed toward the hunted than the hunter, encouraging us to reexamine established roles of criminal and persecutor, to question our definition of justice.

Sabotage tells the story of flawed and guilty people—the saboteur, who risks a boy’s life to carry out his mission of destruction, and his young wife, sister of the victim, who ends up stabbing her husband in revenge, despair, or sheer confusion (this is being left ambiguous). Even the boy—whom we catch early breaking a plate and filching a bit of food—is not altogether innocent; his tardiness and negligence contribute to his death.

Killer, victims, and hapless messenger alike are sentenced to death brought on by ruthlessness and ignorance. Only a combination of knowledge and ethics, of smarts and decency, can save those caught in the web of terror that is our everyday.

Valentine Vox Pop; or, Revisiting the Un-Classics

It has come to my ears, from the lips of someone whose words matter much to me, that my recent journal entries were rather too disdainful of British culture, too shrill in my complaints about the poverty of television programming enjoyable to me or the media’s lack of regard for the old movies I cherish. Having studied British literature and culture of the 19th century, I have been dwelling here in spirit long before migrating; and whenever I travel in Britain, which I do quite frequently now, I find reminders of novels I read, films I have seen, and pieces of history I have studied and half forgotten. It might be, however, that by not engaging enough with 20th or 21st-century British culture as it surrounds me, I am having rather too much of a hankering after things made in or originating from the US. Am I being nostalgic after all?

Nostalgia. There are few words in the dictionary that offend me more. To be pining for the unattainable and imaginary seems to me such a waste of time. I’d much rather go after what is and make it my own, no matter how remote in time or culture it might be. So, I am forever in search of the old to be made present by wondering and writing about it.

The other night I recorded a British adaptation of Dickens’s Pickwick Papers after happening upon Bad Movies, a spot close on the dial and in spirit to the Horror Channel. When I discovered this satellite outpost not mapped by the Radio Times, I was treated to George Coulouris slumming it in a British cheapy titled Woman Eater (1959). A far cry from his days with Welles’s Mercury Players, to be sure; yet what a treasury of cultural trash.

So, a revision of my attitude toward the supposedly barren box is in order. It is a mistake to assume that “old” is a synonym for “classic.” A classic is merely something that happens to have survived or is revived in a later period. This is not simply a matter of quality, but depends on our ability and willingness to keep a certain work of art alive.

There are a great many agendas underlying such promotions. My only agenda is to give an old work some time to speak to me—and then to talk back. I am not particularly interested in arguing that a certain book or film or radio play ought to be considered a classic, even though this would greatly enhance its chances of becoming more readily available and appreciated by my contemporaries. To resist the label “classic” means to challenge the canon, to insist on giving neglected works another chance to work on and for us, of allowing them to tell us something about culture, about lives present and past, and about ourselves.

A fine example of a cultural product that is Victorian without being classic is the once hugely popular novel The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox, the Ventriloquist by Henry Cockton. It came to my attention during my doctoral studies, since it deals with the phenomenon of ventriloquism, a kind of pre-microphonic broadcasting in the flesh . . . and out of it.

Throwing a voice, disembodying, and finally re-embodying it, is ancient-time radio drama, and Cockton’s eponymous hero is an expert at amusing himself casting his voice broadly and confounding his listeners. He is both Edgar Bergen and Lamont Cranston—irreverent, mischievous, and eager to expose the follies and evils of the world he inhabits. Here, in a typical scene of Valentine’s exploits, Cockton comments on the wonders of sound effects, on the thrills exploited by later radio terrorists like the men and women behind Lights Out! and Inner Sanctum Mysteries:

“Ha! ha! ha!” cried Valentine [. . . ,] at melodramatic intervals throwing his voice [. . . ].  There is nothing in nature which startles men more than a noise for which they cannot account. However strongly strung may be their nerves: however slight may be the sound which they hear, if they cannot account for that sound, it at once chills their blood, and in spite of them, sets their imagination on the rack.

Cockton, too, is a ventriloquist. He uses Valentine to voice his own concerns about the legal system in Britain, a system that made it quite easy to do away with certain individuals by locking them up in lunatic asylums, a fate that befalls one of Valentine’s friends. “During the progress of this work,” Cockton claims in his Postscript, that a number of “influential journalists” objected to the “essentially humorous” treatment of the subject.  However, the author, thought otherwise, arguing

that to embellish fact with fiction would be to render truth more attractive; that, by surrounding those revolting scenes with scenes of harmless playfulness and gaiety, the contrast would be more striking, would take deeper root, and yield more extensive sympathy; that where dozens only would know of the existence of the evil if treated in a less popular style, thousands would become cognizant of it, and would exclaim, with feelings of horror, “Can such things be!”—that those thousands would ascertain if such a system were in existence, and, having satisfied themselves on this point, they would denounce it from one end of the kingdom to the other; the effect of which would be all-powerful, seeing that, in its sublime love of Justice and of Truth, the Voice of the People is indeed the Voice of God.

This might well have been a justification for a work of fiction at time frivolous and, on the whole, thoroughly commercial; yet Cockton’s bathetic piece of marketable propaganda is nonetheless worth revisiting. Aside from the to me intriguing connections to broadcasting, Valentine Vox reverberates strongly today as it deals with the endangerment of privacy, liberty, and identity as we sense it at the present time. There are many rewards in digging up something decidedly un-Classic.