Audio drama tends to feel like one of the lost arts these days. We are a culture almost consumed by visual storytelling, preferring the spectacle of cinema to the theatre of the mind. But as true as this may be it’s also a false impression. Because as long as there are those who practice it and those who appreciate it, no art is ever really lost. One could even argue that it’s heightened when driven into a niche market; under those circumstances only the people who truly love and respect the genre, and are likely to do it best, will try their hand at the difficult task of reaching an audience.
In a way the digital era has been a boon to the “lost” art of radio shows. Podcasts and mp3 downloads make it easier than ever to not only discover the classics of yesteryear like The Shadow and Gunsmoke, but also for users to create their own series in the same vein. A quick Google search will turn up dozens of websites and amateur groups doing just that, but standing tall above the rest in both the quality of writing and of production is one called Decoder Ring Theatre.
I first discovered DRT back in 2009 when I was actively developing a novel called The Whitehawk Legion, a pulp-style adventure story set in the 1930s. While looking for some new audiobooks to listen to I stumbled across a series of half-hour episodes starring two private detectives, a man and a woman. Witty banter and a noir setting were advertised. It sounded like the perfect inspiration for the characters I was creating, and was immediately fearful of becoming a copycat. But I listened anyway. And what I discovered was a wonderful mixture of humour, drama, mystery, and hardboiled narration that seemed to exist both in the Golden Age of Radio and the modern world simultaneously. After a single episode I was sold.
Let me tell you a bit about each of the three main programs on the podcast.
The Red Panda Adventures
I think the opening narration from the first few seasons of the show explains it better than I can:
“The Red Panda, mysterious crusader for justice, hides his true identity as one of the city’s wealthiest men in his never-ending battle against crime and corruption. Only his trusty driver, Kit Baxter — who joins him in his quest in the guise of The Flying Squirrel — knows who wears the mask of…THE RED PANDA!”
Does it sound a bit like a parody? Originally the universe was created that way, but it returned as a straight-faced homage to classic pulp adventure heroes (the first miniseries is now considered an alternate universe). Gregg Taylor plays the lead character so effectively that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role; his wife, Clarissa Der Nederlanden, is an equal match with her rendition of The Flying Squirrel. Their banter, along with a he-doesn’t-notice-how-she-feels romantic tension during the early episodes, is a highlight of the series to this day. Three novels are also available. If you’re a fan of superheroes, comic books, or just plain fun, you need to give this a listen. Here, have an introductory episode on me: Red Panda Adventures #10 – The Ghost Ship
Black Jack Justice
“Once again, Decoder Ring Theatre presents another page from the casebook of that master of mystery, that sultan of sleuthing, Martin Bracknell’s immortal detective Black Jack Justice! Starring Christopher Mott as Jack and Andrea Lyons as Trixie Dixon, girl detective.”
This was the show that first introduced me to the podcast, and while The Red Panda Adventures might have supplanted it as my favourite, there’s no denying the two-fisted whammy of entertainment provided by Jack and Trixie. Together they run a private detective agency sometime in the 1950s — and in a refreshing twist have no romantic interest in each other whatsoever. But they banter with the best of them and in their own way they can be even funnier than the Red Panda and Flying Squirrel. This one is more firmly planted in a realistic noir setting rather than the flights of fantasy of the previous show. Gregg Taylor also puts on a convincing Brooklyn accent to play the mildly antagonistic cop “Loo-tenant” Sabien (you can’t pronounce that first word any other way; when you hear him you’ll know what I mean). A long-awaited novel telling the story of Jack and Trixie’s very first meeting was released earlier this year. Again, try one on for size: Black Jack Justice #23 – Much Ado About Norman
The Showcase series comes on when Black Jack Justice takes a break; with a recent schedule shift Red Panda is on every month of the year. This series is designed to do exactly what it says on the box: showcase outside writers and podcast dramas with varying themes and tones. Sometimes it will be a miniseries and sometimes standalone episodes; sometimes they will be pulp-flavoured and sometimes more contemporary. My favourites have been the space opera adventures of Deck Gibson. Here’s an episode from the latest anthology series called Marvellous Boxes, written by Tim Prasil. Want to creep yourself out? Do what I did and listen to it in bed with the lights out: Marvellous Boxes #6 – Aliens Are Like Mirages
The man behind all this is Gregg Taylor, a figure of a certain amount of mystery since he tends to keep his personal life separate from his podcasting one. But his talent speaks for itself; he not only performs the lead role of the superheroic Red Panda he also writes the scripts for both flagship shows. For my money he’s one of the best scriptwriters out there, whether professional or amateur.
“If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” But sometimes even the best scripts can lose their lustre in the hands of bad actors. Fortunately, every cast member of DRT is either a professional or someone who should be. Playing a variety of roles in a wide range of accents and voices, this troupe of performers proves their incredible range in each and every episode. Given the usually consistent core group, picking out and recognizing different voices is lots of fun and provides a feeling of comfortable familiarity. Aside from the ever-excellent writing and voice work, the production values of this podcast are what really make it stand out from the majority of the pack. Most other podcast audio dramas sound hissy or tinny, probably due to a lack of decent equipment than knowledge or talent. But Decoder Ring Theatre has some of the clearest most vibrant recordings I’ve ever heard from a podcast. The sound effects library seems like it’s quite a large one, and even some original music is recorded for Red Panda. The effect is to make this podcast sound less like a podcast and more like an actual radio production.
If you’ve been following my periodical Marvellous Adventure (and if you haven’t by now, you really should be), then you probably won’t be surprised to hear that it was Decoder Ring Theatre which spurred me on to the idea. Not only did it have an innate love of pulp and the Golden Age, but it also looked like a heckuva lot of fun. The easy way of saying it is that DRT has been an inspiration for Marvellous Adventure and the flagship series The Adventures of Emily Monroe — the inspiration to get off my butt and do something about it, that is, more than inspiring the actual content. With high quality writing, acting, and production value, Decoder Ring Theatre makes you believe that any self-publishing dream is able to become reality.
No need to tell them I sent you.