In Praise Of… The Spider-Man BBC Radio Drama

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Imagine, if you will, that every weekday, around half four in the afternoon, a serial radio dramatisation of your favourite comic would be aired during teen favourite Greg James’ show on BBC Radio One. Such a thing would surely never happen nowadays. For a period in the nineties, though, this scenario was fairly commonplace. Allow me to wallow in nostalgia for a moment as I remember running home from school in time to listen to the Spider-Man radio series, hurriedly making sure my cassette tape was primed to record the episode on the family hi-fi. I realise this says a lot about my eleven year old self, but I can’t be the only one with fond memories of these aural delights. Can I?

I remember the 1995 Spider-Man series particularly well, because I still have the tapes in my possession. There were several more comic book dramatisations made for the BBC before then, though. Radio legend Dirk Maggs also helped to create radio dramas based on Judge Dredd, Superman and Batman. Maggs has since gone on to write and direct further radio shows based on the later books in Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and is currently prepping Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, to be aired this Christmas. Characteristic of these shows is Magg’s attention to detail. Each of his adaptations were made to be ‘audio movies,’ featuring innovative sound effects and superb production values. All on a BBC budget, too.

I remember the Amazing Spider-Man BBC series being something of a big deal, in my tiny mind at least. Marvel’s UK comics at the time featured behind the scenes info and kept us abreast of developments. Brian May (yes, Brian May out of QUEEN) wrote the main theme music, which was later released as a single. The single shot to no. 37 in the pop charts, and promptly disappeared. Deservedly so. Once heard, you never really want to hear it again. It’s bloody awful.

Don’t let it put you off, though. Before the Hollywood movies, the radio play was one of the best comic adaptations outside of the 1994 animated series. It was broadcast in three minute segments, and there were fifty episodes, around two and a half hours of material. It managed to fit a lot into that time, too. Aside from Spidey’s adventures, the show featured a plethora of Marvel guest stars. The Fantastic Four, Namor the Sub-Mariner and Doctor Doom appeared. The supporting cast from early Spider-Man comics, like Betty Brant and Jonah Jameson, were also woven into the story. The show presented the Stan Lee and Steve Ditko stories in a way that no other Spidey adaptation has tried to do. The love for those Silver Age comics is clear, from the characterisations to the hip sixties dialogue.

Yes, Anita Dobson from Eastenders was in it
Yes, Anita Dobson from Eastenders was in it

The show loosely adapts several early Spider-Man stories. It covers the origin, his first fights with Doctor Octopus, Sandman and The Green Goblin, as well as Peter Parker’s everyday troubles, like being bullied by Flash Thompson, or working for The Daily Bugle. Peter Parker is played by William Dufris, who does a great job portraying both the nervous wallflower Peter, and his growing confidence as Spider-Man. The Fantastic Four almost steal the show from Spidey, getting own sub-plots, like Reed Richard’s quest to find a way to make The Thing human again. It’s heartening that so much care is taken with the characterisations and the performances. For my money, the radio play does a better job at capturing the spirit of the comics than most of the Hollywood adaptations. The sound effects are perfect. You can hear Mr Fantastic stretch, and The Invisible Girl has a peculiarly squelchy way of turning invisible. It’s funny, too; all the villains are gloriously over the top. The Sandman sounds like a Looney Tunes impression of a fifties gangster. If the Lee/Ditko comics could talk, this is what they’d sound like.

The best part is the ending. I won’t give too much away in case any of you want to track down this odd little cultural artifact, but everything builds up to a frenzied finale. After Spider-Man has given up crimefighting to take care of Aunt May, Flash Thompson starts running around town dressed in a Spidey outfit made by Betty Brant and Liz Allen. At the same time, Dr Doom is manipulating Namor into gathering an Atlantean army on the outskirts of New York. MEANWHILE, Dr Doom’s strange Igor-type minion Dolby (good audio gag there) has kidnapped Flash, thinking he is Spider-Man! Liz and Betty break into Doom’s hideout to rescue Flash, but get captured. Spider-Man realises that he has to save the day, and crashes the party, only to have Doom try to manipulate him into becoming evil by invoking The Dread Dormammu! It’s completely mental, but kind of brilliant. Look at all those characters and plot developments! There’s a lot going on, but it all boils down to the classic superhero conundrum: Spider-Man can’t defeat Doom, but he must. Triumph over diversity, the little man versus the big man. Works every time.

Brian May (left). The rest of the soundtrack is better, I promise.
Brian May (left). The rest of the soundtrack is much better, I promise.

Sadly, the radio play is long out of print, although you might be able to obtain second-hand copies on tape or CD. Of course, if you search for a copy online, it likely won’t take you long to find some serviceable audio rips (Batman: Knightfall is available on Audible, however, and it is also highly recommended). Since the show was going for a sixties vibe, it has aged fairly well, although it certainly has its cheesy moments, as well as some suspicious accents. They might be something of a nineties curio, memorable only for listeners who enjoyed it at the time. But, podcasts like Welcome to Night Vale and The Thrilling Adventure Hour are all the rage now. Maybe these ‘vintage’ radio plays won’t seem so alien to someone who’s never heard them before.

If you have fond memories of these shows, let us know in the comments!

 

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