Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Old Time Radio interlude: The Voyage of the Scarlet Queen

I'm a big fan of Old Time Radio (OTR as it is known online), going way back to my childhood. When I was a kid growing up on Vancouver Island, I had an insatiable appetite for any kind of fantastic narrative. We did not have a television (which was probably a good move by my parents, looking back) so I read a lot and listened to the radio a lot. One of my favourite things was on Wednesday night on CFMI, an otherwise mediocre AOR light rock station, they had one hour of comedy followed by one hour of classic radio shows, usually two of a half-hour each. I don't know what was the impetus behind this programming, but I am grateful for it, as it gave me so much entertainment. I used to record the shows on cassette and still have a case of recorded cassettes in my parents basement. The Shadow, The Whistler, Suspense, Gunsmoke, Boston Blackie, X-1 were on regular rotation. Each episode (really even just the intro) pulled me into another world. I don't know if it is a function of the medium itself or nostalgia, but even today those shows have a power on me that goes far beyond even the most awesome 3-D movie spectacle, an ability to really make me feel like I am in another world.

I also mention the great CBC, which used to also play them on weekend afternoons from time to time. Sometimes we would listen to them together as a family while making lunch or just hanging out. I think it may have been part of The Mystery Project, but I'm not sure.

For the longest time, getting one's hands on OTR episodes was quite hard. You could buy cassettes of them, but they were really expensive. Later, when CDs were the standard, they still seemed hard to come by. I understand there was a whole network of people who used to trade them. Sometimes you could find used cassettes for more reasonable prices at used bookstores.

Enter the internet. In the last 10 years, everything has changed. You can find pretty well every existing old-time radio show online in .mp3 format. There are also several podcasts that will deliver them to you on a regular basis, sometimes with some great background info such as The Radio Detective Story Hour (though I wish the host, Jim Widner, would chill on the spoilers in his otherwise excellent and thorough introductions).

So I've really been in pig heaven when it comes to old-time radio shows. A friend gave me a DVD that had literally hundreds, including entire series and I went hogwild for a while. But I also listen to many different podcasts on the regular and they soon crowded out my OTR listening, except for the aforementioned Radio Detective Story Hour (and of course the top-notch Decoder Ring Theatre podcast, which is a show produced today, but done in the spirit of the old-time shows; highly, highly recommended).

Which brings me finally to the title of this blog: The Voyage of the Scarlet Queen. For some reason, I never came into contact with this great series until a few years ago, when I saw it mentioned on a game designer's blog. Checking around, I found it had an excellent reputation and the set-up certainly seemed right up my alley: it's the tale of a freighter ketch, the Scarlet Queen, and the adventures her crew gets in during their voyage around the South Seas and mysterious Orient. It was considered a big budget show at the time and was a big succcess, though considered a bit broad by the critics of the time. The show's producer and also the actor who played the lead character, captain Philip Carney was Elliott Lewis, a pretty succesful player in the radio game back in the day.

Each show begins with the captain's log, which is actually written after the events in the show, just as the boat was leaving that port, thus giving a hint to the adventure to come. Though each episode stood alone, it had an overarching plot. The Scarlet Queen was on hire to one entrepeneur Kang, who was in a race to find these ancient Chinese treasures worth $10 million. There was his evil counterpart, who was constantly working to undermine the Scarlet Queen's mission.

What inspired me to write about it, is that I have been listening to the 33-episode series slowly over the last year or so. I have to admit that around the 15th episode, they started to blur together a bit. But yesterday, while on a long walk with the dog, my interest was piqued again, as I listened to several episodes in a row and realized that they were actually wrapping up the overall narrative about the Chinese treasures. There was a three-episode arc (episodes 19-21) where they actually did that! It was very cool. I've never encountered a radio series that did that and I found it very satisfying. In the following episode, captain Carney goes on to his first mate how great it feels that they can now just go wherever, do whatever without any long-term guiding rules. I suspect this is exactly how the writers felt as well! I'm curious to see how it plays out in the next dozen episodes or so, if they will all simply be one-offs, if they will start on a new longer-term adventure or if the old one will come back again.

It's a great show, with excellent production values and rip-roaring adventure in farflung ports of the Pacific, rife with mystery and intrigue. If you like that sort of thing, I definitely recommend it. You can find them all here:

http://www.archive.org/details/VoyageOfTheScarletQueen

Also, here is a great website that contributed to my knowledge of the series and its production history:

http://www.digitaldeliftp.com/DigitalDeliToo/dd2jb-Voyage-Scarlet-Queen.html

1 comment:

Redwing said...

I don't know how I missed this post! But I'll get going on these as quickly as I can! Tramp freighter!