Monday, August 10, 2009

RIP: Harry Alan Towers

On July 31st of this year, Harry Alan Towers passed away. As a film producer, he's probably best remembered for his series of Fu Manchu films from the 60s which starred Christopher Lee. Although I'm a fan of the Fu Manchu character, I don't consider those films to be at all good (of those I've seen) and so his work is mostly appreciated by lovers of schlock - b-picture fans and their ilk.

What I'll remember Towers for is his work in raido. He produced a number of dramatic programs for the BBC in the 1950s which were subsequently distributed to North America. They offered repetitive musical scores, similar casts and sparse sound effects. Nevertheless, they persist.

One of these programs was The Lives of Harry Lime, drawn from Graham Greene's the Third Man (made into a 1949 film starring Orson Welles). One of the benefits of this program was that it starred Orson Welles as Harry Lime and retained the movie's distinctive zither score. The series told about Harry Lime's adventures prior to the events of the Third Man and cast him as something of a likeable rogue who fleeces people that deserve fleecing. The stories had a fair bit of sameness but there are a few that really stand out in my mind, such as the one where Lime chases a music box containing a secret fortune and another where Lime tricks a woman into loving him so that he can get at her father's money - only to find she has her own plans. The series didn't invite favorable comparisons to Graham Greene's own work, but it was often fun.

Orson Welles also hosted Towers' program the Black Museum. Outside of Welles' narration, the best thing about the show was the concept: an anthology crime series which reveals the stories behind the objects in Scotland Yard's Black Museum. When the program would recount the crimes themselves it was often good; when it followed the interchangeable square-jawed Scotland Yard inspectors solving the crimes, it was duller than dirt.

Lastly, there was Towers' Sherlock Holmes program. This one had an astounding cast: John Gielgud as Holmes, Ralph Richardson as Watson and (in a few episodes) Orson Welles as Moriarty. If nothing else, Towers must have helped Welles pay off the IRS! This was a fine series, the best radio adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories that I've heard.

Towers' work will endure; hopefully more than just those shlocky Fu Manchu flicks.

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