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.

On This Day in 1939: The Folks at 79 Wistful Vista Channel Wimpole Street

Heavenly days! Thanks to modern-day technology (and, I suppose, a surplus of leisure) I have unearthed a spiritual bond that, thus far, has escaped literary scholars and old-time radio enthusiasts alike. Now it can be told: on this day, 12 September, the broadcast antics of Fibber McGee and Molly strangely intersect with the romance of Victorian poets Robert Browning and Elisabeth Barrett. Yes, on this day, both couples eloped—the Wimpole Street escapees in 1846 and the whimsical everybodies from Wistful Vista in 1924.

The latter celebrated their lucky breakout on their 15th wedding anniversary by attempting to restage the happy event—an elopement without the fuss of being detected and chased by opposing elders. Yet despite the blessings of their high-toned neighbor, society lady Abigail Uppington—who assured them that the “affair” would “never be criticized,” even though the couple was “unchased”—the folly of it all resulted in a series of outrageous and none too enchanting complications. Well, the whole thing was Fibber’s idea to begin with . . .

One of the earliest and most successful situation comedies on US radio, Fibber McGee and Molly (1935-59) sounds still remarkably fresh today, thanks to the witty scripts by Don Quinn (whose Halls of Ivy is the ne plus ultra in radio sitcom sophistication) and the winning performances of its leads. And while it’s no collection of “Dramatic Monologues” or “Sonnets from the Portuguese” (“How do I love thee” and all that), the aural comedy-romance Quinn whipped up each week is no mere escapist fluff. “Tain’t funny, McGee”—Molly exclaimed often enough, suggesting more serious undertones not picked up by those merely hoping for an amusing half-hour.

After all, both the Brownings and the McGees inspired great thinkers. As Garrison Keillor recalls in WLT: A Radio Romance), the Norwegian philosopher Søren Blak argued the “boastful Fibber” to be a “paradigm of western man”; his “famous loaded closet” (which first opened to listeners some six months after the McGee’s 15th wedding anniversary), “represented civilization and all its flotsam and loose baggage, while the childlike voice of Molly, bringing the man back to reality,” seemed to be “the voice of culture in its deepest and most profound incarnation, that of the adored Mother, the Goddess of Goodness, the great Herself.”

Alas, the McGees have been all but buried under the “flotsam and loose baggage” of popular culture, erstwhile idols hidden beneath the rubble that is the empire of the air.  No, “tain’t funny, McGee!” And yet, however muffled their voices, the heartbeats of Wistful Vista’s winsome twosome still reverberate among those ruins (as you can hear).

“Oh heart!” Robert Browning mused on an off day (in his own “Love Among the Ruins”),

oh blood that freezes, blood that burns!
Earth’s returns
For whole century of folly, noise, and sin!
Shut them in,
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
Love is best.

So, happy anniversary, Molly and Fibber!

Flinging the Book: Archibald MacLeish, the Airwaves, and the Anniversary of Atahuallpa’s Death

Well, I thought I’d better carry on with my Spanish lessons, having discovered, upon leafing through the travel guides, that I am not merely linguistically challenged but culturally ignorant as well.

 According to one guidebook (admittedly, a someone dated volume), the citizens of Madrid—the madrileños—have a “lingering suspicion of foreigners” and are reluctant to speak English. Granted, it’s been a while since conquistadors rather than tourists filled Spain’s coffers, but the Spaniards have been known to be somewhat insensitive when it comes to other cultures. There sure is dirt under the old welcome mat.

On this day in 1533, for instance, Francisco Pizarro put an end to the Incan empire by doing away with emperor Atahuallpa. The Incas were not a chirographic people and did not appreciate having the book flung at them—especially not the good book. Intrigued by the thought that the demise of the Inca meant not only the loss of their aureate treasures but of their aural tradition, I flung my travel guides aside and tuned in again to one of the more ambitious if lesser known American radio series of the 1940s, Archibald MacLeish’s American Story.

MacLeish (above, right, in my impression of an image taken from Irving Settel’s Pictorial History of Radio), Pulitzer Prize winner for his poem Conquistador (1933), was one of the first American writers to take radio seriously and to encourage others to emerge from their ivory towers by broadcasting their choice words to the masses. After all, he remarked in the foreword to The Fall of the City, his first and most significant contribution to the aural arts, “what poet ever lived who was really satisfied with writing the thin little books to lie on the front parlor tables?”

As a Librarian of Congress, MacLeish enjoyed ready access to many an obscure document—and radio offered an opportunity of sharing this wealth of unheard words. Rather than dramatizing scenes from history books, MacLeish wanted to let ancient texts speak for themselves:

To place historical personages in historical situations and then imagine the words they must have spoken to each other is to imitate the historical dramas of the stage at the expense of radio’s unique function and unique opportunity. Because radio is limited mechanically to sound, and particularly to the sound of speech, radio is capable of a concentration upon the speech itself, the text itself, which can give words a life and a significance they rarely achieve outside the printed page—and which they achieve there only for the most gifted and fortunate readers.

In “The Many Dead,” one of the scripts for the American Story series, MacLeish drew on the writings of Pizarro’s secretary Francisco de Xeres to recount the death of emperor Atahuallpa. In order to convey this sobering story without turning it into sensational melodrama, the poet-historian chose to deliver the “pertinent excerpts” of Xeres’s official account in the somber and matter-of-fact voice of a clerk, a newscaster of his time:

The Governor [Pizarro] asked the Father Friar Vicente if he wished to go and speak to Atahuallpa with an interpreter. He replied that he did wish it, and he advanced with a cross in one hand and the Bible in the other [. . .] and [. . .] thus addressed him: “I am a Priest of God, and I teach Christians the things of God, and in like matter I come to teach you. What I teach is that which God says to us in this Book [. . .].”

Atahuallpa asked for the book that he might look at it, and the priest gave it to him closed. Atahuallpa did not know how to open it, and the Priest was extending his arm to do so, when Atahuallpa, in great anger, gave him a blow on the arm, not wishing that it should be opened [. . .]. Then he opened it himself, and, without any astonishment at the letters and paper, as had been shown by other Indians, he threw it away form him five or six paces . . . .

Then the Governor put on a jacket of cotton, took his sword and dagger, and, with the Spaniards who were with him, entered amongst the Indians most valiantly.
Then the Governor put on a jacket of cotton, took his sword and dagger, and, with the Spaniards who were with him, entered amongst the Indians most valiantly.

According to Xeres’s account, Pizarro and his men “fearlessly seized” Atahuallpa and the infantry of the Spaniards “made so good an assault” on the fleeing natives that “in a short time most of them were put to the sword.” Pizarro was said to have protected the emperor from the Spaniards—to give him the benefit of a proper execution—and was slightly wounded as a result. “It was a very wonderful thing,” the clerk concludes, “to see so great a lord taken prisoner in so short a time [. . .].”

The men with the books have generally proved victorious over the vocal but readily muted thinkers who spread their words without the benefit of the printing press. Atahuallpa, bereft of his voice after rejecting the book, chose death by strangulation. Even MacLeish, as Librarian of Congress, largely failed in his attempt to return written records to the air and revive the breath that gave them life. Who, after all, still listens to his American Story today?

Now, I hear that the madrileños are a noisy, boisterous people; perhaps the powerful, silencing, and not-so-good book instilled them with confidence. . . .

Spotting “The Mole on Lincoln’s Cheek”; or, The Free Company We Didn’t Keep

My headphones have been buried so deeply in the sands of time that I have only recently begun to pay attention to the mission of Cindy Sheehan, to the anti-war movement she seems to have reinvigorated, and to the controversy she is stirring by insisting on talking to the US president at his ranch down in Texas. The American home front is showing signs of battle fatigue. Well, perhaps the phrase “home front,” so commonly used during World War II, is inappropriate these days, considering the lack of universal support the Iraq-centered war on terror has been receiving.

Expressions of frustration, confusion, and anger seem to become more forceful and frequent as, after years of fighting, both the end of the war and the ends of it remain uncertain. Is it illusory or perhaps even misguided to hope for a voice of reason to unite the masses, a voice not strident yet unequivocal, not irate but assertive, not jingoistic but inspirational? Radio once seemed to have given nations such a voice, but was often in danger of becoming the medium of fascism.

Unlike those who go indifferently about their business while being mute beneficiaries of democratic freedoms, few protesters would deny that American ideals are worth fighting for in words and actions; indeed, people like Sheehan, a mother who lost her son in combat, are fighting for the realization of such ideals by insisting on publicly voicing their concerns, concerns that by now are shared even by many of those responsible for the reelection of the US president in 2004.

The question on the minds of many Americans and their allies today is, of course, whether the war in Iraq has in any constructive way contribute to the defense of their freedoms or whether it might not have further endangered them either directly (through increasing acts of global terrorism) or indirectly (through anti-terrorist measures curtailing civil liberties).

It is a mistake to assume, however, that, in 1942, US citizens were any more united about going to war then they are now, or that they had a clearer understanding of the stakes and aims of such an enterprise. As I learned from Gerd Horten’s book Radio Goes to War, a government survey revealed that half of those questioned just months after the attack on Pearl Harbor were not even sure what the war was about. Many had been convinced to embrace an isolationist position. Media tycoon Randolph Hearst was one of the most influential figures to warn Americans that war was bad because it was not good for business. And radio was big business.

Back then, noted American playwrights, journalists, and novelists spoke up against isolationist—that is anti-war—propaganda, reminding citizens that inertia could mean surrender to fascism, that there are nearly as many wrong reasons for not going to war than they are for engaging in it. One such group of artists who set out to inspire the American public in the months prior to Pearl Harbor was the Free Company, a “group of leading writers, actors and radio workers who had “come together voluntarily to express their faith in American democracy.” They were “unpaid, unsponsored and uncontrolled. Just a group of Americans saying what they [thought] about [America] and about freedom.” And they chose a commerce-driven medium like radio to bring their point across.

As Burgess Meredith told the radio audience of Marc Connelly’s play “The Mole on Lincoln’s Cheek”: “Our freedom [ . . . ] has this meaning . . . that here, in our land, the truth may be taught, always.” He urged Americans to “resist all attempt to suppress truth or to distort it. Let us consider again,” he continued,

the most powerful words ever spoken against the enemies of man—the lightning-charged words of Lincoln at Gettysburg. And let us renew, in this threatening hour, his high resolve that the government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

Could a group like the Free Company—which consisted of Pulitzer Prize winners including Maxwell Anderson, Archibald MacLeish, Stephen Vincent Benét, Marc Connelly, and Paul Green—unite for a series of radio (or television) broadcasts today to unite a largely disillusioned people divided by confusion and cynicism, a people more eager to expose the mole on Lincoln’s cheek than to conceal it? Would they deem a continuation of the present war unjustifiable or argue a withdrawal from Iraq to be a surrender to terrorism? And just how open would a skeptical public be to any effort to “resist all attempts to suppress truth or to distort it,” how willing to accept any attempts to achieve a consensus?

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.

The Caterpillar and the Butterfly: Fantasy Metamorphosed, from Corwin’s “Curley” to Burton’s “Charlie”

When I dipped my toe into the cool Irish Sea yesterday afternoon, I thought to myself “How detached I am from the enveloping present, how remote from the surrounding world.” Sure, I dip into the currents of culture now and again, but little of what is current seems to have any grip on me. I just shake my mind like that wet toe and retreat. Not that the beach was any more comforting for being terra firma. I was chilled by a feeling of rootlessness, intensified, no doubt, by my relatively recent transplantation to the west of Britain. And yet, here I am, nowhere and anywhere, tending to my journal. Well, according to Technorati, there is one born every second.

Not permitting myself to become wistful, I slipped into the darkness of a movie theater to take on the latter-day mongrel that is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  What a reassuring experience it turned out to be. Once again, I know where I am—and why I am there and loving it. The “there,” of course, is nothing but the sanctuary of my confirmed biases.

Tim Burton’s re-adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1964 story is a mongrel indeed. It is a cautionary tale for children playing itself out as a computer game. Curb your greed, your arrogance, and your precociousness, it tells children, or you will suffer the fate of obnoxious brats like Augustus, Violet, Veruca and Mike. Obey your elders, even a deranged manchild like Willy Wonka, and your humility will be amply rewarded. The eponymous kid is too much of a goody-two-shoes to make a compelling hero (and, given the lesson learned by Wonka himself, retaining the title of the 1971 adaptation would have made more sense).

The trouble with Charlie is not its muddled message about innocence and purity, however; it is that, in its now treacly, now quirky delivery, in its very conception, there is too much of Augustus Gloop and Mike Teavee to render it sincere.  Charlie is a self-conscious if diverting botch. It is eye candy with a cavity built in; it is at once a celebration and a negation of fantasy. Does not Dahl’s description of Augustus Gloop sound like a critique of Hollywood blockbusters, of the spirit of Disneyfication? Listen:

How long could we allow this beast

To gorge and guzzle, feed and feast

On everything he wanted to?

Great Scott! It simply wouldn’t do!

However long this pig might live,

We’re positive he’d never give

Even the smallest bit of fun

Or happiness to anyone.

So what we do in cases such

As this, we use the gentle touch,

And carefully we take the brat

And turn him into something that

Will give great pleasure to us all . . .

It is telling that Burton’s movie very nearly drowns out these words in its lavish production numbers. In time it will metamorphose into DVDs and computer games, into the videodorous playthings of Mike Teavee. Conveying the warning about being a guy like Burton’s movie once again drowns the message by dreamcoating it in Technicolor:

The most important thing we’ve learned,

So far as children are concerned,

Is never, NEVER, NEVER let

Them near your television set—

Or better still, just don’t install

The idiotic thing at all.

In almost every house we’ve been,

We’ve watched them gaping at the screen.

They loll and slop and lounge about,

And stare until their eyes pop out.

(Last week in someone’s place we saw

A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)

They sit and stare and stare and sit

Until they’re hypnotised by it,

Until they’re absolutely drunk

With all the shocking ghastly junk. . . .










And what else, other than reading, “used the darling ones to do?” in the days “[b]efore this monster was invented?” Well (you may have guessed it, coming from me), they listened to the radio, that forgotten generator and amplifier of fantasy. Long before colorful butterflies like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory dazzled kids with a flutter of images, there was “My Client Curley,” Norman Corwin’s madcap adventures of a boy, Stinky, and his dancing caterpillar.

Stinky has to learn what Charlie seems to know and Burton doesn’t quite remember: money talks so loudly at times, it threatens to mute happiness and muffle the imagination. Unlike Burton, who clutters his film with pointless references to popular culture (Busby Berkeley, Psycho, the Beatles), Corwin offers a poignant mass media satire, of a world of commerce, sensationalism, and mediocracy.

Throughout it all, the dancing caterpillar comes vividly alive without uttering nary a syllable. There he is, in all his terpsichorean splendor. I’m there, too, knowing why I love old-time radio. Not because it is past, but precisely because it is present whenever I put my mind to it. So, to appropriate Dahl’s words for a plea for the theater of the mind, “please, oh please, we beg, we pray, / Go throw your TV set away, / And in its place you can install /A lovely [radio] on the wall.” Well, okay, keep the TV—but do give Corwin’s “My Client Curley” a try.