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.
Let 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 »
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.
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.
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.
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 …