Robert’s Review: BBC Radio’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” (2018)

ATMOSfx! Woo!
“Naked rituals in the woods? How delightful!”

“You gave them all those old-time stars,
Through wars of worlds invaded by Mars.
You made ’em laugh, you made ’em cry.
You made us feel like we could fly.”
Queen, Radio Ga Ga (1986)

★★★★★ out of ★★★★★

Directed by Julian Simpson.

Back in my day we didn’t have no fancy telly-vision sets or them “talkies” you kids go on and on about. And don’t even get me started on those crazy game doohickies with the Grand Theft Prostitute and what-have-you! No, sir. We had real entertainment! I’m talkin’ about radio! Well, and dinosaur wrasslin’, but ain’t nobody ever lost an arm listening to the radio…

Ronald Knox’s “The Knox Riots,” George Ludlam’s “The Adventures of Superman,” Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds” — before most people had even black & white TVs in their homes they most certainly had a radio and these were a few of the most spectacular dramas of the day. Sound effects, voice actors, horror, crime, and romance all piped into the living rooms of the world.

With the advent and adoption of TV the days of the radio drama were numbered… or were they?

Julian Simpson

British writer/director Julian Simpson who’s directed episodes of Doctor Who and Hotel Babylon happens to be an avid fan of radio dramas…

I LOVE doing radio. All of the budgetary restrictions of TV and film disappear when you’re just dealing in sound; it costs the same to set a story in outer space or in the fourteenth century as it does to set it in a farmhouse or on a housing estate. 

From juliansimpson.uk

…and the recent 10-episode podcast adaptation of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” is what you get when your nostalgic adoration of radio shows collides with your love of H.P. Lovecraft.

The podcast — currently available for free from BBC Radio 4 — is a modern take on the short horror novel of the same name written by Lovecraft in early 1927. Lovecraft himself hated it, called it a “cumbrous, creaking bit of self-conscious antiquarianism,” and didn’t try very hard to get it published. After his death in 1937, it was found and published in Weird Tales in 1941.

Unlike the 2013 adaptation by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society which stayed faithful to the time period of the source material, Simpson’s production presents “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” in the style of a modern true-crime podcast like Serial. The story is investigated by the hosts of the “Mystery Machine” podcast, Matthew Heawood (Barnaby Kay) who spends his time in Britain and Kennedy Fisher (Jana Carpenter) who serves as the show’s boots-on-the-ground in the U.S.

According to Simpson:

If it was going to be a Serial-style podcast, then it needed to feel like a story that was unfolding in the present day, concurrently with the investigators on the Mystery Machine uncovering this stuff. There was no point in kind of going “we’ve got this amazing story from the 1920s that we’re going to tell you,” because it doesn’t have any resonance to the present day and doesn’t have any urgency to it.

Julian Simpson in The Verge (Jan 27, 2019)

The story begins as a “locked room” mystery. Charles Dexter Ward, a patient at a secure psychiatric hospital in Rhode Island, mysteriously disappears from his room. Interesting to be sure, but not exactly podcast material since all leads have already amounted to nothing. However, once Ward’s personal psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathon Willett, is found guilty in the UK as the murderer of some random woman in England, the podcasters decide some investigation may be warranted.

The voice acting and sound effects throughout the podcast are very well done and realistic. Primarily due to the fact that by the time the BBC had greenlit the production and Simpson had finished his writing, the recording team had to record all 10 episodes in a single week. This meant it wasn’t recorded in a studio. In fact, all of the exterior bits were recorded outdoors in locations appropriate to the scenes. This adds an extra layer of realism to the production, to be sure.

“The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” is binge material of the highest order. I, personally, blasted through it in a single afternoon; carrying my laptop around the apartment as I tried (and mostly failed) to be somewhat productive. Episode #7, “Who is Ipqu-Aya?”, being my favorite as Simpson blends real world history with a mythos/conspiracy that would make Lovecraft proud.

If you’re a fan of Lovecraft stories, global conspiracy stories, or just plain ol’ excellently written stories, I encourage you to check this out.

Hey, it’s free. What’ve you got to lose?

You can find the audio trailer for the program here:

If you just want to dive right in (and I wouldn’t blame you), you can find all the episodes on BBC Radio 4, Apple Podcasts, and PlayerFM.

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