Blame it on my dad, who basically brought up his four daughters to have the cultural tastes of someone who was a small boy in the 1950s, but I have a weakness for retro radio.
Yes, along with William Brown, Jennings and our family hero Nigel Molesworth , I grew up enjoying the delights of Hancock’s Half Hour (which I still love), the Goons (meh) and Round the Horne (bits of it haven’t aged well, but I can’t resist Julian and Sandy). Basically, if it was available in Charleville Mall library in the North Strand in the ’50s or aired on the BBC Light Programme, it was part of my childhood.
This is probably why I’m now such a big fan of BBC Radio 4 and, in particular, radio drama. I’m addicted to the Archers, I can’t resist Charles Parris’s adventures and mere words can’t describe my love for recent comedies like Fags, Mags and Bags and Bleak Expectations, which show that what you can’t see is often much funnier than what you can. But I particularly love the old radio programmes often repeated by Radio 4’s digital sister BBC 7.
It was there, several years ago, that I discovered the glorious Paul Temple, mystery novelist and amateur sleuth, and his lovely journalist wife Steve. Yes, Steve. I can’t remember why she’s called Steve, but she is, so there you go. Paul, whose radio adventures were hugely popular from the 1930s to the ’50s, is urbane and prone to expressing any surprise by exclaiming “By Timothy!” in a dashing sort of way. Steve is prone to using her “woman’s intuition” to solve the crimes. Sometimes she’s actually right. Paul and Steve basically spend their time jetting around the place having a fine old time (he never seems to do any actual novel-writing and she never seems to do any journalism work), but every so often Paul’s Scotland Yard chum Sir Graham Forbes turns up at the house to ask for Paul’s help in solving some fiendish crime and another six part series will commence.
These crimes never make perfect sense – there are a lot of red herrings and people turning out to be blackmailers and then getting murdered – but they’re very exciting, with dead bodies turning up at least once per episode (“By Timothy, Steve, it’s Harry Marx! And….he’s dead !”). If I had seen as many murdered corpses as Paul and Steve, often left by the murderer in the back of our heroes’ nippy little sports car, I’d be in therapy for years. Or I’d at least buy a new car.
Anyway, because Paul and Steve are such talented sleuths, criminals are always trying to kill them, often by luring them into deadly traps over the telephone. Someone will basically ring up Steve and pretend to be Paul (or vice versa) and tell them to come to the Calypso Club in Soho or a yacht club in Portsmouth or something. This happens so often that eventually Paul and Steve develop code words to ensure they’re talking to their real spouse and not an evil criminal holding a hanky over the phone receiver and talking in a funny voice. The one who has been telephoned will ask “Where’s Charlie fishing?” and if the other doesn’t answer “In the Thames” they’ll know it’s a fiendish mastermind. Charlie, by the way, is Paul and Steve’s devoted servant whom they basically treat as a slave. He never seems to get any time off, he has to stay up all night waiting for them to come in from their crime-solving jaunts and he frequently ends up getting bashed over the head by the aforementioned evil criminals whenever they break into Paul and Steve’s flat, as they regularly do. Poor Charlie. I hope he voted Labour in the 1945 election. At the least the NHS would look after his various injuries.
Anyway, Paul and Steve always find the blackmailer/evil crime lord/corrupt night-club owner and bring him or her to justice. Then it’s back to their luxury flat for a drink with Sir Graham and some jolly banter, usually including Steve’s claims that her intuition saved the day (One episode actually ended with Paul crying “By Timothy, Sir Graham, women are extraordinary!”, which even made the BBC7 continuity announcer laugh). Every series seems to involve Steve doing some investigating by buying elegant hats (several of the victims or perpetrators of crime seem to work in the fashion and retail business). As you can tell, the whole thing is totally brilliant, and I salute creator Francis Durbridge and the various actors who have played Paul and Steve over the years.
I also salute the BBC, because since 2006, they’ve been broadcasting brand new productions of old Paul Temple series whose original recordings were lost long ago. Using the original scripts and vintage microphones and sound effects, they’ve managed to produce something which sounds absolutely and utterly authentic. Part of the joy of the new series is hearing the actors perfectly reproduce the mannerisms and style of vintage radio acting – I actually don’t know how they do it without sounding like they’re in a comedy sketch, but they do. And the result is pure bliss. The current series, Paul Temple and Steve, originally aired in 1947, but the new version is now airing every Friday on Radio 4. Of course you can hear it online here. Don’t worry about missing the first few episodes – there’s a fantastic summary at the beginning of the most recent one. So if you’re in the mood for some (very) old school crime, Paul, Steve and the hapless Sir Graham are even more entertaining than Poirot. Though not, of course, as wonderful as my beloved Lord Peter Wimsey (whom I praised in last year’s post on fictional crushes). But then, who is?