I love a good cliffhanging serial, don’t you? There aren’t too many of them these days, but they used to be all over the place. In cinema the likes of Buster Crabbe and Ray “Crash” Corrigan would thrill audiences weekly with their derring-do and effortless ability to escape now-get-out-of-that episode endings. The formula transferred effortlessly to television with a plethora of serials – the likes of “City Beneath The Sea” doing the same job for a doubtlessly thrilled audience before finding possibly its purest form in the exciting adventures of “Doctor Who”. American radio loved them too, producing possibly the greatest of them all in the fifteen minute nightly antics of Clayton “Bud” Collyer as Superman.
The Americans had been using the fifteen-minute formula for radio shows virtually ever since the medium was invented. They were ideal for telling short, snappy stories with a hook that would bring people back for the next episode, guaranteeing a built-in, sizeable audience.Usually these little dramas would focus on the trials and tribulations of family life – or possibly the tangled affairs of a domestic goddess or two. Since they were initially sponsored by manufacturers of household products, these serials became known as “Soap Operas” and they are with us to this day.
The format was soon adopted for children’s serials, of which “Superman” is probably my favourite. Managing to distill all of the fun and excitement of those early comic books, it even adds to the Superman mythos itself – Kryptonite and Clark’s editor Perry White both hail from the radio serial. Heavy on the breathless expository dialogue – “now, to the window. Open it. Climb out onto the window ledge and… up, up and away!”, they’re great fun, even when you’re a long way on the other side of the target age.
The BBC had an action-thriller serial of their own. Boy, did they have one. Running from 1946 to 1951, “Dick Barton” held the nation in its nightly grip. Millions tuned in for the exploits of ex-Commando Richard “Dick” Barton and his assistants Jock Anderson and “Snowy” White (occasionally aided and abetted by Dick’s love interest Jean Hunter).
The show was originally conceived by BBC producer Norman Collins, with scripts written by Edward J Mason and Geoffrey Webb. The series took a little time to get going (in “Dick Barton – A Very Special Agent” for BBC Radio 4, members of the cast recall attending the recording for the first episode and thinking that was it, little realising the impact it would soon have on their lives). Before too long though, the public interest was captured. Noel Johnson as Dick, Alex McCrindle as Jock and John Mann’s “Snowy White” rampaged across the airwaves every weekday evening at 6:45pm. Dick and his chums would romp breathlessly into the living rooms of the nation, accompanied by the greatest and most stirring theme tune known to man.
Even if you’ve never heard the original serial, “Devil’s Galop” by Charles Williams (I’m certain there should be an extra “l” in Galop, but all sources consulted point to the contrary) can still stir the blood and make you sit up and pay attention. So familiar and beloved is it that Monty Python’s Flying Circus were able to use it in a timed-to-perfection sequence involving the Spanish Inquisition attempting to get to the Old Bailey before the end of an episode, eliciting delighted cheers from an audience who could only have dim, fond memories of a serial that had ended eighteen years previously.
That serial made Noel Johnson famous, but – fed up with “being treated like a film star but not being paid anywhere as much as one”, Johnson became restless and gave up the role. Duncan Carse and finally Gordon Davies carried on the good work until the axe fell in 1951. For years rumours have been floating around that it was cancelled in favour of The Archers, but these appear to be unfounded, and possibly put about by people who still bear a grudge even after all these years at being deprived of their nightly fix of action/adventure.
There’s a rather splendid book by Roger Wilmut, “The Goon Show Companion”. Contained within its pages are a stirring personal memoir from Jimmy Grafton, the man who was widely regarded as the glue that held The Goons together. Known to all and loved by everyone, Grafton tells the story of how in the late forties Michael Bentine would career around the London streets in an old car, wildly improvising Dick Barton adventures in the company of his friends “Snock and Joey”. This unassuming little serial obviously grabbed his imagination, as it did millions.
Up until recently, it’s been next to impossible to actually hear any evidence of this remarkable phenomenon. Out of 711 original shows broadcast, the BBC retained just three (episodes 100, 442 and 711 plus a very few short clips). When the BBC celebrated its Golden Jubilee in 1972 Johnson, Mann and McCrindle returned in a splendid remake of the very first serial “The Secret Formula”, and that’s been more or less the only available representative material.
This sad state of affairs dramatically changed for the better last year, when freelance researcher Charles Norton discovered a remarkable haul at the National Film and Sound Archive in Australia. From about 1948 through to 1950, the Australians had been commissioning their own version of Dick Barton starring Douglas Kelly, and these were almost exact re-recordings of the original BBC scripts – even making use of all the original music cues. Norton uncovered an incredible 340 episodes worth of this remake, and suddenly – with one bound – Dick had escaped from oblivion – his seemingly final trap.
According to Norton the version of episode 100 which they found amongst this haul matches the original BBC version almost identically. Given minor variations in performance, we should be able to safely assume that this is – as near as dammit – as close to the original broadcasts as we are ever likely to get.
Since the news broke of this recovery last year I’ve been waiting, keeping my fingers crossed that we might eventually get to hear them, and it’s finally happened. Audiogo have released two complete stories from the Australian version of Dick Barton, and I couldn’t be happier.
They’re intelligently chosen as well. They appear to be the second and third adventures in the series, broadcast in Australia between 14th March and the 19th May 1949. With the 1972 remake already available, the first of these two adventures ( “Dick Barton and the Paris Adventure”) picks up exactly where the first serial finished.
A quick recap, a flurry of fists to see off one final protagonist from the previous story and we’re off. There’s no time to lose – before we’re even halfway through the first instalment Dick is off on another case – this time there’s evil afoot on the continent. There’s a smuggling ring in operation, and the police want it stopped. Dick is just the man for the job, if he can manage to go undercover and infiltrate the gang successfully. Is he up for it? Of course he is.
Before too long Dick, Jock and Snowy find themselves in Paris and in a heap of trouble. Dick’s girlfriend Jean Hunter is along for the ride as well. Jean would slowly find herself marginalised in the original BBC serial, since the BBC had no wish to offend the sizable audience they’d built up by any evidence of naughtiness. Indeed, there’s a point by point list dating from the time of all the things that the BBC wouldn’t allow in the serial. In a note that brooks no argument, this list states – “Sex plays no part in his adventures”.
For now though, Jean is along for the ride and for this first serial she plays a remarkably large role. Despite Dick’s urgent insistence that she should stay at home and be safe and behave herself, she tags along, rolls up her sleeves and gets stuck in. Barton’s in this up to his neck pretending to be an American criminal mastermind. Jean provides the perfect cover as a gangster moll type girlfriend, and she launches into it with gusto. Jock and Snowy are happy to provide both fists and brains – both of which will be necessary in order to unravel “The Paris Mystery”.
Dick manages to make the acquaintance of one “Spider Kennedy” (so called because he’s missing a thumb – eh?). Silky, duplicitous and occasionally sounding like Mark Gatiss, Spider is at the heart of a web of illegality, and he’s quite capable of seeing off the opposition with ease. He’s been running rings round the Paris Surete for years. Dick sets a trap – an irresistible cargo which will shortly be arriving in Paris aboard the good ship “Pride of Dresden”, and the rest is a flurry of fisticuffs, out of control trains, explosions, shootings and car-chases. And it’s absolutely wonderful fun. On this evidence, you can easily see why it took the public imagination by storm.
It must be said, this production is every bit as slick and professional as you could possibly want. Douglas Kelly is a revelation. When he’s playing Barton as himself he’s honest, foresquare and true – sounding like a precursor to Andrew Faulds as Jet Morgan from “Journey Into Space”. When he goes undercover he puts on a remarkable accent which puts him exactly halfway between Ben Lyon and Cec Linder, and it’s obvious that Kelly is having an absolute blast with the part. So is everyone else.
There are thugs-a-plenty. Femme Fatales abound. There’s even a killer dwarf with a ridiculous accent (presumably the reason why such play is being made of the way these serials reflect the attitudes of the time). Much delicious overacting is indulged in, but it doesn’t matter. There’s a heightened reality about this stuff that demands the actors go at it with gusto, and I guarantee you’ll race through all of the episodes in very short order. It was only about three days after I’d finished listening that the thought occurred to me – “hang on. If he hasn’t got a thumb, how can he hold a gun?” but that’s just my problem, not yours.
Sound quality is remarkable. Presumably these are coming from transcription discs and the sound is – for the most part – absolutely pristine. One or two of the episodes exhibit a tiny bit of crackle but nothing that could remotely detract from your enjoyment. Believe me, there’s worse out there. Anyone listening to the surviving episodes of “Quiet Please” will know that sometimes, there’s more crackle and distortion than narrative so to hear these clear-as-a-bell recordings is a pleasant surprise.
The end of each episode seems a little odd at first. The music begins, and an announcer delivers a single line teaser – “How will Dick and Snowy escape the moving car? Will Jock get there in time?” That sort of thing. They then trail off, leaving the music to play out for a minute or so. I’m guessing that this is to leave room for local announcers to deliver a station id along the lines of “Tune in tomorrow night at xxxx on your local station”. Quite a lot of American transcriptions have these gaps, but they’re usually signposted with cues like “and now, some messages from your local affiliate” or the like. Their absence on these master recordings leaves the episodes sheepishly trailing off a bit. On the other hand, it gives you a chance to appreciate the magnificent arrangement of that theme a bit more.
You might expect the pacing of a pre-1950’s radio serial to be a bit slow. Not a bit of it. These fifteen minute bite-sized episodes are just the right length to resolve the previous situation, move the plot along and set up another cliffhanger, and it’s a formula that doesn’t get tired. Yes, the dialogue and situations might seem a little trite now. Some of the characterisation may be a little clichéd to our cynical 21st century viewpoint. Know what? It doesn’t matter. Because these episodes are FUN. Let yourself go, settle yourself in and you’ll find that you’re having fun too. I’m off to listen to the second serial in this set of releases shortly. Quite frankly, I can’t wait.
Buy with complete confidence. You will – if you love rip-snorting adventure and derring-do in the old style – love these to pieces. I did. I do hope that there are more of these to come. As 60 year old pieces of drama they may creak a bit but there’s something captivating about the whole enterprise. I’d love to hear more.
Hugely recommended, “Dick Barton and the Paris Adventure” and “Dick Barton and the Cabatolin Diamonds” are available now from Audiogo.