In the 1940s my mum and her sister used to rush home every school night to listen to the next exciting adventure of Dick Barton – Special Agent. Broadcast by the BBC from 6.45 to 7PM, the radio serials debuted in 1946 and were in the main written by Edward J. Mason and Geoffrey Webb. Barton, with his companions Jock and Snowey, smashed spy rings and brought down evildoers by the dozen, becoming a pop culture sensation. There were various spin-offs including comics and movies (I’ll be reviewing those soon) before the series ended in 1951. In 1979 the show was revived for television and Alan Radnor’s book was the third in a series of tie-ins that accompanied the screenings. It all begins when Barton gets a phone call from his Aunt Agatha …
I offer this book and TV review as part of the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – click here for review links. I also submit it as part of Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, this week guest hosted by George Kelley.
“Good heavens!” Barton exclaimed, suddenly.
“In the name of the wee man!” Jock muttered.
“Stone the crows!” Snowey added.
Barton takes his old war pals, the beefy Scotsman Jock and the Cockney mucker Snowey, to his aunt’s house, which has been reduced to rubble. It turns out that all the iron, glass and wood has somehow disintegrated. The tenant, a young scientist by the name of Harold Jenkins, has gone missing so Barton heads off in his trusty Riley Monaco to the research lab where he works. Predictably he is given the runaround, though he does find an ally in Harold’s fiancée, the feisty Shirley Reinham. When Harold’s mother’s house is also reduced to rubble, with no trace of iron, glass or wood, Barton realises that something very dangerous is afoot. It turns out that Jenkins was in fact working on a British secret weapon, the XB19, and that the scarred-but-smooth arch-criminal Dmitri Melganik has fooled Jenkins into handing over a prototype, one of only two in existence.
“If we’d had this a few years ago, old Jerry would have been surrendering to us in no time”
This is in every sense a romp and a highly amusing one. The heroes are pure and unsullied patriots while the villains utterly and irredeemably evil – and there are some classic cliffhangers too, including one where Jock is tied up in a house filling up with gas with Melganik (superb name for a villain) planning to detonate with a simple phone call. Best of all though is an extended sequence (in fact it stretches across the entirety of the sixth chapter and half way into the next, about a seventh of the entire book in fact) where Barton and his pals are trapped inside a sealed room swarming with deadly snakes – as this is a book for kids, our hero helpfully stops to gives us a brief lesson about said reptiles:
“Unless I’m mistaken, that creepy-crawly is a member of the genus Eutaenia – the deadly Green Garter Snake, which apart from its other endearing qualities happens to be the most venomous reptile known to man”
The boys ingeniously find a way to stall the snakes and finally make their escape thanks to the timely intervention of Shirley. After cracking a secret code that provides co-ordinates for Melganik’s rendezvous with a secret power (we guess it’s the Russians as it’s the late 1940s), it’s time for the climax, which takes place on the small coastal village of Dymchurch leading to a showdown with an enemy submarine.
The TV version (available in a perfectly acceptable edition from Simply Media in the UK), starring the ultra square-jawed Tony Vogel as Barton, followed the pattern of the original radio series by being shown in fifteen minute episodes, all introduced by Charles William’s immortal theme tune, ‘Devil’s Gallop’ and of course concluding with a cliffhanger. The production, aimed at younger viewers, is a bit low-budget unfortunately but the tone is light without being too tongue-in-cheek or campy, something largely down to Clive Exton and Julian Bond. These two hugely experienced TV writers were steeped in the lore of Golden Age mysteries. Bond adapted many Victorian and Edwardian tales for TV and a huge number of costume dramas too while Exton was the story editor for the first 15 years of the Poirot series starring David Suchet and also adapted the Jeeves and Wooster books for the Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry TV show. The TV serial, a six-parter by Exton, is very faithful to the book – but that is no surprise as the book was in fact (deep breath) a novelisation, something of a dreaded word in some circles.
“It’s like another contemporary American phenomenon that’s truly moronic. The novelisations of movies.” – Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) in Manhattan (1979)
In Manhattan, Woody’s Allen chides Diane Keaton for novelising movies as she presents herself as such an intellectual heavyweight – he clearly thinks this kind of work is beneath her. But until the advent of home video these were often the only way to revisit a favourite movie or TV show. There are a great many famous examples of novelisations by such well-respected authors as Orson Scott Card (The Abyss), Theodore Sturgeon (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea), James Blish (Star Trek), Thomas Disch (The Prisoner), Ken Follett (Capricorn One), Walter Wager (I, Spy) as well a great many in this genre by the likes of Michael Avallone, Ron Goulart and, perhaps most famous of all, Alan Dean Foster. In addition there are original tie-in books such as the excellent series of Monk mysteries by Lee Goldberg. Max Allan Collins, a prolific writer of novelisations and film and TV tie-ins as well as many original works too, has with Goldberg founded the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers (http://iamtw.org). For more on this subgenre, visit the Film Novelization blog or read Joe Queenan’s article for The Guardian, here.
Radnor’s book deliberately apes the sanitised old school approach of the original serials adopted by the TV show – there is plenty of humour but, being aimed at children, there is no sex, violence is very limited and otherwise nothing that might be considered in poor taste. In total four books were published as tie-ins with the 1979 Dick Barton TV series, the second of these later turned into an audio book by the BBC and read by Toby Stephens (BBC radio’s most recent Philip Marlowe). The four books were:
- The Great Tobacco Conspiracy by Mike Dorrell (after Clive Exton)
- The Mystery of the Missing Formula by Mike Dorrell (after Julian Bond)
- The Case of the Vanishing House by Alan Radnor (after Clive Exton)
- The Gold Bullion Swindle by Alan Radnor (after Julian Bond)
I didn’t have much in the way of expectations to be honest when I opened up this slim paperback, but this brief revisiting of my past (and my Mum’s) actually proved great fun and I look forward to reviewing the movie adaptations as they were made by Hammer Studios …