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LUKE WILLIAMS reviews the latest James Bond radio play, and finds that, for James Bond at least, the wireless is not enough.

Toby Stephens plays James Bond in Radio 4's adaptation of On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Radio is a wonderful medium. Given the dross that pervades the majority of the television schedules, the spoken word medium has pluckily maintained its relevance and popularity largely through dint of a steely determination to hold true to what it does best. Radio 4, for example, while occasionally overburdened with pretentious travelogues, a slightly wearying earnestness and too many poor comedies, nevertheless remains the best source of political, historical and cultural discussion and analysis in the British media and one of the few examples of the BBC’s output which can be said to fully justify the existence of the embattled licence fee.

Nevertheless, Radio 4’s persistent penchant for radio drama is a peculiar phenomenon and such dramas remain something of an acquired taste. Despite the presence of radio drama on British and American airwaves for nearly 100 years, the simple burden of not being able to see any of the performers remains an obstacle that the medium has too often failed to surmount. As a consequence, Orson Welles’ justly acclaimed 1938 adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds remains the high watermark of the art and arguably its sole masterpiece (can you name another truly great radio drama? And, no, The Archers doesn’t qualify…)

This is not to say that radio drama is a dead, redundant or valueless art form, merely that the challenge of creating a rich imaginative tapestry which is sufficiently engaging to capture the attention of a listening audience, who may have only turned the radio on for a source of background noise, is an almost uniquely challenging task. A radio audience’s imaginative capacity can only be engaged (and their patient attention secured) by way of an extremely high level of creative inventiveness. This inventiveness must combine sound effects, a careful crafting of narrative and a clever use of dialogue which manages to be expository without appearing, well, too expository!

The pitfalls of radio drama are many and varied; chief among them is the fact that, in narrative structure as well as in performance, radio drama can all too easily veer into trite and simplistic melodrama and the broad strokes of caricature. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the superlative Season 4 episode of American sitcom Frasier entitled Ham Radio, where the eponymous radio shrink’s attempts to mount a radio drama end in farce and chaos (if you’ve never seen this masterclass in the art of the sitcom, then shame on you!) Furthermore, while a bad performance on screen can often be redeemed by clever editing, dubbing or use of camera angles, on radio such a performance can cripple an entire production.

All of which contextual musing brings me to the ‘Jarvis and Ayres’ production of Ian Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service which aired on Saturday 3 May 2014 on Radio 4 (not currently available on iPlayer, but doubtless it will return at fairly regular intervals). Directed by Martin Jarvis, adapted by Archie Scottney and starring Toby Stephens as Bond, OHMSS represented the fourth 007 adaptation mounted by Jarvis and his wife Rosalind Ayres’ production company. Like the previous three, it was a curate’s egg of a creation, partly due to its inability to surmount many of the challenges and limitations of the radio medium, as discussed above, and partly through some understandable, though unforgiveable, wrong headedness.

Chief among the production’s virtues were its cast. Stephens, shorn of the grating and over the top sneer which characterised his disastrous portrayal of Gustav Graves in Die Another Day, proved a thoroughly competent and believable Bond, equally adept whether the character was engaged in action, thought or romance. Meanwhile Joanna Lumley, while not quite matching up to the peerless repulsiveness of Ilse Steppat’s 1969 film portrayal, also proved an extremely able, as well as virtually unrecognisable (aurally speaking!), Irma Bunt. Among the rest of the ensemble, Alfred Molina was perfectly cast as Blofeld – more appropriate casting than that of Donald Pleasance, Telly Savalas or Charles Gray in fact – while Alex Jennings was an engaging Draco and John Standing captured the essence of ‘M’ as well as anyone since Bernard Lee. On the casting flipside, Lisa Dillon proved a disappointing Tracy, failing to capture the character’s beguiling mixture of vulnerability and spunk.

Actor Toby Stephens who plays James Bond in the Radio 4 adaptation of Ian Fleming's On Her Majesty's Secret Service surrounded by female cast members including Joanna Lumley (who plays Irma Bunt)

ABOVE: Actor Toby Stephens who plays James Bond in the Radio 4 adaptation of Ian Fleming's On Her Majesty's Secret Service surrounded by female cast members including Joanna Lumley (who plays Irma Bunt). INSET: Alfred Molina who plays Blofeld.

The sound work throughout was also solid, but the main problem with this version of OHMSS (as with the previous three Jarvis and Ayres productions) was the narrative approach. As with these productions, the action was frequently abbreviated by sections of narration by Jarvis himself, in the guise of Ian Fleming. Unfortunately, Jarvis sounds about as much like Fleming as Dominic Cooper in that god-awful Sky TV show (the memory of which my subconscious is still trying to erase). More importantly, the uncomfortable balance between a genuine radio play and third-person narrated action only served to constantly remove the listener from any atmosphere which the actors managed to create, resulting in an almost complete absence of tension.
The overly melodramatic musical score by Michael Lopez was also misguided. Although obviously intended to underline and accentuate the emotion and tension of the narrative, the score actually only served to undermine it. Indeed, by halfway through the play, I found my mind wandering and absorbed by other matters: what was going on in the football, for example? And did I have time to pop and make a cup of tea before Tracy was killed?

Other aspects of the production also grated. For starters, the haphazard order in which these four stories have been adapted for radio is extremely irritating - Dr. No was broadcast in 2008, followed by Goldfinger in 2010 and From Russia With Love in 2012. The only obvious logic at work in this sequence is that the choice of adaptations has been tailored to suit a mainstream audience whose understanding of James Bond rests almost exclusively on the iconic 1960s films. Presumably, then, these titles have been chosen in a bid to maximise ratings, but I would have thought that Radio 4 should be immune from chasing audience figures, what with my quaintly old-fashioned view of public service broadcasting.

BBC Radio 4 From Russia With Love (2012)

To be frank, I cannot help but feel that Fleming fans deserve better than the current gravy train of poorly written continuation sequels and lazy radio adaptations. If we are going to adapt Fleming for radio, why not actually plan a proper series of thorough and robust adaptations in which the script is more important than celebrity casting? Why not actually adapt the novels in the order they were written? DR. NO could then naturally follow FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE with THUNDERBALL preceding ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, thus building a potential story arc and greater continuity than the isolated dramas of the past few years (who knows, this might even draw more listeners in!) Failing that, why not utilise some of the more downbeat short stories, such as QUANTUM OF SOLACE, THE HILDEBRAND RARITY and THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS which are far better suited to the radio medium than a sprawling epic such as OHMSS?

Finally, it’s worth noting that in a further sop to the dominant public perception of James Bond being a reflection of the films rather than the books, the adaptation of OHMSS saw fit to shoehorn ‘M’, Moneypenny and ‘Q’ into the Bond-Tracy wedding scene at the end. By then, though, I’d stopped caring, and instead begun idly daydreaming of a far superior James Bond radio dramatisation – 1990’s Radio 4 version of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE starring Michael Jayston – an adaptation that sensibly recognised the limitations of radio in translating fights and car chases into sound-only affairs and therefore focused on the least action-packed Bond novel of all, using interior monologue, sound effects and script to splendid effect. We never got the sequel that we deserved in the form of an adaptation of THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN. But, as Ian Fleming fans know only too well these days (and with apologies to The Rolling Stones), you can’t always get what you want.