In support of . . . Spokenworld Audio

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A bit of an unusual post this time out, being as it is about a media company more than it is our usual fare of films, books and TV shows. Accordingly I should start by making it clear that this is unequivocally not an editorial advertisement, that the post has not been sponsored, requested or directed by any third party, and that no money, consideration or remuneration of any kind has been received in return for writing it. As with every other post here on Taking The Short View, the views and opinions expressed here are entirely my own and as honest and accurate as I’m able to make them.

mountains-madnessLet me start by saying forthrightly that Spokenworld Audio has been responsible for two of what I regard as the best pieces of modern radio drama that I’ve heard in recent years. Its adaptations of At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Over Innsmouth for BBC Radio 7/Radio 4Extra changed how I looked at HP Lovecraft: until these two productions I’d never been a fan of Lovecraft’s florid, wildly overblown purple prose and could never understand what other people saw in his bizarre early 20th century stories, or why they cast such a long shadow in the horror genre.

It took these two radio serials to open my eyes and I’ve been a fan ever since, of both Lovecraft and Spokenworld. Strictly speaking the two recordings are abridged readings of the original tales rather than full dramatic productions, but such is the terrific performance by Richard Coyle along with the quality of the story editing, incidental music (by Paul Kent) and sound design (by Neil Gardner) that I genuinely don’t think they could have been any more enthralling, engrossing or more alive even if you had a full cast and crew of thousands at work. I guess we’ll find out if and when Guillermo del Toro’s version of At the Mountains of Madness ever does make its way to the big screen, but any movie no matter how good will have a lot to live up to compared with the nightmarish vision that now resides in my mind thanks to the audio magic conjured up by Spokenworld’s production. Read the rest of this entry »

The Avengers – The Lost Episodes Volume 1 (Big Finish Productions)

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When I wrote my review of the new Survivors audio series from Big Finish Productions, I briefly mentioned another new title from the company’s prodigious range output – their recreations of the first series of 1960s ITV series The Avengers. However, I really wanted to circle back and give that a little more stand-alone attention.

Most people will know The Avengers as the light-hearted semi-fantasy show starring bowler-hatted John Steed and his convention-breaking leading lady (initially Honor Blackman, later Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson). Those are the episodes of the show that survived, but there is a first season now largely lost that is very different, in which Steed was the sidekick and the lead role was that of Doctor David Keel, with the pair teaming up to tackle the very realistic grim and dirty street crime of 1960s London from drug smuggling to extortion and murder.

The show was the creation of producer Sydney Newman, and it was the success of The Avengers that gave him the clout to get Doctor Who off the ground when he moved to the BBC. Doctor Who fans will be familiar with the problem of early episodes of a beloved TV series being wiped from the archives because of the cost of storage and the assumption that there would never be any demand to reshow them in the future. In the case of Who,, we’re fortunate enough that the show’s fans were so devoted that they managed to capture off-air audio recordings so that even if we can no longer see the programme we can at least listen to it, but in the case of The Avengers there is no such Plan B: of 26 episodes of its first series, only two exist in full together with the first 20-minute act of the first show. That’s it, though. Read the rest of this entry »

Survivors [BBC and Big Finish Productions]

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I set out intending to write a review of a new collection of audio dramas from Big Finish Productions, a company best known for its extensive range of Doctor Who audio spin-offs but who’ve also produced ‘new episodes’ of cult dramas ranging from The Tomorrow People to Sapphire and Steel and who have also just started an interesting new line of audio recreations of the mostly lost 1961 first series of The Avengers. Big Finish’s newest line is Survivors, which is based on a BBC TV series from the mid-1970s; but for obvious reasons I soon found that it’s impossible to talk about the new production without first undertaking a historical discussion of its television roots to set it in context, so please pardon the diversion…

The original Survivors was created by Terry Nation, the writer best remembered for penning the second Doctor Who story in 1963 and for introducing the Doctor’s nemeses, the Daleks. Nation went on to write episodes of The Avengers and a swathe of ITC productions including The Baron, The Saint, The Champions, Department S, The Persuaders! and The Protectors and also going on to create another cult favourite, Blake’s 7 before moving to the US and working on MacGyver in the 1980s.

Survivors could best be described as the dark reflection of 1970s sitcom favourite The Good Life. While Tom and Barbara Good got to play for laughs throwing themselves into then-trendy self-sufficiency in the backyard of their Surbiton home, in Survivors such endeavours become a matter of life and death in a post-plague world in which 99% of the population has been killed by a virulent flu-like epidemic leaving only isolated pockets of survivors trying to work out how to live without power, technology or law and order. Read the rest of this entry »

Just a Minute (BBC2)

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It’s scarcely believable that it’s taken 45 years for the popular Radio 4 panel show to make the jump to television: so let’s start by pointing out that in fact it has graced the screen on a number of occasions in the past, including two unbroadcast pilots in 1969 and 1981, two full 14-show series on ITV in the mid-1990s and finally a 20-episode run on the BBC in 1999. But they all made the mistake of messing with the formula.

The very best thing that can be said about the current 10-episode run on BBC in the early evening spot is that if you close your eyes, then it sounds absolutely identical to the radio version – the same format and introductions, Nicholas Parsons at the helm and a panel consisting of all the radio version’s usual players including regular stalwart Paul Merton, together with the odd newbie to poke some gentle fun at (Russell Tovey, do lean forward when we’re talking about you!)

While the producers have done well not to meddle with the core product this time around, they show their unease with the whole ‘talking heads’ concept with what they do on the visual side. The set wouldn’t go amiss in an off-Strip Vegas daytime production and clashes terribly with itself even before Nicholas Parsons adds his stridently-coloured and patterned blazers to the mix. And the camera work practically screams the director’s desperation to “do something to distract from all these people just sitting there talking!” as it cuts and pans and goes shaky-handheld from studio audience eye-level. There’s some appallingly amateurish blocking and editing on display as well; it’s almost like someone decided to use the programme as a project for the work experience trainees to practice on.

It’s a puzzle why they should have these missteps: the BBC had demonstrated that it can do talking head panel shows with plain camerawork and plainer sets perfectly well in very successful shows like QI, Have I Got News For You, Mock the Week and Room 101 for example, which all prove that you really don’t need or want to dress up your grandmother in teenage wannabe pop star hooker-attire for these occasions.

Fortunately all of these visual distractions are easily set aside by the charm of the game and of the players. And the visuals do prove genuinely fascinating when they settle down long enough to let you appreciate the way that the team perform, and the concentration that goes into it. What especially comes across is how much fun everyone is having, and how each of them generally admires and appreciates a particularly good lengthy discourse or a clever challenge or a rapid ‘gotcha’ when someone transgresses the “no hesitation, repetition or deviation” boundaries of the game. There’s even some lovely moments when the players get to play to the camera, such as Phil Jupitus getting up and walking off in mock self-disgust at his latest “very, very” elementary mistake; or Sue Perkins’ horrified look when she realises that she’s just referred to “bell-end flares,” which was easily the best moment of the first episode aired.

It’s hard to understand why the show isn’t a more regular fixture on TV as it is on the radio; maybe this time it will be. After all, the remarkable chairman Nicholas Parsons (whom I have greatly warmed to in this role) hasn’t missed a recording in all the 45 years of the show’s history: and on his sparking form here in 2012 I’d say that he surely has at least another 45 years or so to give before he’s ready to turn the subject cards over to anyone else.

Currently showing on BBC on weekday evenings at 6pm; until April 6 2012.

The Tales of Max Carrados (BBC Radio 4 Extra/Ladbroke Radio Production)

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I like to think of myself as a fan of detective/crime fiction, and of classic crime fiction in particular, so I was rather startled and a little irked to find out about early 20th century character Max Carrados. He appeared in The Strand magazine alongside Sherlock Holmes and indeed at the time outranked the inhabitant of Baker Street in terms of popularity, but I’d never heard of him before. Clearly, I had to correct this oversight in advance of a new run of radio adaptations.

The character, created by Ernest Bramah in a number of short stories from 1914 onwards, has the particular unique selling point of being blind, which one would think would prove to be quite a problem in the art of detection; and it is the stories’ main focus to demonstrate how Carrados overcomes any problems and indeed develops his other senses to compensate (somewhat like the Marvel Comics superhero Daredevil – no radar superpower, though.)

Carrados’ (and Bramah’s) fame hasn’t endured like that of Sherlock Holmes (and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), and to be honest it’s not hard to see why. Bramah’s writing is perfectly fine, but has none of the richness of Doyle’s work. Where Doyle brought even minor supporting characters vividly to life, Bramah seems to have no such interest in anyone outside Carrados himself. Similarly, where Bramah is fascinated by the ways that Carrados might overcome his disability with various techniques and describes his investigations in detail, he seems to have little comparable interest in the story’s main instigating mystery. In “The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem”, for example, the central question of what caused a train crash is ultimately never explicitly explained, although much is implied and generally sketched in as we follow Carrados’ enquiries, leaving irritating gaps for anyone not au fait with early 20th century train signalling equipment. Nor is there much of a ‘whodunnit’ element – the villain is generally summoned up at the end because of Carrado’s pre-existing knowledge of the criminal underworld and not shared with us in advance.

Still, it’s pointless criticising work for something that it makes no claims to be or to do, and on its own terms Bramah’s tales are perfectly engrossing in its stories and descriptions of Carrados’ investigations – especially when benefiting from a quality radio adaptation such as this, which is by the same team that produced the recent “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” HP Lovecraft adaptations that have also aired on BBC Radio 4 Extra.

Once again it’s an abridged reading that feels so effortless and uncut that it makes you think that the abridger (Paul Kent) has had an easy time of it with a compliant original story leaving him little to do. It’s only when comparing against the source text that you realise just how much has needed to be done to seamlessly reduce the text down to fit. I even spotted one rare actual change to the source material, where a mention of a ‘developer’ in the Bramah text is substituted by the possibly slightly anachronistic ‘weights machine’ in the adaptation, but it’s with good cause as the original word means nothing (or worse, something wholly different) to modern audiences than it used to.

I was interested in whether or not the team could produce the same effective ‘soundscape’ that it managed with the earlier Lovecraft adaptations: conjuring an unnerving, sinister background for a horror story is one thing, but what can you do with the story of a detective who spends most of his time sitting in pleasant rooms chatting with people? Not a problem for producer Neil Gardner and for composer Jon Nicholls, who create an unobtrusive but effective soundtrack that manages to blend a general level of intellectual playfulness appropriate for the character that also allows subtle transitions where needed into a more tense, dangerous or even action-driven feel when needed. Rather like the abridgement, it’s so skilfully realised that you barely even notice how important and effective it is to the whole.

The one difference between this production and the earlier Lovecraft tales is in the selection of narrator, which here is actor Arthur Darvill better known as Rory Williams-Pond from Doctor Who. Where Richard Coyle was the perfect fit for dark horror tales, Darvill is a better choice for this lighter series of stories, and he certainly has a good range of voices played with conviction that soon overcome the dreaded “flat reading from a book” feeling that too many other productions can be saddled with.

Darvill may actually have been a little too over-ambitious with the vocal performance at points, however. He doesn’t use his ‘regular’ voice (i.e. the one we know from his playing of Rory) at all, even for the non-character narration which instead is pitched as a more cut-glass English accent. That is admittedly more accurate for the 1910s, and yet its over-clear, crystal-cut enunciation don’t give us the ‘rest’ we need between character voices and can be distracting; it may also contribute to some of the character voices themselves wavering and being a little less than perfectly consistent, and sometimes running one into another in an occasionally confusing manner.

Then there is the vocalisation of Max Carrados. Presumably this is driven by descriptions in the Bramah source text, but the end result is of a light, superior, rather fey voice that is certainly distinctive and evocative of a particular character, but not necessarily a likeable one. It’s hard to shake the unfair feeling that this is a smug, supercilious personality who is not easy to love, and it left me with an indelible mental picture of Carrados looking as well as sounding like Mark Gatiss in one of his more grotesque League of Gentleman or Crooked House roles.

Actually, come to think of it, if the BBC are inspired by the success of this radio adaptation and want to move to a TV version, they should get Gatiss on speed dial right away. After all, he’s not doing much these days, just that 21st century updating of another vintage detective, Carrados-wannabe Sherlock

Ernest Bramah’s “The Tales of Max Carrados” is a BBC Radio 4 Extra première of five episodes. It is available to purchase from the SpokenWorld Audio store.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth (BBC Radio 4 Extra / Ladbroke Productions)

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Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve waxed lyrical on a number of occasions now about a BBC Radio 4 Extra version of HP Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness (ATMOM) last year. I was very excited therefore to hear that the same team had reunited for a second Lovecraft adaptation – but also a little nervous, in case it didn’t meet the now-raised level of expectation second time around.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth doesn’t meet those expectations: it absolutely surpasses them, and actually manages to improve over its precursor on every level.

Richard Coyle is back as the narrator – still with that voice I’d cheerfully listen read from the phone book – and he gives a more subdued reading this time appropriate for this rather more low-key tale than the riper ATMOM, and it’s more effective as a result. He also gets to create two characters for spoken roles (ATMOM just had some radio comms chatter largely achieved by sound FX if I recall correctly) and he’s strikingly good at this, producing what sounded to me to be two very authentic and very different New Englanders. I even momentarily thought that the production might be pulling a “fast one” by bringing in additional actors to augment the reading, but it’s Coyle’s own work that just makes it seem like they’re sneaking a full-cast audio play past you.

The production is also helped by having (in my view at least) a much better source novella to work from. I’d suspected that the personal appeal of ATMOM for me may have been in its Antarctic setting (I have a bit of a ‘thing’ for snow-set thrillers, from The Thing from Another World to Ice Station Zebra), but here the setting is a dilapidated, decaying New England fishing town and it results in a far greater sense of disturbed realism and of the ordinary-gone-unnervingly-wrong. Apparently the book is seen as one of Lovecraft’s weakest efforts, which is a surprise to me as it seems much better written than the more highly-regarded ATMOM, with a much stronger structure, climax and denouement rather than the “all tease and nothing under the trousers” that I felt was the chief flaw of ATMOM. Of course, Lovecraft’s writing is still as full of purple prose (everything is malodorous, malignant, repellant, ruinous, grotesque, decrepit, a blasphemous abnormality, precipitous … ) and leaves little room for doubt in the reader’s mind. The underlying plot is similarly obvious by modern standards, although no less effective when unfolded well.

Moreover, it’s short enough to fit within the five 30 minute instalments without harmful hacking (see my comments about last week’s The Boys from Brazil adaptation last week on that score). The original novella is even already neatly structured into five sections that are used here as the basis from which to give each of the five episodes a natural, almost self-contained sense of structure – although the final section is a shorter epilogue and hence can’t sustain an entire episode on its own in the same way as the other four. The whole thing is done so seamlessly that you’d almost imagine that HP Lovecraft was still alive and well and had produced this script to order for exactly this BBC Radio 4 Extra format; all of which is a huge if inadvertently backhanded compliment to the actual adapter, Paul Kent, whose work is seamless and invisible in the best possible way.

But throughout, it’s the show’s realised soundscape that is once again the core of the success. I made the mistake of listening to some of this late at night, in bed, on earphones – and while I think I’m made of pretty stern stuff and am able to scoff heartily at most horror movies, there were times when I was listening to this that I started to feel genuinely ill-at-ease. It’s done impressionistically with a use of some subtle but well-chosen sound effects – from the crashing waves of the sea to the deadened clanging sound of boat masts, and especially later with the strange whisperings of the unseen townsfolk. It’s impressionistic rather than over-literal: we’re spared sound effects for footsteps or car engines, for example, and producer Neil Gardner mischievously avoids taking specific instructions from the spoken text, instead making us ‘hear’ the sounds from the words while he himself concentrates on realising the implied and unsaid. There’s also music again from Jon Nicholls, who seems to have been given greater freedom (i.e. time and money!) to produce more – and more varied – pieces of music for this production than he was able to for ATMOM: consequently the episodes are able to switch from rich, almost symphonic scores through tension, chases and chills, all of which are intelligently woven into the overall soundscape of the show.

The cumulative effect is to produce a vivid, captivating and engrossing end experience that lived up to every bit of my unrealistically heightened expectations. While I still don’t think that I’ve been converted into the full Lovecraftian cult per se, I certainly hope that this roll-out of Lovecraft’s works continues on at least an annual (if not indeed even more frequent) basis – maybe the end of October would be ideal, if they can keep the chills coming so effectively?

HP Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” was a BBC Radio 4 Extra première, and is available to purchase from the SpokenWorld Audio store.

The Boys from Brazil (BBC Radio 4 Extra)

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I happened to pick up the paperback of Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil last week from HMV for the scandalously low price of £2, and was therefore rather interested to listen to a new Radio 4 Extra production of it, my only previous experience with the story being the 1978 film version starring Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier. That film is not exactly an all-time classic and in all honesty is probably merely average as a thriller, but I remember being wowed by the shocking, bold high concept at the heart of it and the chilling realism of how that idea is then followed through by the antagonists.

Unfortunately most of that was lost in this audio production, an abridged reading by the actor Alex Jennings. Jennings is one of those people who by rights should be a far bigger star, but in lieu of that has done much radio and audiobook work. He is certainly the best thing about this version, giving a good, solid performance and coping with the different voices of the characters without much trouble – and given that a particular denouement depends on someone recognising particular vocal intonations, authentic voices here are essential.

Unfortunately the book simply defeats the abridgement. Whereas the film is two hours long – and the unabridged audiobook is eight an a half hours long – this tries to get the job done in around 75 minutes and it just doesn’t work. The story is left choppy and incoherent, jumping all over the place and forced to leave out key moments that establish the realism, suspense and threat of the story while consistently throwing away its key shocks by underplaying. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the story itself (and I hadn’t read the book I’d just purchased prior to listening and last saw the film many years ago, so I’m far from an expert) then you’ll be struck by the sudden jumps and omissions throughout. You can sense whole chunks being ripped out as you go, and it combines to leave you feeling rather puzzled for the wrong reasons rather than on the edge of your seat.

The key problem would appear to be that the length of the adaptation is just too short for the source material, which is as much down to the commissioning editors and the nature of the book itself as it is to the ensuing work of the narrator, abridger and production team under the given constraints. It was pretty much seriously compromised before they ever got underway. Still, even given those caveats, I have to admit that I found this whole production rather flat: it’s someone simply reading a book at you and there’s no excitement to it. It certainly lacks the dynamism of full-cast productions (like the Big Finish Doctor Who audio plays, or the Paul Temple plays I’ve written about) which are amazingly real and vivid in the mind after you’ve heard them.

You might think that comparing a narrated reading with a full cast play is unfair, a comparison of apples and oranges – and with good reason. Even so, too many audiobook productions are just dull, lifeless affairs. They do a serviceable, mannered job in reading the words but seem disinclined to do anything further to bring the subject matter to life. There are honourable exceptions to the rule, and perhaps unsurprisingly it’s often when they have a younger, more demanding audience in mind: the audio adaptations of the old Doctor Who Target novels for example – such as the current BBC Radio 4 Extra airing of “The Giant Robot” – make effective use of not just their narrator but also of minimal sound effects and music cues that instantly make them more immersive experiences. Plus of course this one has the inimitable Tom Baker: his voice might be too richly distinctive to create as believable an array of different characters as Jennings can, but it really doesn’t matter. It’s Tom Baker, after all – the Doctor!

Otherwise I’ve come to rather avoid audio ‘readings’ because they simply don’t work for me, which is a shame. They can be made effectively after all, as I pointed out last year with my review of At The Mountains of Madness, an abridged reading of an HP Lovecraft story, an author of whom I’m not exactly a fan. The whole thing should have been a complete no-no for me and yet I absolutely loved the end result, which managed to convert an ordinary audiobook reading into something as powerfully vivid and atmospheric as any full-cast audio play I’d heard thanks to a seamless bit of abridgement, a few intelligent production tricks and the application of a truckload of imagination.

The same team that produced At The Mountains of Madness is behind next week’s BBC Radio 4 Extra première, Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth (6.30pm weekdays from Monday, October 3) and it will be fascinating to find out whether they can achieve the same feat a second time around. I guess I’ll be reporting back next week on whether they did.

Dr Who: Cobwebs (Big Finish Productions/BBC Radio 4 Extra)

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During its wilderness years – after the BBC banished it from television after 1989 not to return until 2005 save for one TV movie that must never, ever be mentioned – Doctor Who was kept alive by a series of novels and audio adventures. The production company Big Finish Productions won the license to produce the latter and is still going strong.

Strangely these new adventures have been relatively unexploited by the BBC in their quest for new radio drama material, when you would think they would be ideal. Until recently the the only such stories to have made it onto the BBC’s Radio 7 spoken word station were those featuring Paul McGann as the Doctor with a new companion (played by the wonderful Sheridan Smith) in an almost entirely separate, self-contained ‘series’ that the Corporation felt could run in parallel with the TV adventures of Eccleston, Tennant and Smith without interfering or confusing.

But this week, in a rather daring and very welcome departure to boost the launch of the new BBC Radio 4 Extra brand, the BBC have bought up a batch of Big Finish stories for the station. These feature not only Peter Davison as the Doctor, but his actual early 80s companion line-up of bolshy Tegan (Janet Fielding – particularly wonderful to have her back!), scheming Turlough (Mark Strickson) and nice Nyssa (Sarah Sutton). And the stories are in four half hour episodes with cliffhangers: it really is like being transported back.

Nyssa was always one of the dullest, least formed, “nicest” companions of 70s and 80s Doctor Who and Big Finish have pulled a nice twist here in setting this story two days after Nyssa departed the crew. In a lovely character touch, Tegan goes from pinning for the departed Nyssa to being incredibly antagonised when she returns, and Tegan is reminded of her former friend’s goody-goody tendencies and made to realise that she has much more in common with the “evil” Turlough whom she had formerly loathed – a nice transition that also fills in a character development gap in the original 80s stories, and I’m sure it’s not a coincidence or accident that it does so.

In fact, while Nyssa’s been gone for only two days, that’s two days Tardis time – but 50 years for her, a marvellous idea that wouldn’t have occurred to the original production team but is very much in the spirit of the Moffat era of playing with time. It gives Sarah Sutton so much more to work with, while playing with time is what this whole “Cobwebs” episode is about – in a wonderfully simple, boiled-down and creepy first episode set in an abandoned station the Tardis crew find what look to be their own bodies, dead for 40 years; and in the second episode, it all starts to come true as they travel back in time. So far, so great.

If there’s a criticism of this story (and of some others that I’ve listened to in the Big Finish line) it’s that they’re simply too clever, intelligent and audacious for their own good. If you’re used to the nice, steady, linear productions that form the bulk of Radio 4’s drama output then these stories can overwhelm and become really quite confusing, as in the case of “Cobwebs” where the third episode goes off on a different tangent altogether and the guest characters we thought we had been introduced to suddenly turn out not to be who we – or even they – thought they were. It’s so many switches and reversals that – taken together with all the advanced timey-wimey stuff playing out as well – could well leave people struggling to maintain a grip with its breathless pace.

I suspect that this shows the roots of the Big Finish production. This is something like the 130th instalment and they’re well into their groove, so for those of us jumping in late in the day it’s hard for us to keep our balance on an already fast-moving vehicle. Also, let’s not forget that these productions were originally created for CD (and download) where listeners would set everything aside and play it when they have the requisite two hours’ of attention to devote to it, not just when it happened to come on the radio even if they were in the middle of doing something else. Such context can make a big difference: perhaps this is drama best reserved to iPlayer scheduling.

Still, it’s surely no bad criticism to say that something’s too clever or too ambitious – better than than safe-but-dull conservatism. And maybe it’s just that I hadn’t engaged my thinking head mode before listening.

At the Mountains of Madness – BBC Radio 4 Extra/ Spokenworld Audio

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I’d better start off with a potentially sacrilegious confession: I’m not a fan of HP Lovecraft’s writing. To me, it comes across as wildly overblown purple prose that has aged really badly since it was originally written in the 1930s, often as contributions to then-rather lurid pulp magazines such as Astounding Stories. That overheated style has been mocked and lampooned for so long that it’s impossible for me to take this deathly humourless high-horror style seriously these days. And yet I’m aware that Lovecraft has a huge fan following – including horror giant Stephen King who credits Lovecraft with sparking his own love of the genre and his entire subsequent career – and that his Cthulhu Mythos is a cult in its own right. The guy must be doing something right. Still, I rather suspected that this audio production of At the Mountains of Madness, one of his most famous novellas, would not be for me at all when I first heard it aired on BBC Radio 7 (now BBC Radio 4 Extra) spoken word digital station late last year. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found how much I loved this new adaptation and was totally drawn in.

In brief, the plot is about a scientific expedition to an Antarctican mountain range. One team discovers the deep-frozen remains of a previously unknown creature, and then contact with the team is lost. A follow-up team heads into the mountains and find the impossible: the ruins of the city of a long-dead Antarctic civilisation, pre-dating humankind…

The production’s first strength is the selection of Richard Coyle as the reader. He’s got one of those rich, deep rolling voices that earns a sincere “would listen to him reading the phone book” accolade from me. Strangely, Coyle is one of those actors who never seem to get star ‘name recognition’ despite appearing in hit shows such as Coupling, and he’s been wonderful even when the show or film itself has left much to be desired (hello, Prince of Persia!) He was actually my preferred choice for the Eleventh Doctor Who until Matt Smith popped up and stole the show.

But the real triumph of this adaptation is in Neil Gardner’s production and sound design: while this is an audiobook reading and not an original full-cast production, you’d be hard-pressed 10 minutes in not to think that this wasn’t a fully realised drama. The effect of a full cast is achieved part by the Coyle’s reading, of course, but crucially also by the skilful use of minimal sound effects and background ambience that make this light years away from listening to a man merely reading a book into a microphone. It’s very atmospheric, and totally pulls off selling some of the novella’s more creaky and clunky conceits. Quick mentions also for composer Jon Nicholls who supplies a simple but effective musical score that really adds to the feeling of dread; and also to Paul Kent who abridged Lovecraft’s text skilfully and who manages to cut away a lot of the sprawling verbosity that frankly makes reading the original rather like wading through treacle. (Again, I know this is just my reaction to Lovecraft and won’t be shared by everyone, but I can’t help how I feel.)

In fact, it’s the Lovecraft original story that is the production’s only weak point for me. It’s all build up and tease, and then at the last minute the protagonists scamper away and run and hide without resolving any of the questions, making for a strangely deflated climax. It’s not the production team’s fault, of course – they can’t rewrite the source material when making an audiobook adaptation without angering the fans. If you’ve already read Lovecraft’s original then you’ll know what to expect and undoubtedly be entirely happy with the plot and hence the production’s fidelity to it.

About the best recommendation I can make is to put my money where my mouth is, and sure enough after hearing the BBC Radio 7/4 Extra broadcast, I went off and bought the “director’s cut” audiobook (a version extended by an extra 30 minutes). And if even I can get this excited over Lovecraft and Cthulhu …