What’s On Your Radio?*

radio-dramasIn 1922, the BBC began airing daily radio news broadcasts. Radio had already been used to broadcast election results, among other things. And it wasn’t long before the power of radio was felt. Until the advent of reasonably priced commercial television, roughly thirty years later, radio was people’s source for news, entertainment, and more.

So, it shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of crime fiction, especially the crime fiction of those years, found its way to radio. And there’s still something about those radio broadcasts. They invite listeners to use their imaginations in ways that film and television don’t.

One set of mysteries that were adapted for radio was Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Various actors took the roles of Holmes and Dr. Watson; among the most famous were Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Fans will know that they also played these characters on film. But there were several other actors, too, who took those roles. An argument has been made that these radio broadcasts were responsible for a resurgence of interest in Conan Doyle’s stories. And what’s interesting is that the broadcasts didn’t end when television became popular. There were even some made in the 1970s and 1980s. If you’d like to experience some of these broadcasts for yourself, several of them are available right here.

G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories were also brought to the radio. From 1984 to 1986, the BBC aired several of the stories, with Andrew Sachs taking the title role. What’s interesting about this radio series is that it aired long after television was entrenched in many cultures. Stories such as The Blue Cross, The Hammer of God, and The Honour of Israel Gow were successfully adapted for radio. Like many of the Sherlock Holmes adventures, many of the Father Brown mysteries are short stories (as opposed to novellas or novels). That format really seems to lend itself well to the radio format.  If you’re interested in listening, you can find them here (there are even two from an older (1945) radio series).

Agatha Christie fans can tell you that she wrote several plays, including radio plays. For instance, she adapted her short story Yellow Iris for radio; it premiered on BBC Radio in 1937. This story takes place mostly in a restaurant, and the radio play had much more of a focus on that setting than did the short story. Later, the story was adapted again into a full-length novel that Christie called Sparkling Cyanide. There were some significant differences between the story and the novel, too, including a change of detective (it’s Poirot in the story, but not in the novel) and a different murderer. If you get the chance to experience all three versions of the story, I invite you to see which version works the best for you. Plenty of other Christie works have been adapted for radio. You can listen to many of them right here, including some from 1944-45.

Ellery Queen has been popular with crime fiction fans since 1929. And Queen’s adventures have been adapted for stage and screen (both large and small) several times. There’ve also been Ellery Queen radio dramas; in fact, the ‘Queen team’ of Frederic Danney and Manfred Lee wrote the early scripts for the 1939-1948 series.  Later, (in the 1970s), there was another incarnation of Ellery Queen on the radio. This time, the title was The Ellery Queen Minute Mysteries. As the name suggests, listeners were briefly given a set of clues and a scenario, and then invited to solve the mystery. If you’d like to try your hand at some of them, or, if you’d like to listen to some of the earlier broadcasts, you can do so right here. One note is in order. This site doesn’t include the original correct titles for the broadcasts. But they’re announced in the broadcasts themselves, and Queen fans will likely find the stories familiar.

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe has been an iconic crime fiction figure for more than seventy years. Since that time, Marlowe has starred in film and television adaptations as well as in novels and short stories. There was also a radio series, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, based on the Chandler stories. The series, which ran, all told, from 1947 to 1958, starred Van Heflin and, later, Gerald Mohr in the lead role. If you’d like to hear some of these episodes, you can experience them right here.

Most of the radio dramas didn’t faithfully follow the stories on which they were based. Some of them were entirely new stories that simply used the famous sleuths as protagonists. But all of them had a role in keeping people interested in crime fiction and in those sleuths in particular. And, in the era before television dominated media, radio was an important form of entertainment. That was especially true for those who didn’t have access to a nearby cinema or theatre. Even today, audio broadcasts have an appeal. They invite listeners to use their imaginations, and they offer a way to experience mystery stories through a different medium.

What do you think? Have you listened to the old radio broadcasts (and some not-so-old) of crime stories? What’s your opinion? Does it bother you when they veer off the original stories?


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Living End


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, G.K. Chesterton, Raymond Chandler

26 responses to “What’s On Your Radio?*

  1. I just placed a hold on a copy of Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie, large print, at the local library. I’ve never heard of it! I would like to hear these Radio Mysteries especially Ellery Queen’s Minute Mysteries. I liked seeing the television version of radio broadcast mysteries (the one where John Hillerman played that prig Simon Brimmer in the Ellery Queen TV series). I like the concept of a MINUTE mystery – give me the facts, briefly, and let me figure it out! That Death in Paradise show is like that — simple. When I can catch the clue, well, HOORAY. I want to see if YouTube has anything about radio broadcasts. I think they do… in other words – thanks Margot! 🙂

    • I hope you’ll like the Minute Mysteries. It is an interesting way to go about presenting whodunits, I think. And I agree that the Elery Queen TV series with Jim Hutton, David Wayne and John Hillerman was done really well. They’re available in a box DVD set, and, even though I don’t usually buy sets like that, I did in this case.

  2. YouTube HAS Ellery Queen! Yipee!

  3. Pingback: What’s On Your Radio?* | picardykatt's Blog

  4. I still listen to some of the old radio shows and recently wrote a blog about them. Listening to these stories sparks the imagination more than the visual mediums like TV and, to a degree, even film.

  5. Great post, Margot, and thanks for the links! For a while I had a car commute that lasted just over half an hour – perfect for listening to many of these old broadcasts. My particular joy was the adaptations of Sherlock Holmes starring Carleton Hobbs – full cast little plays that stuck pretty well to the stories and had some wonderful actors and actresses in them. I must dig out those discs…

    • Oh, they do sound great, FictionFan! And a car commute like that is exactly the perfect time to listen to those broadcasts. Much better than a lot of the talk radio that’s on, in my opinion… Thanks for the kind words! If you do try out the links, I hope you’ll enjoy the stories you haven’t heard. There’s just something about those old broadcasts…

  6. When I was a child in New Zealand, there was a children’s story show on every Sunday morning. Mum and Dad bought me my own tiny red and silver transistor radio so I could listen in. It started very early, so I’d lie in bed with my eyes closed, listening to the stories, which were played by request. I remember The Three Billie Goats Gruff, Molly Whuppie, and Jack and the Beanstalk. When I was older, I seem to remember first becoming aware of The Hound of the Baskervilles as a very frightening story told on the radio. We tend to forget that there are still radio readings and plays, giving writers great exposure (and some much-needed fees). Sadly, when I ask the young people I teach about radio, only about 1 in 50 ever listen to it. The exception is Vietnamese students: I believe there is a thriving radio industry in Vietnam, even among young people.

    • I didn’t know that, Caron! Thanks. I agree with you that radio really is a powerful medium. And you’re right; it does give writers the sort of exposure and experience that helps them (and yes, the fees help, too…). I can only imagine how much fun those children’s radio shows were for you. I think experiences like that also help children get a sense of a story’s rhythm. And that can really be helpful when they start writing. You were fortunate to have your own audio passport, so to speak.

  7. Margot: I am just old enough to remember listening to radio broadcasts of The Lone Ranger. They created vivid word images for a boy living on a farm in rural Saskatchewan.

    • Oh, I’m sure they did, Bill. I think that’s the thing about those shows. They encouraged listeners to use their imagination and create some powerful mental images.

  8. Hello, Margot! Sorry I have been away. I have resisted the idea of listening to audio books leave alone listening to the radio, even now when so much is available in the public domain and legally free. Your post encourages me to give it a try, especially radio adaptations of crime fiction.

  9. Thanks so much for sharing this. I have never really listened to any of these broadcast, but you bet I’ll visit those links 😉

  10. There were some radio broadcasts of John Dickson Carr short plays – I’m pretty sure our friend Sergio gave me the details of an archive broadcast enabling me to listen to one – I enjoyed it very much and would like to near more.

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