Original image: Patrick Hoesly
The Big Event
Original radio play: Gloria Dapper and Draper Lewis
Originally aired: 16 December 1956
Plot synopsis: The world wakes up to discover that the 'law of averages' appears to have been suspended, leading to the occurrence of all manner of highly improbable events.
Favourite line: 'Oh, don't give me that talk about the law of averages. That's just another law made to be broken.'
Review: This is a peculiar, and not very satisfying, episode. It offers a light, whimsical tale that would have benefitted from much greater logic and rigour in its plotting - i.e. it might have been stronger if it had been a science-fiction, rather than a fantasy, story. The initial conceit is certainly original and intriguing: what if the 'law of averages' no longer applied? This is shown in the episode by, for example, a hospital in which every baby is born a boy, a case of traffic gridlock caused by everyone choosing to travel in the same direction at the same time, and an advertising firm that persuades every single consumer to buy the products it promotes (causing all of its competitors to go bankrupt). Yet because there is no attempt to explain why any of this happens, or - SPOILER ALERT! - why the law of averages spontaneously comes back into operation after just one day, the episode never really goes anywhere. What does it all mean? What was the point? What are we supposed to learn from the story? None of these questions has a clear answer. It isn't necessary for every tale that trades in the fantastic to offer a rational explanation for events - we don't need to know, for example, how or why Rip Van Winkle somehow falls asleep for twenty years - if there is a clear point to the fantasy. Yet here it feels as if there is nothing more to the story than an interesting idea with no real payoff.
Rating: * *
The Billion Dollar Failure of Figger Fallup
Original radio play: Henry E. Fritsch
Originally aired: 24 August 1956
Plot synopsis: A polling firm is hired by the Devil to conduct research to predict how many new sinners Hell is likely to be receiving over the next twenty years.
Favourite line: 'And the barbers' union called. They wanna know will we make a survey, "How women like to be kissed by men with beards." Seeing as how beards are coming back and all.'
Review: Throughout literature, film and television, there are countless stories about characters who make deals with the Devil. Yet this episode manages to offer a novel take on this well-worn idea, by making the story about a genuine business deal, rather than a Faustian pact in which someone sells his soul in exchange for his heart's desire. Here, no souls are traded, and instead we are presented with a witty and amusing satire on the polling industry (which in the 1950s, when this episode was broadcast, was still in its relative infancy). The plot is pretty strange, and doesn't bear a great deal of scrutiny, as it's hard to understand either a) why the Devil would really need a polling firm in the first place, when Hell has (presumably) been coping with the ups and downs of its intake for centuries, through numerous wars, plagues, mass killings and so on, and b) how, even with the most sophisticated polling methods - and this is before modern computers - a firm could even begin to estimate the global number of souls destined to go to Hell. Yet the episode is still great fun, with a strong script and good performances. Even the crazy title raises a smile! (And for those who enjoy stories featuring the Devil, two other CBS Radio Workshop episodes that do so are The Legend of Jimmy Blue Eyes and Never Bet the Devil Your Head.)
Rating: * * * *
Brave New World (2 episodes)
Author: Aldous Huxley
Originally aired: 27 January and 3 February 1956
Plot synopsis: Six hundred years in the future, society is tightly controlled via a rigid caste system and genetic engineering, with citizens kept passive and obedient by recreational drugs and promiscuous sex. Based on a novel of the same name by Aldous Huxley, first published in 1932.
Favourite line: 'Civilization has no need for nobility or heroism. You're conditioned so that you can't help doing what you ought to do. And what you ought to do is, on the whole, so pleasant. So many of the natural impulses are allowed free play that there really aren't any temptations to resist. Anybody can be virtuous now. No temptations. No inconveniences.'
Review: Within the pantheon of dystopian fiction, Brave New World ranks alongside Nineteen Eighty-Four as one of the greatest exemplars of the genre. Like Nineteen Eighty-Four, it presents a vision of a terrifying future, though unlike the former, its imagined future is not quite so unrelentingly grim, since 'pleasure' - especially thanks to freely available drugs and sex - is a key means by which the state keeps the populace under control. Nonetheless, it is a future in which few of us would want to live, as individual liberty and free will have been all-but extinguished. Moreover, 'family' is a dirty word, with children born in 'hatcheries' rather than from mothers' wombs, and raised by experts instead of parents, who carefully condition them to fit them for their state-allotted roles in life. In this industrialized, heavily regulated society, Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud provide the intellectual foundations (though the people of this future world believe these two historical figures to be the same man), and there is little room for dissent. In any case, this radio adaptation is an excellent one, making good use of its double-episode running time to explore most of the source novel's key themes, including the dangers of an over-powerful state and the misuse of science and technology. The script is also very faithful to the original, the performances of the cast are very good, and as an extra bonus the author himself, Aldous Huxley, provides an introduction and narration throughout; of particular interest is Huxley's comment that had he written the novel then (in 1956) the pace and direction of social and scientific change since its writing meant that he would not have set it so far in the future. At any rate, this is one of the best OTR adaptations of a novel I have heard.
Rating: * * * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - BBC Radio (2013); TV movie - Brave New World (1980), Brave New World (1998)]
Bring on the Angels
Author: H. L. Mencken
Originally aired: 8 June 1956
Plot synopsis: A dramatized account of the early life of legendary journalist, editor and writer H. L. Mencken, based on his own notes.
Favourite line: 'Hence Mencken's Law, to wit: "Whenever A annoys or injures B on the pretense of saving or improving X, A is a scoundrel."'
Review: I enjoyed this episode more than it perhaps deserves, simply because I was fascinated to hear the stories it had to offer about the colourful life of one of the most famous journalists and writers of modern times, H. L. Mencken. Many of these are indeed truly worth hearing, such as Mencken's account of his coverage of the 'Great Baltimore Fire' that engulfed the city at the beginning of the twentieth century, as well as the snippets of biography that are revealed, including how he got his start in the newspaper business. Yet the episode is also drenched in a warm, cosy nostalgia for the past that can be cloying - and which confirms the tendency people often have, especially as they age, to believe that life was so much better in the 'good old days', regardless of how true this may be. Even more disappointing, though, is that the episode lacks any sort of bite - the tone is largely light and whimsical, without any of the moral or political seriousness that also characterized Mencken's writings. Yet what I found most surprising is that the episode is book-ended by a portrayal of Mencken on his deathbed - surprising, if not a touch shocking, since he died (on 29 January 1956) mere months before it was broadcast. Is this in questionable taste? Some may feel so. Nonetheless, this is an interesting, affectionate portrait of an important figure in twentieth-century history.
Rating: * * * *