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Sunday, January 06, 2013

Serial Thrillers: A review


Steve Winders reviews Charles Norton’s new book about four immensely popular characters from the Golden Age of British Radio

Running to an impressive 280 pages, Charles Norton’s book focuses on just four radio heroes, but as these just happen to be my favourites and the most popular; I have no arguments with this. The four are Paul Temple, Dick Barton, Journey into Space and Dan Dare. As an enthusiastic fan, I already know quite a lot about these programmes, so it is a great credit to the book and to Norton’s research that I have learned so much more about all of them from reading it. In addition to providing many background details about all the shows and how they were created, he also continues their stories to the present day, with information about foreign versions, film and television adaptations and revivals. The only character he hasn’t followed in other media is Dan Dare, who was first and foremost a strip cartoon character before becoming a star on Radio Luxembourg. Quite rightly, Norton concentrates on his radio life, even covering the 1990 B.B.C. revival, although he omits to mention the Spanish radio adaptation of the serials, Diego Valor, which proved just as successful as the Luxembourg original. In an otherwise full and detailed account of Dick Barton’s career, he only mentions the 1998 radio comedy series Richard Barton, Medical Practitioner, about the special agent and his doctor son, in the briefest footnote. But these minor omissions are negligible and I only raise them because his coverage is so thorough.

The author also details the various attempts to track down lost episodes of all these serials, which make interesting stories in themselves. The B.B.C. were notorious for the way they wiped so many popular programmes. All three of their series have missing episodes and in all cases more have been found by determined enthusiasts. The B.B.C. kept just a small sample of the Dick Barton episodes and it was Norton himself who recently tracked a large collection of Australian re-recordings, which are currently being released on CD in Britain. Radio Luxembourg proved even worse than the B.B.C. in looking after its Dan Dare episodes. At the time of writing, only two episodes of the hundreds made, were known to have survived. Despite the lack of surviving episodes, Norton has provided transmission details for all the programmes and where possible, brief synopses of the stories. He has also interviewed many surviving key figures from the serials, including Charles Chilton, the creator of Journey Into Space and the actors, David Jacobs and Desmond Carrington. Of course, many of those involved are now deceased, but he has drawn upon a wide range of past interviews to ensure that they too have their say.

The book has a curious Foreword by Nicholas Parsons, in which he extols the virtues of radio drama over the years without referring specifically to any of the four featured series and reserving special praise for the efforts of Val Gielgud, as Head of the Drama Department at the B.B.C. Gielgud is then severely criticised by Norton in the book for his disdain for popular taste and squarely blamed for the cancellation of Dick Barton! However this clash of opinions makes this foreword more interesting than the vacuous unqualified praise for the forthcoming contents that are found in most forewords.

There are no photographs in the book, which is, after all about sound, not images. Appropriately, the cover is a picture of a radio mast. Serial Thrillers is available as a softback book at £16.99, from Kaleidoscope Publishing or from and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in these heroes of radio.

Serial Thrillers: The Adventure Serial on British Radio by Charles Norton. Kaleidoscope Publishing ISBN 978-1900203456, 2012.

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