I continue this week with the second part of my Olympics-inspired playlist.
Escape, December 31, 1947
“You are lost in a London fog, uncertain whether the figures looming around you are real or creatures of your imagination. And somewhere in the wet grayness lurks a murderer, from whom you must escape.”
Story: A Canadian soldier, shell-shocked from his World War II service, becomes disoriented on a foggy London evening and encounters a mysterious woman who soon ends up dead.
Based Upon: A short story by Algernon Blackwood, a prolific and influential author of horror fiction.
Notable Cast Members: Bill Conrad, one the best and most ubiquitous actors in old-time radio, plays the soldier. Fellow Generation Xers will remember Conrad best as TV’s Cannon and Jake from Jake and The Fatman. It can be hard, at first, to erase that visual from your mind as you listen to his radio work. His powerful performances soon engage your full attention, however. In my opinion, he did his finest work as Matt Dillon on radio’s Gunsmoke.
Peggy Webber, who plays the mysterious woman, will be familiar to viewers of TV’s Dragnet because she appeared in roughly a zillion episodes. She also worked as a writer, producer, and director in the early days of television, and she helped to found the California Artists Radio Theatre.
About Escape: Escape was “radio’s greatest series of high adventure,” according to John Dunning’s On the Air. It ran from 1947 to 1954, a sister series to the longer-running Suspense. Several things distinguish the two series. First, Suspense had bigger budgets and, thus, big-name guest stars, throughout most of its run. Those big budgets came from sponsors, which Escape didn’t have. This is a plus for the modern Escape listener—you don’t have to hear, or fast-forward through, grating commercials. (Yes, Autolite, I’m looking at you.) Escape tended to use more exotic settings than Suspense and dabbled more in the supernatural. Also, on Suspense things tended to end well; Escape often went for the darker ending. (I wonder how much sponsors, or the lack thereof, had to do with this.) Both series are excellent—they are in my top five favorite radio shows, and which one ranks higher just depends upon my mood.
My Verdict: This is a solid episode. A sense of dread slowly envelops the listener as the fog envelops Conrad’s character, and the ending is satisfyingly chilling.
“The Hands of Mr. Ottermole”
Suspense, December 2, 1948
“By all means, sergeant, let’s talk about…murder.”
Story: A journalist and a police sergeant talk about a serial strangler who’s menacing London. Since the script takes pains to avoid telling us the men’s names, it’s obvious one of them is the deadly Mr. Ottermole.
Based Upon: A short story of the same name by Thomas Burke, an author who specialized in portraying London and its working-class citizens. Burke published “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole” in 1931. According to Ellery Queen, “No finer crime story has ever been written, period.”
Notable Cast Members: Vincent Price and Claude Rains star in this episode. Price, of course, was made for creepy tales like this, but it’s Claude Rains who really shines.
About Suspense: Suspense billed itself, with ample justification, as “radio’s outstanding theater of thrills.” Extremely popular, it ran for 22 years (1940-1962). For much of that time, it attracted top Hollywood stars, who often got the chance to play roles that contrasted with their on-screen image. William Spier produced Suspense in its best years and, according to Dunning, “personally guided every aspect of the show, molding story, voice, sound effects, and music into audio masterpieces.”
My Verdict: Suspense is another of my top-five shows and an excellent introduction to old-time radio for new listeners. This episode is very good, with a script that keeps you guessing and an outstanding performance by Rains.
Final Fun Fact: Alfred Hitchcock Presents offered a TV adaptation of this story in 1957. You can watch it free via Hulu.
“Disaster in London”
Top Secret, August 6, 1950
“I think I will never feel anything again, ever.”
Story: A double agent is collaborating on a scheme to poison the London water supply with deadly bacteria.
Notable Cast Members: Top Secret starred Ilona Massey, or “beautiful Ilona Massey,” as she’s billed here. Nope, I had never heard of her either. She was a Hungarian actress who had a brief movie and television career.
About Top Secret: This NBC spy drama ran for only four months in 1950.
My verdict: This show is interesting. Spies didn’t proliferate in old-time radio the way cowboys and detectives did. Massey’s female spy is not ditzy or dependent on the men surrounding her. She’s a classic spy—world-weary, but brutally efficient. As this episode opens, she’s seeing to it that an enemy agent meets his doom under an oncoming subway train! She shows compassion, however, for the mother of the story’s double agent. This is the first Top Secret episode I’ve heard, and I will definitely seek out more. (Unfortunately, the sound quality is poor.)
“Portrait of London”
The CBS Radio Workshop, July 20, 1956
“This is possibly one of the most lovely views. I thought it was good from Westminster Bridge, but I shall always now think that Big Ben has a very special one. I’m looking directly down on Westminster Bridge, over the Thames. I can see St. Paul’s, and it is the perfect time of day, the end of the day, and the sun is shining.”
About the Episode: Sarah Churchill, actress and daughter of Sir Winston Churchill, narrates a documentary-style tour of London. Her tour includes the London Zoo, where she visits a lion that the Lions Club of America donated to her father; Petticoat Lane Market, where a seller demonstrates small figures of Sir Winston that puff on cigars; a rainy rehearsal for Trooping the Colour; and a trip to the top of the tower that houses Big Ben.
About The CBS Radio Workshop: Coming at the end of the radio era, this was an experimental anthology program that wasn’t afraid to take chances. Dunning quotes CBS Vice President Howard Barnes as saying, “We’ll never get a sponsor anyway, so we might as well try anything.”
My Verdict: This is absolutely charming. The sound patterns and interviews with Londoners and tourists come together to paint a vivid picture of the city. Sarah Churchill was beset by personal problems during the 1950s, but she makes a warm and enthusiastic host here. I’m a lifelong Anglophile, but I’ve only had the privilege of visiting London once. This program made me long to go again.
Google-Worthy References: While visiting Big Ben, Churchill learned that pennies are placed on the clock’s pendulum to adjust its timekeeping for accuracy. I had to know if they still use pennies; they do, although some of the original pennies have been replaced by a five-pound coin that commemorates the 2012 Olympics.
Final Fun Facts: I tried to find out more about Rusty, the lion featured here, to no avail. Rota the lion, presented to Winston Churchill in 1943, is much more well known. Rota died in 1955, so Rusty–whom his keeper says is young–must have been a kind of replacement. (You can see Rota, stuffed, at the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine, Florida.)
My quest to research Rusty led me to some other interesting destinations. This fascinating article describes Churchill’s attempt to bring a platypus to England, and this vintage London Zoo map has wonderful graphics, including an image of Churchill walking his lion and his kangaroo.