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COVER STORY

Stepping Out of Character

Hearing is believing for the best radio drama.

July 05, 1998|Mark Swed | Classical Music and Opera Critic

Did you ever wonder what critics do, when they're not, well, criticizing? They're a lot more than the sum of their reviews. Almost like regular people. Really. The art critic likes junk TV. The movie critic swoons over opera. The theater critic listens to 'girl' singers. Go figure.

With that in mind we thought we'd indulge a summer fantasy and let our critics show a side of themselves you might not imagined. Here are some of the things they love to watch or when they're not even getting paid to do it.

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It was Bloomsday, a couple of weeks ago, and with a June drizzle, L.A. was as dark and dank as Dublin. I had some driving to do, so I popped a favorite radio show into the cassette player. Bloomsday--June 16--is the anniversary of the 1904 day in the life of Leopold Bloom, and in the life of Dublin, that makes up James Joyce's "Ulysses." The favorite radio show is a six-hour dramatization of the novel that was broadcast on the BBC in Britain five years ago and is available in this country on cassette through BBD Audio (usually found shelved with the audio books in bookstores).

"Ulysses" has a reputation for difficulty. Joyce's experimental use of language and the richness of his classical allusions have intimidated casual readers for decades. And yet this dramatization, entirely faithful to the language and the novel's bawdy exuberance, proved hugely popular when first broadcast by the BBC, especially among those who had never had the nerve to crack open Joyce's masterpiece.

Why? For one very simple reason. You've got to hear it to appreciate it. What looks daunting on the page turns out to be sounds we recognize, the physical sounds of bodies, the disconnected mutterings of minds, the noises of the environment. Suddenly the characters--to say nothing of Dublin, itself--come to life though these sounds. Radio makes it all make sense.

"Everyone likes a good story," Orson Welles said as he introduced the first of his Mercury Theatre radio broadcasts 60 years ago, "and I think radio is just about the best storyteller there is." And it pays to consider just who Welles was, though only 23, when he said this. Welles was already famous as one of the most brilliant directors and actors on Broadway. He was just about to start work on one of the greatest American films of all time, "Citizen Kane." He had been an opera critic. He knew, in other words, something about the different ways of storytelling in the performing arts.

Welles' Mercury Theatre and the BBC over the years are, to my mind, the pinnacles of radio drama. I happened to discover them, and the power of radio, as a teenager in Los Angeles in the early '60s, and they evoked Broadway and the West End more vividly than would have been possible in any other medium.

In those days I was learning opera from recordings and scores (since local opera stagings were mostly limited to San Francisco Opera imports in the cavernous Shrine Auditorium), and I was also glued to KPFK, which was then the place to hear the latest in music and theater. Firesign Theater held forth late at night. William Malloch, the station's imaginative music director, inspired a passion in many listeners for Ives and Mahler. One's aural imagination got a very good workout.

But most importantly, the station regularly played recordings of the "Goon Show," which demonstrated how radio could stretch the outer limits of lunacy to the point of creating an alternative comic universe. Dreamed up in the early '50s for the BBC by three outrageous British comics, one of whom was Peter Sellers, the Goons were wild caricatures of British stereotypes. (Sellers' characters included the suave cad, Hercules Grytpype-Thynne, the cowardly and pompous Major Bloodnok, the ancient but ever lecherous Henry Crun and the young scout, Bluebottle, who read the stage directions along with his lines.)

The parodies were so extreme that they defied all sense of reality, as did the plots. Describing them deflates them (that's radio for you!). But the Goons were addictive. England fell under their sway. The queen, I once read, was such a fan that royal business at Buckingham ceased when the show aired.

The Goons, I submit, had a significant effect on all of modern culture, popular and high. Sellers, of course, became one of the most celebrated comedians of his day. Richard Lester, the show's director in the late '50s, went on to direct a number of wry British films, including the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help," and thus his "Goon Show"-fed comic sensibility became a worldwide phenomenon. "Monty Python's Flying Circus" was a direct descendant.

In one "Goon Show" episode from 1954, the dreaded disease lurgi strikes Britain, causing its victims to uncontrollably exclaim, "Eeeeeeeeh Yakka-Boo" in midsentence. Hearing of the disastrous "cuinsequonces" of lurgi, which struck first in the Isle of Ewe, Ned Seagoon replies, "I love you too. Shall we dance?"

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