More Radio Dramas, Please!

neverwhere cast

Part of the cast of “Neverwhere”

On March 18, BBC Radio 4 will premiere a star-studded adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock), Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones) and James McAvoy (X-Men First Class) will appear — or at least their voices will — in five 30-minute installments that will air in the U.K. over the course of one week. It’s been almost two decades since Gaiman’s Neverwhere appeared on British television, and it’s since spawned a novelization, comic series and a stage play. A radio play, crazy and archaic though it may sound, is a fantastic idea for reanimating a sci-fi series — and one that American producers should adopt.

There was a time when American radio was studded with fabulous tales told through sound. The adventures of Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, the Lone Ranger, Superman, the Green Hornet and many more could be heard from the 1930s and ‘40s well into, in some cases, the 1950s (you can still listen to some of them at RadioLovers.com. But while the BBC maintained a strong tradition of presenting serialized radio dramas, dramatic radio on U.S. commercial stations dropped off after television became a fixture of American homes. During its early history, NPR broadcast several radio dramas, including a 1981 play based on Star Wars, starring none other than Mark Hamill. But, by the early 2000s, NPR had canceled the majority of its regular fiction offerings.

So why do I think Americans should seek out and produce more radio dramas? Because radio is tenacious, infectious and, most importantly, personal.

Take the mother of all radio dramas, War of the Worlds. When Orson Welles broadcast his adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel in October 1938, audience members were so startled that many actually believed the United States was under attack. And before you say that this could only happen in a more innocent time, Radiolab reported that two separate rebroadcasts of War of the Worlds in 1949 and 1960 had the same result. People believed the story. Even with our creepy-real modern visual effects, most experienced movie-watchers can point out where the seams are. Radio doesn’t transport you to another world with effects, it takes you there with words. You are left to trust your narrator, the voices in your ear. I once had a teacher who was fond of saying, “Radio is a visual medium.” When you hear descriptions of space invaders out of the mouth of a talented actor, something imaginary (and almost unbelievable) can become visually, viscerally real.

Take, for example, this recent story from The Truth, “Do You Have a Minute For Equality.” I first heard it while driving down a dark, snowy street. I knew the actress telling me this creepy little tale wasn’t actually entering a room full of teeth, but the extra step of suspending my disbelief — not just waiting for everything to be realized in front of my face in full-frame HD — made me a participant, complicit in the story. And if you think about it, that’s a far more interactive way to get your entertainment fix.

I have high hopes for the BBC 4 adaptation of Neverwhere. In addition to McAvoy as Richard Mayhew, Cumberbatch as Islington and Dormer as Door, the play will feature Homeland’s David Harewood as Marquis de Carabas, Sophie Okonedo as Hunter, Buffy alum Anthony Steward Head as Croup, Romola Garai (Atonement) as Jessica, and Sir Christopher Lee (Lord of the Rings) as the Earl of Earl’s Court.

With a cast of this caliber, I am hopeful the actors can weave together a vision of London Below as vivid as anything.

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Comments

  • AdamH12110

    Radio dramas are okay, but I’d rather see the return of movie serials.

  • Gido

     We still have radio dramas – they’ve just moved onto the internet and are now called ‘podcasts’. The zombie-survival story We’re Still Alive is pretty fantastic, as is Chistof Laputka’s the Leviathan Chronicles. If anyone is interested in ACTUAL radio broadcasts however, http://www.relicradio.com has the actual broadcast recordings from dozens of old radio shows. I personally dig the Strange Tales grouping.

  • Turtletrekker

    NPR’s radia adaptations of the Star Wars OT were all worth listening to, even if only Star Wars and Empire were truly phenomenal.

  • LordByron

    Thanks for suggesting this. Old-Time Radio, or OTR, as it’s called, has a kind of hokey reputation due to it’s being mentioned in passing in pop culture, but on the contrary, classic radio beats television in so many ways. Where a tv show can be engaging, it’s also passive. With radio, you are a participant, using your imagination- I think more people should check out classic OTR like Suspense, X Minus One, The Jack Benny Show, Broadway Is My Beat, etc.

  • Cyberwulf

    try decoder ring theater, they have this hero series called the red panda, it’s very popular in canada from what i hear

  • Jumborgace

    If you want contemporary radio dramas of some of your favorite shows (Dr. Who, Dark Shadows, Highlander, Stargate, Blakes’ 7, Sapphire and Steel and 2000AD) check out http://www.bigfinish.com.
    I don’t work for them but I’ve spent countless dollars/hours listening to them. They are really quite excellent and fantastic for that drive to work or flight to visit in-laws. They have other, original programs as well. In most cases the dramas actually feature the stars from the shows.  Do yourself a favor and check it out. You don’t have to buy them but you do owe it to yourself to at least look.

    Cheers

  • MadMikeyD

    Yes, check out DecoderRingTheatre.com. Both the Red Panda and Black Jack Justice are awesome. The Red Panda is making his comic debut this week from MonkeyBrain. Audio Dramas, OTR and online, are my favorite form of entertainment.

  • MadMikeyD

    Jake Sampson: Monster Hunter from Brokensea.com is also a great show.

  • Ash

    That cast for Neverwhere has got to be hella expensive. If they’re only using their voices, why not get good unknowns?

  • Matt D

    Big Finish’s Doctor Who audios are consistently great. Especially the 10th doctor stuff. 

  • samdapoet

    Arkansas Tech University has a radio theater program.  I’ve been in two productions.  Henry V was adapted for the radio, I played 4 different characters in that.  The story of Saul & David from the Bible was also adapted.  I played Saul in that one.  They’re in the process of trying to get them online.  I serve as the recording assistant until this semester is finished.  Recent productions include a Sherlock Holmes short story and a comic book parody that has currently finished recording 4 episodes.

    As an actor (amateur mostly) and a performance poet, I like working on the radio theater because the sounds are important in drawing you into the story.  I like stage acting too, but radio theater is fun as well.

  • them0use

    Seconded re Decoder Ring Theater, they make great stuff!

  • @jheintz58

    No thanks.  I still have all my dads old Abbott and Costello radio drama tapes and their great but no I’m not interested in listening to any new stuff.

  • Casey Thomasson

    Thirded! A fantastic series!

  • MadMikeyD

    You don’t need to listen to the new stuff. Between the previously mentioned OTR sites, the Internet Archive and the OTRR group, there’s so many original broadcasts available (mostly free) you’d never hear them all.

  • qbert

    The Truth is the best drama happening anywhere. Short radio fiction that feel like movies. http://www.thetruthapm.com

  • finalrune

    Thanks so much for giving a shout out to the wonderful (and dreadfully underappreciated) medium of contemporary radio drama.  Folks who want something epic in scope can here my post-apocalyptic drama The Cleansed: http://thecleansed.com/ totally free as a podcast.  I also feature a variety of material via my podcast, Radio Drama Revival http://www.radiodramarevival.com/ which has over 250 hours of radio drama content in its archives… That’s far from dead!

  • http://www.audiocomicscompany.com/ Audiocomics

    Since I’ve posted here a few times with the company name, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention AudioComics. Since 2010, with the audio adaptation of the original stage play “Starstruck,” the AudioComics Company has been producing professional, full-cast audio dramas, or as we call them “audio movies,” based on creator-owned comic books and graphic novels, works from medium to small publishers, and genre fiction. http://www.audiocomicscompany.com
     
    Also, Tom Lopez: since 1972, Tom has been producing some of the best audio available through his company ZBS at http://www.zbs.org, most notably the “Ruby” and “Jack Flanders” series, along with his newer works (“Steampunk State of Mind,” “2 Minute Film Noirs,” etc.). There’s several hundred hours available through Tom, and they’re among the best you’ll ever hear.
     
    What I would love to hear is a movie AWAY from OTR and toward more “We’re Alive” and “Ruby;” ultimately in a society that lives and breathes movies, television, and video games, we have completely forgotten that audio may very well be the most visual medium there is, because with what little is provided, with what little is needed, you can create a billion dollar movie for your mind for a five figure budget TAILOR MADE FOR THAT AUDIENCE MEMBER. YOUR vision of how the action is, not Joss Whedon’s or Martin Campbell’s; YOUR vision.

    This is from an interview with ”Neverwhere” director Dirk Maggs, done by fellow audio drama genius Roger Gregg (credit goes where credit is due):

    “The future of radio drama is very bright as long as people have to drive long distances in their cars. That’s the fact of it. Radio drama and audio theatre will only die when they invent the Star Trek type beaming device. Because until then, there is a captive market for it. Quite apart from the devotees who understand that when you are doing the ironing it’s a great thing to listen to. Or kids at bedtime who tuck in with their headphones on.

    “Publishers and broadcasters must encourage young people to listen because otherwise they’ll be looking at a dwindling older and older audience. This is why doing a series like ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’ and the ‘Supermans’ and the ‘Batmans’ are so important. And doing them with budgets that allow multi cast and plenty of post production time.

    “Some people may look down their noses on popular material, and it hasn’t always been an easy business selling populist productions to would-be broadcasters. But the fact is that, done well,this is not just sugar coated pap – this kind of material can deal with profound issues. It attracts people. It attracts kids to listen. And kids are the future of everything.
     
    “Seriously, though, I don’t think it will ever die for as long as people make good productions. It’s up to us to do the best work we can – otherwise what we do will die and that would be the ultimate tragedy because audio is the best medium to tell stories in – bar none!”‘

    Simply put, the modern audio drama industry, which isn’t even as much of an industry as it should be, has the potential to make the millions upon millions the single narrator audio book industry makes. What needs to happen: getting the young to listen, providing more training opportunites, putting audio back on commercial radio (would you rather hear the same Top 40 songs on your commute home or a full cast production of “Neverwhere” written and produced for this generation in mind?), not public as NPR stated that they would never air audio dramas again (beginning with a management change in the early 1990′s). Everyone on these boards complains one way or another about how DC is screwing around with their film properties; answer: do them as audio dramas on an ongoing basis as Graphic Audio used to. See the reasons above. Not to mention it’s cost effective. I don’t believe Hollywood will ever do any of Vertigo properties justice. As audio dramas, though…

    It’s with the simple measures above that those in this country will take the art form seriously again, which could mean some serious funding to create works that would make the BBC salivate.

    But most importantly, we’ve got to start LISTENING again. Damn it. And now he steps down from his soapbox.

    Lance Roger Axt
    The AudioComics Company

  • http://www.audiocomicscompany.com/ Audiocomics

    Try the new stuff. Trying to get comics fans to try anything new is like pulling teeth, I’ll admit, but the work that’s out there is worth your time.

  • http://www.audiocomicscompany.com/ Audiocomics

    Unfortunately, the 10th Doctor is BBC. Big Finish’s contract allows them to use Doctors 4 – 8. not Chris Eccleston on.

  • http://www.audiocomicscompany.com/ Audiocomics

    Why can’t we have both?

  • http://www.audiocomicscompany.com/ Audiocomics

    Whatever it takes to get listeners listening!!!