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Thrilling Days of Yesteryear

July 26th, 2012 (03:30 pm)

Of late I've been going through my collection of old-time radio dramas and converting them to MP3, so as to have them more accessible. I've played back each transfer to make sure it worked, which means in the last couple of weeks I've listened to episodes of Mystery House, Inner Sanctum, Weird Circle, Mercury Theatre of the Air, and The Shadow.

And I realized something. I do want to preserve these, but it's really just for their curiosity value. The truth is that the old radio dramas don't work for me. I love the concept, and I do think it should be possible to do really good, involving radio drama; it's certainly possible to do radio humor, as Firesign Theatre and National Lampoon demonstrated. But when I sit back and listen to the Shadow or Inner Sanctum, it totally fails to draw me into the story.

I think it's partly the failure to convince my hindbrain that the people talking are anywhere other than a studio. For example, in the Shadow's episode "Aboard the Steamship Amazon," there's no background noise of engines or waves or wind, in supposed crowded environments there's no background murmur. The voices always have the same resonance, whether they're supposedly on an open deck or in a cramped cabin. There's no sense of place. In "The Thirsty Death" (I think that one was Weird Circle), the scenes supposedly in a jungle at night have no rustling leaves or calling birds or monkeys.

That leaves aside some of the plot absurdities and mannered acting. Those don't help, either.

I realize these things were done cheaply and quickly, and the technology was relatively primitive, but honestly, the reasons don't matter -- the final result is that they don't work for me.

Which is a shame.

There are some bizarre little details I find amusing, though -- like the "Africans" who have B-movie Chinese accents, probably because that was their default exotic accent and they didn't find anyone who knew what an African accent would actually sound like.

Or the cabal of enemy spies who all have different accents.

Or the Shadow's introduction (later changed) saying that the Shadow's secret of invisibility would soon be made available to regular law enforcement. Has anyone ever written a story in the nightmare scenario where the secret police can turn invisible? It was a different world in 1938.

That's probably the real problem; I'm simply not the more innocent audience of 1938, or 1941, or 1947.


Posted by: Martin Wisse (martin_wisse)
Posted at: July 27th, 2012 12:37 pm (UTC)

I have the same problem with modern day BBC radio dramas, not helped by the fact that their talent pool is so small, so you hear the same people over and over again.

Posted by: lwe (lwe)
Posted at: July 27th, 2012 04:37 pm (UTC)

These days it's so cheap and easy to record stuff and add effects that they ought to be able to do it up right. I haven't heard the BBC dramas, so I can't really compare.

In 1938 they were working live, so they had an excuse.

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