Philip Odell: Lady in a Fog by Lester Powell

BBC Radio Full-Cast Drama

Writer Lester Powell is a part of radio history. His output was prolific, with more than sixty plays and serials to his name broadcast from just after the Second World War in 1946 until the 1980s. Most, alas are lost, never to be heard again.
Powell started writing radio adaptations of famous novels and short stories that went out on the BBC Light Programme, including some of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown detective stories. 

The detective genre was always popular on radio, just as police procedurals are on today’s television. Listeners to Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra will know Francis Durbridge’s Paul Temple programmes, but some younger listeners will not be familiar with Lester Powell’s detective Philip Odell, the Irish sleuth who starred in seven radio serials, several novels and a feature film. Powell said that he had Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in mind when he created Odell, and there is much of Marlowe in Powell’s tough and dogged but fair detective played by Canadian actor Robert Beatty. His sidekick (and lover) Heather McMara was played by a number of actresses, including Brenda Bruce, Joy Shelton, Joyce Heron, Diana Olsson and Sheila Manahan.

Lady in a Fog was the first story to feature Odell and McMara and was broadcast in eight instalments in 1947, possibly in live transmissions, because the Lady in a Fog in the CDs under review is a second production, this time recorded for posterity, staged in 1958. Only one other recording of the Odell stories is said to exist.

In Lady in a Fog, Odell is on his way home to Ireland, but the flight is delayed because of a heavy London fog. He calls on Heather McMara only to learn that Heather’s brother has just been found drowned in the Thames. So starts Odell’s investigation and his run-ins with the police in the shape of Inspector Rigby, who thinks Odell might well be their best suspect when more murders start to turn up.
It would be interesting to be able to compare the 1947 and 1958 broadcasts, but that of course is impossible. Are the 1958 actors deliberately stressing the huge class differences in the protagonists that would have been evident in the 1940s? Or were they still there a decade later? It is always slightly shocking just how cut glass the accents are of some of the actors in ‘classic’ BBC drama from the middle of the twentieth century. But that too is often the appeal of these recordings.

It is probably pointless to try to summarise the plot, which follows a Marlowesque trail of low-life and patrician criminals, interfering police, the odd red herring, some romance. Odell never makes it back to Dublin but is set on his career as a private investigator in London.

There is much to enjoy in this four-hour, eight-part serial, with performances from a large cast of BBC Drama Repertory Company stalwart’s including Mary Wimbush, James Thomason, John Bennett, Jeffrey Segal, June Tobin, David March and Trevor Martin.


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