A Movie Without Pictures...

Picture if you will the early to mid 1990's. It was a different time, comics were dipping their toes into the mainstream thanks to Tim Burton's two Batman films, a fine selection of Saturday morning cartoons and TV's Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman (more on that in a later post), but they were still largely sniffed at and dismissed as sub-art and sub-literature and it certainly wasn't cool to be a fan, despite their popularity in other mediums.

One of those mediums that is largely forgotten about when people talk about comic book adaptations is radio. Comic books have a rich history with radio, with many things we've come to know and love about some of our favourite characters actually starting life on the radio (Kryptonite for example). Around 1993 I discovered Superman comics, with a small news article announcing his return from the dead (again, more on that in a later post) and shortly after that I discovered that there had been a couple of Superman adaptations done on BBC Radio - the guy who ran the Hobbit Hole (Gloucester's comic shop at the time) was actually listening to an episode on the radio whilst I was in the shop buying comics and debating with his friends as to whether or not it was actually Bill Clinton's voice in the episode - by Dirk Maggs.

Cassettes! Ask your parents...

Cassettes! Ask your parents...

This being the dark, pre-internet in every home, days I headed straight to WH Smiths to see if these things were available on cassette (it was the 90's). The first series; The Adventures Of Superman was available but that was it at the time. A lack of funds (I was 14) meant that I would have to wait until Christmas to get it. And wait I did. And get it I did along with the freshly released Superman: Doomsday & Beyond double cassette. Those cassettes (along with the later addition of Batman: Knightfall) kept me going through the paper round from hell (although, I think most paper rounds were born in hell) on a daily basis and more than made up for a lack of TV in room as a teenager. 

The cast were the voices I heard in my head as I read my Superman comics (and still are to this day). Stuart Milligan (Adam from Jonathan Creek) was the Superman I'd been reading on the page. William Hootkins (Porkins from Star Wars) was the perfect Lex Luthor (both the first and his Australian "Son"). Hootkin's delivery of the "Gotcha" speech to the dead Superman is superb and encapsulates everything about Luthor as his accent slips from his adopted Australian accent back to his original Luthor voice when his hatred of Superman begins to pour out. 

I don't mind admitting to being a little bit in love with Lorelei King's Lois Lane (then and still to this day - not in a weird way). She is outstanding in the role, especially in Doomsday & Beyond, in which the smart decision was made to show us the World Without Superman more through the eyes of Lois. King's portrayal of the "Weary Boxers" speech from Superman #75 still puts a lump in my throat when I hear it. 

A couple of years ago, I was thrilled to interview both Dirk Maggs and Lorelei King about their time with Superman for an article in Starburst Magazine (Issue #389), which you can read below;

SUPERMAN AT THE BBC

by Stuart Mulrain

On 5th June 1988, Superman burst onto Radio 4 in Superman On Trial; a special docudrama to celebrate his 50th Birthday. It was followed up with The Adventures Of Superman in 1990 and Superman: Doomsday & Beyond in 1993. Along with series overlord Dirk Maggs and actress Lorelei King we bring you the story of the Man Of Steels adventures on BBC Radio, a story that actually starts with Batman. 

dirk maggs

dirk maggs

In 1987, Radio 2 producer Dirk Maggs found himself tasked with coming up with promotions for the stations Neighbourhood Watch campaign called Crimecheck. “My idea was to make dramatised/comical promos featuring famous detectives such as Holmes, Poirot and - because I was a big comic book fan - Batman & Robin” Maggs reveals. When it came to using Batman, Maggs knew he would have to get permission from DC Comics in New York. “I thought that phoning New York was pretty cool in those days and phoning DC Comics even cooler.”  

He was told that permission wouldn’t be a problem, but DC would have to listen to the promos first. Fortunately DC’s International Copyright Manager, Chantal d’Aulnis was in London and able to come and listen to the promos. Whilst there, d’Aulnis mentioned to Maggs that 1988 would be Superman’s 50th Birthday. “A light bulb went on in my head. I had only just applied to join the BBC Radio Light Entertainment department and part of the interview process was to submit three programme ideas” Maggs recalls. “I thought hard and came up with the docudrama idea, celebrating Superman’s anniversary by putting him on trial for “crimes against humanity.”  

The pitch was good and got him the Light Entertainment job, but in the late 80’s (before Tim Burton’s Batman) comic book characters were not held in as high regard by audiences as they are now. “Superman was looked upon as a children’s character and a programme taking him seriously would need to have a bit of a tongue-in-cheek approach, using some kind of clever device to explore his world. At the same time I have always genuinely felt that Supes/Clark is both an Epic and Tragic character and was determined not to sell him short.”

Radio Times cover by dave gibbons celebrating superman's 50th birthday in 1988

Radio Times cover by dave gibbons celebrating superman's 50th birthday in 1988

Maggs wrote the script, which saw Superman in front of one of Oa’s Guardians Of The Universe acting as the judge, with Lex Luthor as prosecutor and Lois Lane as defence and witnesses from both the comics and our world offering an explanation of what Superman means in his world and ours. Amongst the real world witnesses were then DC president Jenette Kahn, comic book artist Dave Gibbons and former Batman actor Adam West.  

According to Maggs; “Jennete Kahn was stunningly easy to get – I phoned, asked, she said yes. All we had to do was find a New York studio where she could be recorded giving her testimony. Dave Gibbons I contacted via Phyllis Hume (who was Maggs initial contact at DC) who was hugely enthusiastic about the project and able to get to the studio to record and interact with the cast.”  

The real stroke of luck was in getting Adam West to testify. “West was the unexpected bonus. He was in the UK promoting repeats of the Batman TV show and happened to turn up at Broadcasting House. I literally ran down three flights of stairs, buttonholed him as he was about to go in for his interview, asked if he could spare five minutes after he had finished, ran back to my office, wrote some questions for him and grabbed him into a little Self-Op studio when he emerged.” 

Stuart Milligan (clark kent/superman), william hootkins (lex luthor) and lorelei king (lois Lane)

Stuart Milligan (clark kent/superman), william hootkins (lex luthor) and lorelei king (lois Lane)

For Superman/Clark Kent, Maggs cast actor Stuart Milligan in the role, although as Maggs explains, finding the right Man Of Steel wasn’t easy. “We listened to tens of demo tapes and had none left. I went back into the US actors directory and saw his picture. He looked right so I got him in to read and I thought he was great.” The part of Lex Luthor went to William Hootkins, star of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Batman (1989) and Star Wars. For the women in Superman’s life, Maggs cast Shelley Thompson as Lois Lane and Lorelei King as Lana Lang. King, who made her UK radio debut on Trial, recalls “The late, great Bob Sessions (Batman in Trial before going on to reprise the part in Maggs’ BBC Batman series) recommended me to Dirk. I auditioned and happily he cast me!”  

In 1990, Maggs followed Trial with The Adventures Of Superman, a straight adaptation of John Byrne’s Man Of Steel mini-series and beyond. “Controller of Radio 4 Michael Green asked if it might be possible to have more comic book stuff. I couldn’t believe my luck and suggested Adventures Of, using much the same cast as Trial. To my amazement he went for it and we made two series of Adventures Of Superman for Radio 4!" 

The majority of the cast from Trial reprised their roles, with the exception of Shelley Thompson and Lorelei King. Maggs explains “I didn’t direct the cast for Trial – I was deemed too new a producer to do that – so my pal Neil Cargill did the cast directing while I hovered nervously! As a result, some things were a little skewed from the way I had hoped – including the roles Lorelei and Shelley played, which I wanted the other way round. When we made Adventures I was director and so Shelley became Lana and Lorelei became Lois, which I felt worked better.” 

Both were excellent in their parts, but King brought a feistiness to Lois that wasn’t quite there in Thompson’s performance and Thompson brought a more vulnerable quality to Lana that wasn’t quite there in Kings performance. On her approach to Lois, King says “I didn’t want to be influenced by any of the previous portrayals of Lois, I really just aimed to play a certain type of American girl; feisty, fearless, certain of all that she knows – until her world view is turned upside down by a (super) man.” 

Maggs’ work on Superman had caught the attention of Douglas Adams who was looking for somebody to finish The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy on the radio. “When Douglas and my first attempt to do that fizzled out, I had to come up with a project that would fill that gap and with relations still good with New York, somehow managed to persuade Radio 5 to run a series based on DC Comics’ then current Death Of Superman storyline.” And so, Superman: Doomsday & Beyond debuted on Radio 5 in 1993. 

one of mike carlin's notes

one of mike carlin's notes

Working on a storyline that was still playing out in the comics, meant Maggs worked closely with DC Comics on the project. “DC were utterly superb and completely involved in all these projects. For Doomsday – Superman editor – Mike Carlin would FedEx me the latest scripts and layouts for the comics. Usually I would get artwork, sometimes just the story beats. It was pretty much down to the wire sometimes, but I could always phone if I had any questions. Many of Mike’s notes consisted of pleas of confidentiality like ‘Don’t let me see this in tomorrow’s papers!’ But of course I wouldn’t, I was having too much fun writing the audio version anyway!”

Both The Adventures Of Superman and Doomsday & Beyond were re-edited and repeated on BBC Radio 1 in daily 3 minute episodes and were re-released on CD years later as whole movies (with Trial getting an extra 15 minutes of deleted material put back into it), but to date, Maggs has not made the trip back to Metropolis although he admits “I’d love to go back and do lots of stuff. It would be fun to do some of the classic Superman and Batman stories set in the 1940’s. But people keep making the movies about the characters which makes audio rights unavailable.”

But what does Maggs put the success of his audio adaptations of such visual work down to? “If skilfully written and produced, audio bypasses the optic nerve, sneaks through the side door via the ear drum and paints pictures using the human brain, the greatest imaging computer ever invented. Johnny Vegas calls it ‘CGI for the soul’ and that’s a pretty good description. With the visual media you are required to surrender yourself to what you see. Your imagination is pretty much sidelined. With audio the sounds you hear fire up your mind’s eye. You create the images. It’s astonishing how much better they are too!”

Superman opened the door for Maggs to work on a huge amount of radio movies, which included Hitchhickers Guide, Batman, Spider-Man and Judge Dredd, but it is probably King who had her life changed the most by Superman as she reveals “All the actors on that job were so much fun to work with, but the cast member who made the biggest impression on me was the man who eventually became my husband – Vincent Marzello, who played Jimmy Olsen. At our wedding, Dirk said that it wasn’t quite right that Lois Lane should marry Jimmy Olsen – but it’s worked out pretty well so far...”

The photos in this article are used with the kind permission of Dirk Maggs.