The radio series “Europe Confidential” told mystery tales in the guise of newspaper columns, now available as MP3 files with titles like “The Blackmailed Spy Affair.” The “World’s Greatest Mysteries” program is a bit of a mystery itself — apparently a series-in-a-series, with “Europe Confidential” as a subtitle and cascading introductions, first one by an unidentified announcer, then a preamble by long-time “Sherlock Holmes” film actor Basil Rathbone. Here’s an one of Rathbone’s intros (emphasis added):
“In drama and fiction newspapermen are invariably tough hardboiled characters. In real life this is, well, it’s not necessarily true although several newspapermen I’ve known were as colorful as anything fiction has ever had to offer.
“Mike, whom you will meet in a moment, is based upon a real person who actually works for the European edition of a famous American newspaper.
“Not only is the character real, but many of the stories which Mike tells are also based on fact. The tale you’re going to hear today, for instance, you may even recognize from the headlines in your newspaper of not so very long ago…”
I’m listening my way through the episodes and find these opening voice-overs an intriguing summary of a popular-culture image of journalists of the 1950s. Alas, the program gives no writing credits for its scripts or these introductory blurbs, presumably by someone on the staff of the program’s British producer or American syndicator. (Rathbone was in the U.S. in 1957, appearing in stage productions of “Witness for the Prosecution,” according to New York Times files [30 June 1957: 73].)
Rathbone had no part in the individual episodes and his commentaries, sandwiched between the first announcer and the program, tell nothing specific about the episode at hand. Despite his remark that this first story is one “you might even recognize from the headlines,” the episode is a theatrical World War II spy yarn, and since the radio program was broadcast in 1957, it seems unlikely that it made headlines “not so very long ago.”
In fact, the script bears a striking resemblance to an episode from Orson Welles’ program, “The Lives of Harry Lime,” according to a fan who heard both. It’s probably no coincidence — that series was produced by British media entrepreneur Harry Alan Towers and his Towers of London company, the most likely source for “Europe Confidential.” Towers cooperated on some projects with the American producer and syndicator Frederick Ziv, who distributed “transcription” disks for the series and dozens of others in the U.S. and abroad in the days before audio tape, satellite and Internet.
Perhaps Rathbone’s identification with Holmes made his name a marketing hook for “Europe Confidential” the larger series of which it was a part. Titled “The World’s Greatest Mysteries,” the umbrella series included at least one other leading character, an American detective. Some Canadian newspaper listings identify the show as “WGM/Europe Confidential.” Radio collector David Goldin’s collection (RadioGoldIndex.com) lists two World’s Greatest Mysteries episodes about “Spike Harrigan, New York detective,” but none with the “Europe Confidential” subtitle.
The “Europe Confidential” plots, framed neatly as the memoirs of a foreign correspondent, range far and wide and offer the unnamed actors opportunities to unleash a variety of foreign accents. Examples: a search for a missing Englishman in Tangier, a flashback to tell another reporter’s World War II story, a post-war serial killer story set in Berlin, even an expose of a scientist in Paris offering investors an unbelievable invention — a time machine!
According to the stories and Rathbone’s intros, “Europe Confidential” was the title of a column by an American newspaper reporter based in Paris. The first-person narrator, correspondent Mike Connoy (or “Malloy” in one newspaper ad), was played by Canadian-British actor Lionel Murton, the only cast member mentioned in the recordings. Born in England but raised in Canada, he returned to the U.K. during World War II, according to a 1970s radio interview, and drew on his American accent through almost 40 years of appearances in radio, British television and feature films, including “Patton.” He played another American journalists in the film Pursuit of the Graf Spee (1956).
“The Blackmailed Spy Affair” is the first of 22 “Europe Confidential” episodes digitized by Jim McCuaig, a Canadian radio veteran who found the transcription disks at an Ontario station where he worked in the mid-1960s. His copy of this first story is at his website, Jim’s Playground, at http://www.jimsplayground.com/otr-adventure.html, along with a link to a page containing plot summaries as well as downloadable copies of the rest of his collection. He assigned titles to the stories, since the distribution disks had only episode numbers.
An Internet Archive user apparently copied all of McCuaig’s digital copies to an archive page, where they can be downloaded as a zip file or played individually. http://archive.org/details/EuropeConfidential (As usual, the player at the top of this page uses an Archive.org copy of the program.)
Terry Guntrip (of http://www.whirligig-tv.co.uk), a British old-time-radio and TV historian, tells me the program was first broadcast to the U.K. by Radio Luxembourg, the commercial station that served as an offshore alternative to the non-commercial BBC at the time, and was home to many of Towers’ productions. He pointed me to a book about U.K. radio history, The Golden Age of Radio by Denis Gifford (B.T.Batsford Ltd, London, 1985), which identifies Towers as the producer of Europe Confidential and June 6, 1958, as its first Radio Luxembourg broadcast.
A search of Proquest Historical Newspapers files for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun finds no references to “Europe Confidential” or “The World’s Greatest Mysteries,” which presumably would show up in daily or weekly radio program schedules. Perhaps Towers and Ziv only sold the series in Europe, Canada and Australia, not the U.S. The program does appear in 1957 and 1958 radio listings in Google-archived international papers like The Sydney Morning Herald, The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and The Bulletin & Scots Pictorial (Glasgow). (Its run on CFCQ Saskatoon lasted a year, judging by the Star-Phoenix radio schedule listings. It was first heard at 9:30 Monday nights, shifting to 7:30 after a few months. By May 1958 its time slot had been taken over by “Radio Novels.”)
While perhaps not up to the production standards of Towers’ collaborations with Orson Welles — “The Lives of Harry Lime” and “The Black Museum” — “Europe Confidential” does meet my main criterion of featuring a newspaper reporter as the main character, and is a fine example of using a journalist as a narrative framing device to tell all kinds of stories.
Back to the episode at hand: Some of the public’s — or Hollywood’s — preconceptions about newspaper reporters show through in “The Blackmailed Spy Affair,” including competition between newspapermen. Connoy, in a World War II flashback, recalls having a commanding officer who in civilian life had been a reporter for a rival newspaper — one Connoy had beaten to an important story. The former reporter not only has put that life behind him for a military career, he has risen to the rank of general, while Connoy is still a private.
“As a soldier, your just about the worst I have in my army. The trouble with you newspaper guys — you don’t know the meaning of discipline,” the general says. But he has a special assignment for Connoy, more suited to his special talents: A spy mission.
The British spy who prepares Connoy for the field sums up those talents, perhaps the ones that make Connoy a good reporter, or at least in the world of novels, movies and radio shows in need of a leading man:
“We’ve borrowed you from your people because of your special qualifications: languages, looks, a certain celebrated aptitude for the opposite sex, and a fair share of unmitigated gall, plus a knowledge of Europe and some of the people you’ll be meeting.” — spymaster to reporter
Later, when Connoy tells a mysterious woman that this spy business does remind him of the newspaper game, she responds with another reason he was well-suited to the mission: He’s expendable. The idea of being someone on the margins, working outside of government channels, gathering information with a combination of street-smarts and trickery, sometimes disguised or taking personal risks, and making plenty of mistakes — it all certainly fits for a lot of fictional journalists, if not the real-world variety.
Mike has even flirted with the edges of the underworld. “How’s the opium racket?” he asks an old acquaintance.
“You newspaper guys are all the same,” he replies. “Just when a man thinks you’re a real pal, you start the old snoop. What are you after?”
In this case he’s after a kidnapped girl, and (remember, this is a wartime spy story) he’s willing to put a couple of bullets in a Nazi guard to convince him to disclose her location.
Add a little more anti-hero spice, shakier ethics and some zither music, and the character does sound a bit like Orson Welles’ trench-coated character in “The Third Man” and “The Lives of Harry Lime,” an episode of which was recycled into this “Europe Confidential” script. Its title was “The Third Woman,” with much of the dialogue used verbatim minus the newspaperman references. Lime, of course, is not a reporter. He’s a confidence man and black-marketeer, but not without his charm, and he shares most of the skills the spymaster attributed to Connoy. In fact, that paragraph is almost word-for-word from “The Third Woman.” The one addition: The last phrase about “knowledge” was added for the reporter. Another interesting detail in the rewrite: At a key point in the story, it takes the naive and usually under-funded reporter Connoy a moment to figure out he has to bribe someone for information; Harry Lime does it in the blink of an eye.
I’m going to keep listening and digging into the background of this program. A “Europe Confidential” item will be added to the “Drama” menu above when I’ve found enough to tell more of the story.