“ Listening Length: 41 minutes / Publisher: Falcon Picture Group / Release Date: 6 Aug 2010 „
"This is Gart Williams, a man protected by a suit of armour all held together by one bolt. Just a moment ago, someone removed the bolt, and Mr Williams's protection fell away from him and left him a naked target. He's been cannonaded this afternoon by all the enemies of his life. His insecurity has shelled him, his sensitivity has straddled him with humiliation, his deep-rooted disquiet about his own worth has zeroed in on him, landed on target, and blown him apart. Mr Gart Williams, ad agency exec, who in just a moment will move into the Twilight Zone, in a desperate search for survival." A Stop at Willoughby is a radio drama adapted from a 1960 Twilight Zone episode written by Rod Serling. A Stop at Willoughby is probably my favourite Twilight Zone episode of all time so I approached this with some trepidation but it's fairly faithful to the source material and generally well done. The story revolves around Gart Williams, a New York advertising executive who is on the cusp of a nervous breakdown. Williams is starting to feel old and clapped-out and hates the way his life has turned out. He despises the dog eat dog rat race of work and his humourless bully of a boss Mr Misrell and is well aware that his ambitious shallow social climbing nagging wife Jane has nothing but contempt for him. Williams is just about at the end of his rope. Suffering from insomnia at home, he finds himself increasingly dozing off on the train while commuting home. Whenever this happens though he has a very strange recurring experience/dream that defies explanation but nonetheless seems very real.
Each time that he falls asleep the train is transformed into a very old-fashioned one from another era and about to pull into a bucolic, idyllic sleepy town called Willoughby that seems like something out of the 1880s. A place where everyone seems to know Williams and greets him with a smile. "It was summer, very warm. Kids were barefooted. One of them had a fishing pole. It all looked like a Currier and Ives painting. Bandstand, bicycles, wagons. I've never seen such serenity. It was the way people must have lived a hundred years ago. Crazy dream." He wakes up to find himself back in the present day but each time he falls asleep on the train finds himself back in Willoughby. What is Willoughby and can Williams resist its lure? While this radio version unavoidably lacks the poetry of the Robert Parrish directed television original with its wonderful black and white images, the story is still very much the same and still rather moving. One of the reasons why A Stop at Willoughby was such an affecting story is the fact that Serling was writing about how he felt at the time. He was under incredible pressure writing The Twilight Zone (and also playing a major part in the production of the series) and was in the midst of his own life crisis - increasingly feeling like he wanted out of the rat race himself. A recurring theme in Serling's writing is a yearning to return home to the place of one's youth or escape to a simpler way of life. An escape into the past in one way or another.
Willoughby has a specific meaning that is only completely apparent at the end of the story and it's very affecting. Beyond what seems like the true intention revealed to us by the coda, the story has a timeless and universal quality that taps into the longing or feeling that everyone might have at some point in their lives. Who wouldn't want to find their own Willoughby, even if it was only in their dreams? Chelcie Ross takes on the central role in this radio adaptation, stepping into the shoes of James Daly, who played the part in 1960. Ross is no Daly (although it's always somewhat unfair to compare these radio performers to the original actors in one of the most iconic television shows ever created) but he's solid enough and I like the way this one has more of a full cast feel with an actress (sorry, not sure who) playing his wife Jane and allowing for some good confrontational Serling dialogue as she lambasts him for his lack of ambition and he tries to explain that they really don't want the same things in life. His nightmarish job (advertising here is a world away from Mad Men) is also well conveyed, just as it is in the original. "This is a push business, Williams. A push push push business. Push and drive! But personally, you don't delegate responsibilities to little boys. You should know it better than anyone else. A push push push business, Williams. It's push push push, all the way, all the time! It's push push push, all the way, all the time, right on down the line!"
This is certainly well suited to adapt into an audio format too with Serling's dialogue scenes and the dreamlike atmosphere. The gentle shunts of the train and the ticket inspector calling out that the next stop is Willoughby. The music scores in this series are nicely restrained and have a vaguely jazzy feel that is somewhat downbeat in a sort of Death of a Salesman way. I think it's appropriate and helps to give them some Twilight Zone residue. I liked the atmosphere generated in this one and I felt they did justice to what I think is one of the best stories that Serling ever wrote. As ever, you also get Stacey Keach too here taking on the opening and closing narrations performed so famously by Serling in the original. This is slightly longer than some of the other audio dramas in this series at 41 minutes (remember the television episode was only about 25 minutes) and I think the extended length gives the piece sufficient and welcome time to breathe and be as lackadaisical and dreamy as it can. This a decent stab at recapturing Serling's personal story for another format and I suppose, like all of these radio dramas, serves as a nice tribute as much as anything. At the time of writing you can buy A Stop at Willoughby as part of one of The Twilight Zone audio compilations or download it individually for £1.19.