Monday, August 24, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Radio: The Black Museum

I went to my long list of old time radio shows and chose an unfamiliar one at random. What I got was a great show with an interesting history, and deliciously dark – The Black Museum. It was one of several Scotland Yard-themed shows that played in the U.K. and the U.S. in the late Forties and early Fifties. A syndicated program made in England, it was produced by Harry Alan Towers and narrated by none other than Orson Welles (who also starred in The Lives of Harry Lime for Towers around the same time). The modus operandi of the show was for Welles to select an object from Scotland Yard’s “Black Museum” and lead us into a dramatization of the particular murder case it was associated with. These “curious and repellent” mementoes gave each episode its title, such as “The Brass Button” from early in the run, which I listened to. The actual case it is based on occurred in 1942, although the dramatization is so loose as to be almost unrecognizable:

August Sangret

Welles naturally makes a splendidly melodramatic host. The Black Museum differed from a U.S.-produced counterpart called Whitehall 1212 in that it was not purely procedural, but “included scenes of the actual murders and….scenes from the criminal’s point of view.” All to the benefit of this episode, which starts with an eccentric and apparently man-averse young woman sketching on the outskirts of a village in Kent. She is approached by a soldier who seems friendly enough, but won’t take no for an answer….Rape is very strongly implied, although not mentioned as such during the rest of the story. The scene is creepy and quite effective. The procedural elements that dominate the rest of the episode hold the interest well, and of course center around the brass button from a battle jacket that the soldier inadvertently left behind him.

There are nice character touches, such as the bitterness of the victim’s mum – not over the murder, but over her daughter’s oddity of character! (Adding all the details up, it is quite possible that the writer meant to suggest a lesbian sub-text.) The postal delivery-boy who discovered the body is palpably disappointed that the Scotland Yard investigators don’t grill him longer. One of the soldiers from the local base who comes under suspicion tries to stonewall the inspectors about having been AWOL at the relevant time, until he realizes that it’s a murder he’s being questioned about. The actual killer is cleverly tripped up by the inspectors when he is confronted. A background hum of gossip and chit-chat round about the village and at the local pub in the wake of the murder adds considerable atmosphere. All in all, it’s a jolly good show.

Here is more information about The Black Museum:

The Black Museum

The Black Museum

“The Brass Button” is accessible along with other episodes at this page:

The Black Museum

Many of the old time radio pages have episodes of The Black Museum, which ran 52 episodes, all still extant.

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