bbc radio 4 extra

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.