In the cacophony of image and video of our world, there is an old-fashioned medium that arouses and works with our own powers of imagination, one that befits our days of the locked inner world. It’s a radio drama, especially since its heyday from the 1930s to the 1950s when radio was the king of home entertainment. Thanks to the Internet, the archival richness of these shows – constructed from dialogue and sound effects, with a touch of narration and music – is available for free. Here are six to enjoy anytime and anywhere, indoors or out.
Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Benedict Cumberbatch? Make way for John Gielgud as the most engaging grandmaster of deduction, in episodes aired on the BBC and NBC radio networks in 1954 and 1955. Ralph Richardson played Dr Watson and Orson Welles appeared briefly as mean teacher. Moriarty. Gielgud and Richardson brought a charming, authentic intimacy to their partnership with Baker Street, with Gielgud portraying a formidable but also witty and even playful Holmes, and Richardson portraying a kind-hearted Watson who is outspoken rather than scathing. An atmosphere of schoolboy adventure and passion for dreaded or humble mysteries creates a finely articulated delight – all imbued with household tobacco smoke, whiskey and soda, and the tremors of a violin. Start with “Dr. Watson meets Sherlock Holmes ”, the fateful encounter of two Victorian gentlemen seeking to share rooms. Listen on YouTube
This long-running CBS Radio series reached its peak in the late 1950s, when Bob Bailey took on the role of “fabulous independent American insurance investigator,” Johnny Dollar. Bailey was vocal perfection as a hardened operator with a human side. Although based in Hartford, Connecticut, Dollar’s “transcribed adventures” have taken him very far, notably to New Orleans, Nicaragua and Paris. (The show’s supporting cast was an ace with accents.) Start listening to this slightly kitsch but addictive series with the episode “The Alvin Summers Matter,” in which Johnny follows a con artist on the run to a seedy Mexican resort, and tangles with murders and suspicious moonlight kisses. Listen on YouTube
This extremely popular series featured radio interpretations of films performed in front of a live audience. From 1936 to 1945, Cecil B. DeMille was the producer and host, while the big names in the big top often reprized their roles on screen. These included Irene Dunne as the small-town shy writer of an outrageous game-changing bestseller on socialite Cary Grant (standing here for the movie Melvyn Douglas) in “Theodora Goes Wild.” In the case of the big satire of the newspaper “His Girl Friday”, Claudette Colbert succeeded Rosalind Russell of the screen version, as a journalist as swapping zingers with her former boss and ex-husband, played by Fred MacMurray, who replaced Cary Grant. Listen to Old Time Radio Downloads
For more than half a century, the BBC’s Saturday Night Theater offered entertaining 90-minute dramas and comedies. In 1961, this adaptation of the Victor Canning thriller of the same name, provided listeners with complex suspense in spades. An English smuggler with a small boat tries to beat a sharp-eyed police inspector and dangerous gang while hunting long-lost diamonds (and finding romance) along the Dutch coast. No famous actors, but the characters are richly rendered and the maritime environment is evoked with deft acoustic touches. Who needs the screen? Listen on YouTube
The great Thespianists hosted this mid-1950s British-made anthology series for NBC Radio, which featured classic literary works. Laurence Olivier, the host of the first season, showed her range in beautiful versions of Herman Melville’s existentially comedic tale about the scrivener, “Bartleby,” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But perhaps the highlight is Michael Redgrave in that classic of all Russian stories, “The Overcoat” by Nikolai Gogol. He played the lead role of Akaky Akakievich, the pathetic cleric-protagonist, to perfection. Listen to the internet archives
This series of weekly half-hour shows devoted to the black struggle for democracy in America ran from 1948 to 1950, predating the civil rights movement. Offering a vast mix of historical black biographies, including those of Harriet Tubman, Satchel Paige and Lena Horne, as well as unshakeable portrayals of systemic racism, the vivid and revealing series was conceived and written entirely by black writer, Richard Durham . You could start with “The Story of 1875,” about the brutal reconstruction collapse in Mississippi. Or try the unusual “Segregation Incorporated,” a 1949 portrait of a large, clearly segregated city, Washington, DC. Listen to Old Time Radio Downloads