For the “Suspense” March 23, 1953, production of Charles Dickens’ “The Signal-Man,” one of radio’s leading ladies, Agnes Moorehead, narrates a supernatural story, some 16 years before she played the witch Endora on TV’s “Bewitched.”
Her character is a returned resident of an English village, back after 20 years, encountering the veteran railroad signal-man at his tunnel-entrance shack. But it’s not just a nostalgic visit, she is also a journalist: “I’m a writer,” she says. “I wanted to interview you…”
I last heard Moorehead play a reporter when I discovered her starring in Cavalcade of America’s 1945 dramatized life of Nellie Bly. (https://jheroes.com/real-life-reporters/nellie-bly/)
This was not the first radio production of “The Signal-Man,” and both it and the “Lights Out” version I reported on last depart from Dickens’ tale by explicitly making the narrator a journalist. Since Dickens’ original (now available online) was first published in a magazine, perhaps the narrator’s role as writer went without saying, although the words “reporter,” “journalist” and “writer” never appear in the story. In this version the woman works for a magazine. The troubled railroad-tunnel signal operator of the title confesses to being a reader who is familiar with her unnamed magazine column. In the “Lights Out” version of the story, the narrator is from The London Times.
In Dickens’ story, the narrator merely describes himself as “… a man who had been shut up within narrow limits all his life, and who, being at last set free, had a newly-awakened interest in these great works.” (The “great works” presumably being the railroad and its tunnel, similar to one involved in the 1861 Clayton Tunnel rail crash, five years before Dickens published his tale.)
The signal-man’s shack holds a shelf of classic books — including Gibbon and Darwin — part of what makes him interest the reporter as an unusual feature. He appears more educated and sophisticated than his job requires… and his education implies that he should not be troubled by ghostly apparitions.
As an interviewee, he asks good questions. Why does a reporter choose a particular story?
The reporter’s childhood fear of trains is part of her motivation, an angle added to the Dickens story by the radio script writer. Moorehead gasps in terror at the whistle-scream and engine-roar of each one entering the nearby tunnel.
The gender change for the reporter causes the signal-man to awkwardly use “it” instead of a male pronoun to describe a figure he has seen, forshadowing what is a powerful variation on the original ending.
Irving Reis is credited with the adaptation and Elliot Lewis as producer. Joseph Kerns plays the title character. Sound effects are excellent. “Suspense” was a top-notch series, and its producers loved the Reis adaptation enough to use it two more times — in 1956 and 1959.
Reis also produced what was probably the first adaptation of the story, for the Columbia Workshop in 1937, which made the signal-man’s visitor a journalist for an unidentified publication. He’s a thorough and compassionate, but skeptical, interviewer.
Moorehead also plays a fine reporter, insisting it will take several visits to complete her story, later providing a strong voice of reason arguing with the man about the things he has seen and heard. But this is “Suspense,” and nothing is certain but the Auto-Lite sparkplug commercials.
Wikipedia’s page about Dickens’ story reports various broadcast adaptations:
“In the United States, the story was adapted for radio for the Columbia Workshop (23 January 1937), The Weird Circle (as “The Thing in the Tunnel”, 1945), Lights Out (24 August 1946), Hall of Fantasy (10 July 1950), Suspense (4 November 1956) and Beyond Midnight (as “The Signalman”, 1970) radio shows. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation also adapted the story for their CBC Radio drama programme Nightfall (17 December 1982).”
J. David Goldin’s Radiogoldindex was the first to alert me to the fact that Suspense returned to the in 1956 and 1959.
Update, Dec. 26, 2018…
Here’s the Columbia Workshop’s pioneer adaptation from 1937, via the OldTime Radio Researchers group library. The series was directed by Reis, but writing credit for “The Signal Man” was given to Charles Tazewell in a 1948 anthology, “Plays from Radio,” Abraham Harold Lass, ed.
Unlike later productions, the opening and ending have additional characters to set the scene, establish the main characters, and resolve the story… a resolution Reis apparently decided wasn’t needed in his shift to a smaller cast and female reporter for Suspense.
I wonder if any of the radio columnists or fan magazines interviewed him about that in 1953 — or was the new-fangled television all they wanted to write about?
For more discussion of the story, fans of radio and Dickens (rather than journalism) might enjoy annual presentations of versions of the story by the Mysterious Radio Listening Society podcast.