“. . . leaking out of Neverland”: Peter Pan in Scarlet

Well, I was all set to go on about Les Miserables. No, not the musical record-trampler recently certified as the longest-milked cash cow in the history of West End and Broadway. Nor the original yet-another-page turner, either. I wanted to commemorate the anniversary of a 1942 radio sketch spoofing Hugo’s epic . . . until I realized that I had already done just that last October. So, before I end up resorting to bottled thought, I’d better lower myself anew into the tortuous sewers of popular culture. What I came up with, this time, is the idea for a new column.

Noticing that a recording of Fred Allen’s Les Mischief is being presented tonight by the WRVO Playhouse, it occurred to me that, rather than relying on my own library of plays, it might be refreshing to find out what is “Now on the Air,” to highlight programs currently online, broadcasts or podcasts that caught my ear and might be worth your time.

One such discovery is “Peter Pan in Scarlet,” an adaptation of the recently published sequel to the famous play and novel by J. M. Barrie. True, I’d prefer being treated to another helping of Barrie’s comedy As Every Woman Knows, a superb production of which I caught in Manchester, England, a few months ago. I am generally so little inclined to romanticize the alleged wonders of childhood that I was tickled to find “No Room for Peter Pan,” an odd radio play about growing up starring the most famous Every Woman of them all—Miss Helen Hayes.

Not that I’ve been trying to dodge those Peter Panhandlers altogether. Most recently I took in Paramount’s delightful 1924 version featuring the aforementioned Anna May Wong as Tiger Lily; but, having once suffered through Spielberg’s dismal 1991 update showcasing the belatedly juvenile antics of Man of the Year wannabe Robin Williams, I still approach subsequences like Peter Pan in Scarlet with some misgivings.

Mind you, this is an “official” sequel. In 2005, author Geraldine McCaughrean was commissioned to continue the adventures of Peter and Wendy as sanctioned by the trust to whom Barrie granted the rights to his story. On 14 October 2006, shortly after the publication of the legitimized follow-up, BBC Radio 4 presented its authorized dramatization of McCaughrean’s novel, adapted for the sound-only medium by Nick Warburton. Before being issued as an audio book, a recording of the broadcast has been made available in the BBC’s online archive.

The production is a throwback to old-fashioned radio dramatics, replete with a guiding, at times interacting, narrator and a for British radio unusual attention to sound effects. At ninety minutes, however, it might get on your nerves before it can plays itself out in your mind. As much of American radio drama of the so-called golden age, it tries to cram an entire novel through the comparatively narrow slot of a single broadcast; but unlike the former, this production seems to insist on telescoping it all in a nearly seamless Pan-orama rather than editing and segmenting through slow fades, pauses, and musical bridges, without which much gets lost in breathless confusion, a hyperactive storytelling as unruly as Peter himself.

In a nod to that beloved late-20th century fairytale A Nightmare on Elm Street, “Peter Pan in Scarlet” opens with John Darling shuddering to frightful visions of steel-clawed Captain Hook; and, the horrors being communicable, he is not the only one dreading sleep. “I imagine dreams are leaking out of Neverland. So we must find out why,” Wendy determines in her instant diagnosis of John’s case. The cure she prescribes is to “call the old boys together again” and, overcoming the considerable obstacle that is adulthood, to revisit their apparently endangered pal.

In order to take flight, the grown-ups have to become children again, a feat achieved by shrinking into the clothes of their offspring. This provides an occasion for cross-dressing and gender-bending in an update divested of the original’s androgyny and adolescent yearnings. The jolly downsizing is nicely realized by the uncredited sound-effects artists. From then on, bright ideas and dark twists chase one another in what amounts to a frantic and noisy quest for a good night’s rest.

Prominent in the cast is Shakespearean actor Roger Allam, who might have faired better than Fred Allen opposite the megalomaniacal Orson Welles in the radio sketch I had on my mind today. After all, Allam played Inspector Javert in the original West End production of Les Miserables and, not averse to hamming it up (as it struck me when I saw him in early 2005 in a crude pantomime at London’s Old Vic), would have refused to be drowned in the sewers without uttering as much as a line of dialogue. As Pan’s nemesis, he never stays down for long, a sequel-symptomatic resilience bespeaking a writer’s determination to keep a newly invigorated franchise afloat.

Spike Jones: The Man Who Found His Hit in Hitler

Well, this is a tough time for heroes. There might still be a need for them, but we stop short of worship. The nominal badge of honor has been applied too freely and deviously to inspire awe, let alone lasting respect. Even Superman is not looking quite so super these days, his box-office appeal being middling at best. And as much as I loathe the cheap brand of sarcasm that passes for wit these days, I am among those who are more likely to raise an eyebrow than an arm in salute.

Compared to the hero, the villain has proven a more durable figure. After all, it takes considerably more effort to forgive than to forget. Besides, we appreciate the convenience of a scapegoat, of a stand-in for our collective guilt; one hideous visage to represent what we dare not find within ourselves.

In government propaganda, the villain serves to remind us against (and, by indirection, for) what we are supposed to fight—a single face to signal what we must face lest we are prepared to face doomsday.

So, who is the next big thing in villainy—fading pop icons excluded? Is there any such person alive today who is as reviled or dreaded as the man who paved the career of one of the most successful US musicians of the 1940s? Adolf Hitler, I mean. That’s the villain. The musician, of course, was bandleader Spike Jones.

A California native born in 1911, Jones had his breakout hit in the early 1940s with the song “The Führer’s Face,” a merry war mobilizer of a tune that went something like this:

When Der Führer says, “We ist der master race”
We Heil! Heil! Right in Der Führer’s face,
Not to love Der Führer is a great disgrace,
So we Heil! Heil! Right in Der Führer’s face. 

When Herr Goebbels says, “We own der world und space.”
We Heil! Heil! Right in Herr Göring’s face.
When Herr Göring says they’ll never bomb this place,
We Heil! Heil! Right in Herr Göring’s face. 

Are we not the supermen?
Aryan pure supermen?
Ja we ist der supermen,
Super-duper supermen. 

Ist this Nutzi land not good?
Would you leave it if you could?
Ja this Nutzi land is good!
Vee would leave it if we could. 

We bring the world to order.
Heil Hitler’s world New Order.
Everyone of foreign race will love Der Führer’s face
When we bring to der world disorder. 

When Der Führer says, “We ist der master race”
We Heil! Heil! Right in Der Führer’s face,
When Der Führer says, “We ist der master race”
We Heil! Heil! Right in Der Führer’s face.

Are we still singing chart-topping songs like this about any one of our present-day (mis)leader? Should we? Is to laugh at them enough? Might the laughter perhaps be cheap and the joke on us? I don’t presume to have any answers. Listen to Spike Jones and his famous song on BBC Radio 4 this week, a song initially banned by the BBC. Don’t starting hitting your grandma with a shovel, even if yours, as mine, was working for one of Germany’s biggest names in fascism.

Eyrebrushing: The BBC’s Dull New Copy of Charlotte Brontë’s Bold Portrait

Well, I could blame it on the medication. Or it might be this holiday souvenir of a cold that is dulling my senses. I sure haven’t been able to savor my meals lately. So why should I thrill to yet another warmed over helping of Jane Eyre, a story I have read, written about, and taught, that I have heard and seen more often than any other work of English fiction? Why should anyone get excited about such a much chewed on and oft-reconstituted chestnut? Save college students, perhaps, who may take the BBC’s new television production as an occasion to keep their assigned editions unopened and to watch the plot unravel in four readily digested hour-long installments. If I sound cantankerous, it is neither bronchitis nor Ms. Brontë, I assure you: it is Sandy Welch’s bland rehash of one of the most daring and delicious growing-up stories ever concocted.

So, what’s wrong with this version, apart from production values and camera work reminiscent of 1970s television, apart from plain Jane’s sculptured eyebrows (brought to the job by Rossetti-lipped Ruth Wilson) and swarthy Rochester’s Darcyish looks (courtesy of Toby Stephens), apart from its skimming of some ten chapters (or eight years) and the half-hearted rendering of the novel’s relished if easily overcooked gothic mystery? Perhaps I had expected something rather more dynamic and radical after last year’s sensational adaptation of Bleak House. Jane Eyre, to be sure, is not a Dickensian novel. It does not depend on bathos and caricature to elicit our responses; it relies instead—and succeeds in relying—on the intimacy of its portrait, the self-portrait of an inexperienced, self-conscious young woman who is given a voice to tell her tale.
That was radical in 1847—and it is still remarkable today, despite millions of blogs reveling in or bogged down by the mundane. Indeed, readers of Brontë’s pseudonymously published tale wondered whether this was fiction at all, or whether it was, perhaps, a thinly veiled if highly romanticized version of a real governess (in the employ of Mr. Thackeray, perhaps?). They wondered, too, whether this story was penned by a woman, considering its frank account of a socially unequal and as such questionable relationship.
Adaptations of Jane Eyre—any reworking worth our while—should make an effort to recreate this sense of realism, which is not found in the novel’s gothic situations, in the screaming but otherwise voiceless character of the presumably mad, Sargasso Sea-swept Bertha, in the fire that consumes Thornfield Hall and temporarily blinds its owner, or in the telepathic connection that reunites a mature Jane with her now helpless and emasculated master. The realism lies in the first-person narration, in the observations of a woman who has the nerve to tell her story, a story of teenage angst filled with humiliation, unease, and doubt. In short, a real story.
Voice-over narration, so closely associated with film noir, assists viewers to reach where the novel invites us to go: under the surface of conventions, beyond appearances, and as straight as Victorians could possibly permit themselves to pry into the heart and mind of a woman whose story is taken from her once she is not permitted to tell it herself.
Even radio, the medium best suited for the exploration of Jane’s mind, often resorted to an omniscient narrator such as this one by Walter Hackett, as performed in the US by the Yankee Players and broadcast in the early 1950s over the Yankee-Mutual Network:
The courtyard of the King George at Millcote is deserted with but the exception of the young girl standing at the entrance. She shivers as the rawness of the late November afternoon strikes through her thin cloak. Suddenly the door of the inn opens and a large-boned, powerfully-built, sullen-featured woman walks across the cobblestones toward the young girl.
It is time to return the story to that “young girl”—or leave it with Charlotte Brontë, who tells it so well. So, would-be dramatists of radio, film and television, take heed: let Jane Eyre speak up, or shut up!

Dark of Day: "Danger" and the Drama Invisible

Well, it was a scorcher of a day—the first I experienced here in temperate Wales. The unexpected heat brings back memories of my many summers in New York City and will prepare me for my return to the asphalt jungle this August. Moving to rural Wales from that bustling metropolis took more of an adjustment than adding a few layers of clothing; but anyone ready to weave life according to E. M. Forster’s motto “Only connect,” which is not a bad motto to live by, there is the comfort of that web of relations that, however remote or isolated you might believe yourself to be, will place you smack in the middle of the world, like a spider resting in the assurance that flies are bound to drop in, by and by.

Here is one such moment in the web in which I find myself. You might have to stretch your antennae a bit to get caught up in it.

Picture this: New York City, on this day, 18 July, in 1936. It’s the premiere of The Columbia Workshop, the most experimental and innovative of all the radio dramatic series produced during the so-called “golden age” of old-time radio. For that first broadcast, the Workshop revived what is generally considered to be the first original play for radio: “The Comedy of Danger,” by British playwright-novelist Richard Hughes, better known for A High Wind in Jamaica (1929), an adventure story that has been ranked among the hundred best novels of the twentieth century.

“Danger” is a sort of Poseidon Adventure staged in utter darkness; a spectacular melodrama of disaster involving three people about to drown in a collapsed coal mine. It is a scenario mined for the theater of the mind, evoked by sounds and silence alone. “Danger” was first produced by the BBC on 15 January 1924, but was still a novelty act when the Workshop chose it for its inaugural broadcast more than twelve years later. Back in 1924, US radio had no use for such theatricals, Hughes remarked in an article about “The Birth of Radio Drama”:

A few months [after the BBC production], finding myself in New York, I tried to interest American radio authorities in the newborn child.  Their response is curious when you consider how very popular radio plays were later to become in the States.  They stood me good luncheons; they listened politely; but then they rejected the whole idea.  That sort of thing might be possible in England, they explained, where broadcasting was a monopoly and a few crackpot highbrows in the racket could impose what they liked on a suffering public.  But the American setup was different: it was competitive, so it had to be popular, and it stood to reason that plays you couldn’t see could never be popular.  Yet it was not very long before these specially written “blind” plays (my own “Comedy of Danger” among them) began to be heard in America, and on the European continent as well.

Other than creating a situation in which the characters are as much bereft of sight as the audience, “Danger” has no artistic merit. It purports to be philosophical about death; but the fifteen minutes allotted for this piece of melodramatic hokum are hardly time enough to probe deeply, and much of the dialogue is ho-hum or altogether laughable. What makes this seemingly generic if radiogenic play more personally meaningful to me is that it was written by a Brit of Welsh parentage, by a man who chose to live in a Welsh castle, and who chose, for this, his first dramatic piece for radio, a story set not far from the very hills where I found myself after these long years of writing in New York City about American radio drama. Is it a coincidence that I came home to the birthplace of radio drama?

“Goodness knows!” exclaims one of the trapped visitors,

I’d expect anything of a country likes Wales! They’ve got a climate like the flood and a language like the Tower of Babel, and then they go and lure us into the bowels of the earth and turn the lights off! Wretched, incompetent—their houses are full of cockroaches—Ugh!

In the background, Welsh miners face their fears by singing “Aberystwyth”—the name of the town near which I now reside. The Welsh, of course, are known for their oral tradition, for their singing and poetry recitals; their most famous poet is Dylan Thomas, author of the best know of all radio plays, “Under Milkwood.” It is here that American radio drama is still being thought of and written about: Rundfunk und Hörspiel in den USA 1930-1950 (1992), for instance, by fellow German Eckhard Breitinger, was written here, as was Terror on the Air, by Richard J. Hand, published in 2006. It is here, in Wales, that I started communicating with radio dramatist Norman Corwin; and it is here that, after a short break from my journal, I will continue my visits to the theater of the mind.

Yes, it is a web all right, even though I am not sure whether it was woven by or for me. I am merely discovering connections that, upon reflection, are plain to see and comforting to behold.

The Immaculate Misconception of George W. Bush, Ex-President

Well, this is a day to remember the fallen. Perhaps that includes those fallen from grace; and according to M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart, the fallen one to be recalled this Memorial Day is none other than George W. Bush, Ex-President. I am referring to Gelbart’s radio play Abrogate, which aired on BBC Radio 4 on Friday, 26 May. Memorial Day roughly coincides with Ascension, which the British insist on celebrating as “Spring Bank Holiday.” I rather resent this government-imposed erasure of traditions, as if the “holi” of this “holiday” were the culture of saving and spending, and the miracle to behold and recall were the power of Mammon. The holiday-by-any-other-name broadcast of Gelbart’s play is well-timed, considering that the futuristic satire Abrogate not only serves as a memorial to the Bush and Cheney years—which it imagines to have given way to a Hillary Clinton administration—but also serves up a miracle, revealing, in an act of levi(tationali)ty, that Baby W. was the product of Barbara Bush’s immaculate conception, his rise to office being decreed from above. Ascension meets condescension in what is itself a high-spirited, irreverent, but less than immaculate confection.

Abrogate is conceived as a broadcast by the fictional AGN (the All Gates Network), “devoted to the endless scandals and excesses which White House after White House also seem so endlessly devoted to.” Carrying on the tradition of truth-finding lowered to the level of scandalmongering, AGN presents

highlights of the recent hearings held by the Special Senate Committee that was charged by the present administration with the investigation of the extent to which the former administration was engaged in a campaign of secrecy and deception, as well as a thorough disdain for the law, the result of which was tantamount to a virtual second American Revolution that threatened to undo the first, a nullification no less of over two hundred years of this nation’s civil and social progress, as well as the alarming arbitrary banishment of recognizable order or, as it has come to be known throughout and within the media, Abrogate.

Or, as the Committee Chair puts it “at the onslaught” of the hearing, to answer the “sixty- four trillion dollar question”: “Did the powers that then were, the previous Bush administration, pursue with both malice and perhaps some aforethought certain actions which served to violate the letters and spirit of the laws of this land in a way never here before thought possible? And do the sum of these reactionary actions equal a total that smacks of a conspiracy [. . .]?” In other words, “What did the President know, aside from what the Vice President told him he already did?”

From Senator Fulsome (played by Vincent Spano), for instance, you will learn about the Secretive Service, the Center for Shame and Public Apology, and Bush’s POOP (Photo-op Operations Program). “[I]t has become more and less common knowledge that anyone who was everyone was a spy in those days,” Fulsome declares, excusing the administration’s errors in judgment by arguing that “Terrible times create terrible thinking.” Among those called to the microphone during the hearing are Condoleezza Rice (played by Theresa Randle), Lynn Cheney (Joanne Baron), and Barbara Bush (Pat Carroll), whose motherly defense of her heavenly-fathered child provides the outrageous climax of Abrogate.

It all may have sounded rather more radiogenic as it turned out: a series of voices denouncing and defending the present-turned-former president and his actions, criminal or otherwise. As a radio production, Abrogate does not quite come off, however. It is too verbose, for one, squandering many of its inspired oneliners (while drowning out some less than subtle puns). My prose, for instance, barely suited to a blog, would have no chance on the air. On the air, lines need to be snappy, delivered slowly and forcefully enough in well-timed intervals to be absorbed in a single sitting.

Nor does Abrogate succeed in sounding verisimilitudinous, in coming across like a real newscast, an actual Senate committee hearing, which is the setting of this satire. What exactly is being sent up here, other than the heavens-bound Ms. Bush? Is Abrogate deriding the former President, his family and staff; the subsequent (and presumably Democrat White House) that indulges in this fault-finding mission; or the media, for leaping at every opportunity to undermine the authority of a much-maligned administration? And while it is true that the speakers implicated themselves in their ineptitude, the dizzy spin of Gelbart’s fictive broadcast seems to be taking too many turns, ridiculing the medium of which it avails itself and thereby negating the valid (op)positions to which it gives voice.

Such shortcomings notwithstanding, Abrogate is worth a listen, especially since attempts at contemporary radio drama, let alone timely politically relevant plays, are so rare these days. For inconsequential folly, you can always tune in to my podcast, a new feature of broadcastellan about which I will have more to say in the near future.

On This Day in 1949: My Favorite Husband Comments on “individual liberties”; and Present-Day Politics

Government radio is a cross between a museum and a religious school, dispensing classics and credo, but not especially concerned with new works. Commercial radio is a department store, carrying in stock a few luxury items, a lot of supposedly essential commodities and perhaps too many cheap brands of goods. The radio [as imagined and desired by some who write for the medium] is an artist’s studio, dedicated to creation alone. As such, it is not yet able to stand on its own, and its product must be exhibited in the museum or the gallery of the department store.

This is how America’s foremost radio playwright, Norman Corwin, summed up the problems of writing for the theatre of the mind. While its sets are being created collaboratively by writers, actors, directors, sound effects artists, musicians, and audiences, radio plays must nonetheless be staged to be realized—and 1940s network radio was hardly a public access forum. 

After World War II, even Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish found it impossible to gain access to the broadcasting boards under the department store conditions of commercial US radio. He had to take his play “The Trojan Horse” to the “museum” of the BBC’s Broadcasting House (pictured above) to give it an airing. A hollow victory indeed.

Well, today I’ve been both to the museum and the department store, each time for some decidedly conventional fare. I gave Mike Walker’s 20-part adaptation of David Copperfield another try, after recording installments six to nine (the tenth having had its premiere this evening). I think that, as much as I like the quiet dignity of a museum, I’ve still got a department store ear.

Unlike Dickens, Walker does not seem to have a mind for either a dramatic or a proscenium arch. How anyone can manage to follow this adaptation while tuning in on a day-to-day basis is beyond me. It is all very pleasant, mind you, but I cannot quite piece it together, especially since Walker’s narrator makes little effort to help us make sense of it all. Instead, he suffers—and I along with him—from an identity crisis, now being an omniscient nobody, now a self-conscious author.

So, I took refuge again in the department store and listened to a Christmas-themed episode of My Favorite Husband, starring Lucille Ball. As much as I like Ms. Ball, this is only the second or third sample I took of this I Love Lucy precursor. The premise, as stated in the introduction of each episode, holds little promise. Where is the drama if a couple like Liz and George Cooper “live together and like it”? As is often the case in the realm of situation comedies, a stereotypical mother-in-law can be counted on to create the requisite domestic friction. And George’s busybody of a mother is downright Dickensian in her prissy hypocrisy—a match, to be sure, for Clara Copperfield’s sister-in-law, Jane Murdstone.

Making another visit on this day, 16 December, in 1949, Liz’s mother-in-law is at her belittling and bickering best, complaining about the lack of cleanliness in her son’s home and mocking Liz’s efforts to knit a sweater for George (“why are you holding that dirty old dust rag?”). After getting Liz all frazzled, she finally takes off, but not before unravelling her daughter-in-law’s handiwork. The last word on meddling, however, comes from the program’s announcer:

Ladies and gentlemen, the Christmas and New Year holiday season is a period of neighborly getting-together and renewing community ties. It’s a time when every American should be even more aware of the individual liberties he enjoys in the United States. And this freedom demands that each of us fulfils our duties as a citizen: to vote, to serve on juries, and to participate in community, state and national affairs. By making our form of government work better here, we strengthen democracy everywhere. We provide an example of a free government, which preserves the rights and the dignity of the individual. So, remember: freedom is everybody’s job.

Not quite the announcement you’d expect to emanate from a department store loudspeaker, is it?

Hope on the Bottom Shelf; or, What to Do When the Cable Box Seems Barren

Moving to the UK from the movie junkie heaven that is New York City meant having to find new ways of getting my cinematic fix. Gone are the nights of pre-code delights at the Film Forum; no more silent film matinees at the MoMA (which is just concluding a Gregory La Cava retrospective); and no more browsing at J&R Music World—and all just a cab ride away. And yet, judging by who is posting reviews at IMDb, it becomes obvious that cineastes are not exclusively city dwellers (a review of the rarely screened talkie The Hole in the Wall may serve as a case in point). Just don’t count on UK television.

The commercial-free BBC 2 has proven the most reliable source of classic Hollywood fare, even though the screenings of old movies are generally relegated to the after-hours or late-morning time slots. There have been a number of pleasant surprises, such as a Val Lewton series (including the literate horror of The Dead Ship), the film adaptation of the Suspense radio drama “To Find Help” (reworked, not altogether successfully, as Beware, My Lovely) and several Claudette Colbert films (including Texas Lady, which I had never seen in the US).

Silent movies are unheard of, however; nor do pre-1940s films get much airtime (the team efforts of Astaire/Rogers and Laurel/Hardy being a notable exception). Still, this beats the advertisement-riddled offerings at TCM Britain, whose one-shelf library even infrequent viewers are likely to exhaust within a few months.

Since I am not an online shopper and still enjoy hunting trips per pedes, I have been checking out the DVD sections of the major music/video retailers here in the UK. Virgin is least attractive, stocking mainly recent titles at largely unacceptable prices. It is little more than a snazzy second-run theater where all the so-called blockbusters are dumped and repackaged as soon as they are pulled from the movie houses. Rather better are HMV and MVC. With some luck, DVDs of classics like All About Eve, Sunset Blvd., or The Third Man can be had for under £10, while lesser-known titles may be spotted (and left behind) sporting higher price tags bespeaking their exclusivity. At HMV, for instance, Tod Browning’s Freaks bears the label “An HMV Exclusive.”

And then there is FOPP. A smarter store with a larger number of classic or literary films, it boasts £5 and £7 DVD shelves. It’s a good place to set out from for anyone interested in setting up a library of essential Hollywood films. Many Hitchcock features can be had here for £5, and most DVDs are authorized studio releases, rather than the cheap transfers that end up in supermarket bargain bins. These copies are so washed out that it often difficult to distinguish the features of the players; even the rugged male leads seem to be getting the Doris Day treatment, as if shot through layers of gauze. The problem is exacerbated if the DVD image is projected onto a screen, as I am wont to enjoy my movies whenever possible.

Well, to FOPP I went last weekend; and, once again, hope lay on the bottom shelf: a copy of G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box. So, tonight is going to be spent looking at Lulu, our decidedly other Miss Brooks.