Mining the Riches of CBC Radio Drama

I am very fortunate to have received an Ontario Arts Council Chalmers Arts Fellowship.  The fellowship has three components: to re-examine the rich archives of Canadian radio drama, to explore audio/radio drama that is currently being produced, and then re-imagine what new forms of audio drama could be created for Canadian listeners. 

Over the last month, I’ve had the treat of being down in the CBC archives listening to the best of the best of what CBC has produced before it was so unceremoniously dumped in 2012, due to budget cutbacks by You-Know-Who. I asked different folks about their favourites, I was looking for material that wasn’t necessarily already on my radar. So no Afghanadas, or Dudlies, and well.. I could have been down there a year and not listened to even a small percentage.

The earliest drama I listened to was from 1942, part of a series called Baker’s Dozen produced by Andrew Allan out of Vancouver.  It wasn’t a complete episode, but the part I listened to was pretty brilliant.  A little emotionally over the top, as was the style then, but honestly over the top, which I kind of love. A piece from 1946 called Burlap Bags, written by the prolific Len Peterson was a scathing satire about a man who finds himself in a world in which everyone wears a burlap bag over their heads to keep out what is really happening in the world – OK yes, it hits you over the head, but perhaps we could use a little political whack over the head from time to time. I listened to several episodes of W.O. Mitchell’s ever so charming Jake and the Kid, starring the brilliant John Drainie (who is also superlative in The Investigator, a 1954 indictment of McCarthyism.  You can hear it on CBC here.)  I listened to classic 1960s episodes of Johnny Chase: Secret Agent of Space (including one with a very funny Kate Reid as a intergalactic queen), several episodes of  Nero Wolf, (1982) starring Mavor Moore and Don Franks (in the episode called “Disguise for Murder”, there is a lovely long scene with Fiona Reid.)

 Yes, some of the things I listened to sounded really dated, some that were probably outlandishly experimental for their time now sound flowery. Of course, these dramas weren’t produced with me in mind, they were produced for the radio listeners of their time. There was an interesting drama from 1981 called The Young Comic and the Folksinger, with Martin Short and Dixie Seatle. Very well produced and acted, charming, but a bit earnest for modern ears. However, so many I listened to really hold up.

There was a two-part Scales of Justice episode, dealing with the story of Steven Truscott. I can’t believe I didn’t come across this while doing research for Innocence Lost. Edward Greenspan comments on the case, Eric Peterson plays a very young Steven very well, plus Gordon Pinsent, plus Pierre Berton reading his poem, Requiem for a Fourteen-Year-Old and even Torquil Campbell as one of the child witnesses. I loved a Bill Lane produced episode of Vanishing Point, written by Judith Thompson, called Quickening: Nancy Palk and Michael Hogan knocked my socks off.

 In 1986, Stephen Katz produced a series called Cranks about oddball Canadians of the past.  The one I listened to about Aimee Semple McPherson was fantastic.  I also really liked Dave Carley’s dramatization of a Julio Cortazar short story, The Southern Freeway: Michael Ball and Brenda Robins, en route to Paris, are stuck in traffic…for months.  Also…David S Craig’s outrageous Radio Napalm, the political satire National Affairs (produced by Gregory J. Sinclair, written by Jason Sherman with Susan Coyne, Cathy Disher and Albert Schultz),  and the James Roy produced  How to Make Love to an Actor by George F. Walker: so lovely to hear the dearest Gina Wilkinson, who was a terrific radio actor. Monique Mojica was splendid in her Birdwoman and the Suffragettes, directed by Banuta Rubess for the Adventure Stories for (big) Girls series, with music by Jani Lauzen.

 One of my absolute favorites was called Where the Sun Don’t Shine, produced by Stephen Katz in 1981. A very funny, clever script by Hugh Graham about “hapless Latimer Davenport who leaves the city to work as a farm hand for the crazy Rawlinson family”, starring Nicky Guadagni (fantastic),  with Anne Anglin, Wayne Robson and Ditch Dickinson.

OK but the best for me.... was listening to a deliciously old CBS produced soap opera called Big Sister. It was originally produced in the 1940s but CBC replayed a string of episodes one summer on Morningside. I was at our remote summer cottage that summer, and tuned in every day. I fell in love with the medium of radio drama and how, when done well, it demands the full use of my imagination and tells stories in such an absolutely unique way.

 Next up: listening to what’s being produced now.