Sunday, September 30, 2012


Judgement is the first of the Crossover Adventures’ Doctor Who audio adventures, and for anyone expecting the polish of Big Finish, they . . . might want to look elsewhere.  I think the name of the game at Crossover Adventures is “fun,” for it’s difficult to take anything in Judgement seriously.  Fans of chaotic crossover, however, will enjoy a whirlwind journey into the realms of Count Duckula (the wonderful Cosgrove Hall animation studio’s story of a vegetarian vampire duck), the court of Judge Judy, and cameos from Buffy Summers and her friends.

As a fan of Count Duckula, I relished the idea of the Doctor (Aron Toman) meeting this charming creation, voiced by David Jason.  As it turns out, however, the meeting is rather spoiled when Buffy arrives, hellbent on staking Duckula, and though the Doctor’s companion Astra (Coren Idle) tries to help, it’s eventually decided that the best thing to do is let Judge Judy pass, er, judgement.  The audio sampling from the TV shows creates some humor, but the production suffers  from lower quality recording and editing, and the final product is a bit of a maelstrom.  Whenever the Doctor is subsumed by the supporting characters, it’s a problem.

I think it may be unfair to start with Crossover Adventures’ first effort, given that it is now quite outdated.  Their newest piece is from March of this year.

The Fitzrovia Radio Hour

My friend had been telling me for a long time we should go see The Fitzrovia Radio Hour, so at last we did.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but while certainly I was entertained, I was also pleasantly surprised.  I expected a fairly po-faced reading/performance of authentic 1930s or 1940s radio material, and in fact Cycle of Violence, Ava Carter:  Girl Pilot! and a unique rendition of The Day Dorking Stood Silent were new material by Martin Pengelly.  As I said before, I am somewhat wary of retro for retro’s sake, and the inclusion of long, rather charming advertising spots for Bairstow’s Home Stores pulled me out of the fun and games.  Even if Reith expected all his radio performers to be trussed up in evening wear when recording, he would have been vehemently opposed to advertising (symptomatic of us commercialized Yanks[1], crikey!).  In that sense, the Bairstow’s Home Stores might make more sense if the Fitzrovia Radio Hour was meant to be coming out of Radio Luxembourg (and perhaps, without saying as much, that was their intent all along). 
Other than this small niggle, however, the production brought out the excitement of the days of live radio when effects weren’t produced by computer banks (or even foley women walking through the BBC studio, as on the occasions I was there) and sometimes there was only one mic for five actors.  Now, I’ve read a lot recently on the days when television went out live, but live radio even trumps this.  You can dry on live television, as in stage theatre, and you ruin the show, but on radio, despite whatever madness is going on in the studio, you can still somehow manage to save face to the millions of listeners of the airwaves.  A great summation of the chaos that can erupt (as well as a primer on the types of sound effects used in OTR) can be seen in this clip from Frasier:   

However, as in Neil Brand’s The Big Broadcast which was on Radio 4 last year (The Chicago Beefsteak Hour of Charm!), being true to the period doesn’t necessarily mean slavishly copying the sometimes dreadfully dull and formulaic content.  I was delighted to discover that Cycle of Violence was a story about a murderous bicycle in Cambridge with some post-modernist digs about class and gender.  There were also some great SFX moments including someone’s head getting thumped via cabbage chop (eat your heart out, Waris Hussein).  At no point were you supposed to take Ava Carter:  Girl Pilot! seriously, but I was unable to take it even a little bit seriously because I kept being reminded of Pendant Audio’s Dixie Stenberg and Brassy Batallion Adventure Theater.  This one featured a great SFX moment when one of the actors tore up an entire crate to make it sound like a plane crashing!  

The Day Dorking Stood Silent was meant to be a little-green-men-type science fiction story (I think), but the production was highjacked by an Orson Welles-wannabe.  Actually, I feel his version of Footsteps, Footsteps, Loneliness, Footsteps (!) was more in keeping with German hörspiel and the Brecht/Beckett school of abstract radio.  Daniel Gilfillan’s 2009 book about German experimental radio was one of the best books on radio I’ve read, but there’s no doubt that to a BBC-reared audience, stuff even more out there than the Third Programme was going to sound ludicrous.  Nevertheless, the plate-spinning actors managed to salvage their production in the last two minutes and save the day!

The Fitzrovia Radio Hour are
Jon Edgley Bond, Letty Butler, Samara Maclaren, Tom Mallaburn, and Phil Mulryne

[1] That said, I do love hearing the advertisers—often Jello pudding—during the breaks of Baby Snooks.

The Cleansed

The Cleansed is a very ambitious project from Fred Greenhaigh which imagines a post-apocalyptic America (similar though not quite as downbeat as the one in The Road) and what might happen in the wilds of Maine when strangers come from the broken city that was once New York.  In listening to the first episode of season 1, I was certainly struck by the scale of the story, which was using dozens of actors in dozens of roles as well as recording on location in Maine.  Certainly there are some who will say that audio does not lend itself well to battles of any kind, and nine times out of ten, I agree with them.  That the first episode of The Cleansed includes one is further evidence of its sense of determination, and overall it just about works, as quickly after that we switch back into the story of Luke and Maria, our protagonists.  

I have a feeling that to get really into The Cleansed, I would have to block out a merciless schedule of catch-up, as I feel an epic like this kind would suffer from casual listening (similar to many people’s reactions to Life and Fate).  If you check out the website, this epic has clearly been deeply thought through, and, as I understand it, will present a political case in future episodes.  I applaud all the effort that has gone into this.

The Woods

I loved listening to Icebox Radio Theater’s The Woods, even though it freaked me out considerably.  I vacillate on whether I enjoy new audio podcasts that defer or exploit a connection to retro/OTR radio—sometimes it can feel like we are looking backwards rather than ahead, celebrating and even fetishizing a style and form of content from days gone by.  However, sometimes a production can takes some elements of this OTR tradition and still create something new, making one feel as if they’ve experienced something timeless.  In this sense, Icebox Radio Theater uses some trappings of OTR but still manages to come out from its shadow.  For example, this production company, based in Minnesota, feels in many ways different to any other independent production company out there.  Its advertisements, mostly for in-house or community promotion, hearken (unconsciously or not) to the days of real soap sponsors for soap operas (or serials as they preferred to be known) as well as any pledge drive run on PBS.  I wouldn’t say it irks me, as good audio doesn’t happen for free, but it is a different experience to listening to monologues-with-effects, such as Saya’s Last Gasp, or what the BBC powerhouse continues to churn out.  

The Woods has elements of thrillers from the days of War of the Worlds through The Twilight Zone to The X Files, yet it had a very strong suggestion, for me at least, of the Mark Gatiss The Man in Black series for BBC Radio 4.    I guess what I loved best about The Woods, other than the fact it scared the pants off me, was its ambiguity.  It set up an atmosphere of total confusion for two ordinary people on their way to a wedding, brilliantly evoked by an over-chirpy cell phone ring contrasting with the worn motifs of a horror story:  the lone house by the side of the road, the country road itself devoid of any other signs of civilization.  It worked extremely well for audio without resorting to a postwar era script.   Not only could something like this happen in the present day, I felt, its stunningly ambiguous ending suggested it could happen at any time. 
I love when audio allows the use of imagination to fill in the blanks, to create a terror more horrifying than anything you could ever see in film, but it also creates very potent foreboding!  

Killing the Devil

I’ve heard a few things from Tin Can Podcast before . . . they seem to specialize in the very short form.  As such, they tend to present scenes or vignettes rather than fully fledged plays.  Killing the Devil was an interesting piece, though I do think its brevity created the connection in my mind with a similarly-themed play excerpt performed by an up-and-coming writer during last year’s Rough Diamonds (Swansea University’s outgoing MA students) at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea.  Written by Jonathan Brown, this piece starred Alex Hughes as a journalist and Fiona McKinnon as a mother of a boy murdered by religious fundamentalists.  His murder causes her to return to the Middle East, from which she had escaped to live a teacher’s life in a London suburb.  

Killing the Devil is a play about morality and as such, its soundworld deposits us somewhere we know (or think we know) from innumerable news broadcasts and soundbytes.  I think audio plays really succeed at one of two extremes:  a mundane or at least well-known, familiar setting where something unexpected happens, or somewhere that can only be imagined or painted with pictures in the mind.  Obviously Killing the Devil is the former and this helps make the play food for thought.