Oct 27, 2017
“Pursuit! A criminal strikes and fades quickly back into the shadows of his own dark world. And then, the man from Scotland Yard, the famous Inspector Peter Black, and the dangerous, relentless Pursuit!”
Sherlock Holmes was not the only British detective to solve crimes stateside during the Golden Age of Radio. A wave of mystery shows featuring Scotland Yard detectives cropped up on American radio in the post-World War II era. The great Orson Welles hosted The Black Museum, a syndicated series that drew inspiration from Scotland Yard’s warehouse of evidence seized from murder scenes. Basil Rathbone, Sherlock Holmes himself, got into the act as Inspector Burke on Mutual after he hung up his deerstalker cap. And CBS offered Pursuit, a series without star power but one with sharp writing and top flight vocal performances from a crew of radio veterans.
Pursuit grew out of an audition program for a series called The Hunters. Developed by Anton M. Leader (who was coming off a run at the helm of Suspense), The Hunters starred Victor Jory as Scotland Yard’s Inspector Harvey in an adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s short story “You Take Ballistics." The Hunters didn’t take off, but the premise was reworked by producer William N. Robson. Robson enlisted character actor Ted de Corsia to star as the renamed Inspector Peter Black.
The actor was one of the most versatile in the world of west coast radio; de Corsia had a gift for dialects and accents and could be heard as an upper crust member of high society one week and as a fast-talking gunsel the next. He delivered Inspector Black’s dialogue in an arch, clipped manner that recalled the voice of actor Ronald Colman. Shortly after he left Pursuit, de Corsia played Lt. Levinson opposite Dick Powell on Richard Diamond, Private Detective.
Pursuit featured scripts by radio veterans Morton Fine and David Friedkin (including the episode on the podcast this week), and supporting performances from Hollywood radio’s deep talent pool. Actor Bill Johnstone (Lt. Ben Guthrie on The Line-Up) did double duty as Black’s superior Chief Inspector Harkness and as the show’s announcer.
In 1950, Robson left the series. The production was turned over to Elliot Lewis (the creative force behind Broadway is My Beat), who was also directing and producing Suspense on CBS. Lewis reworked the show; he brought in Ben Wright as the star (Wright, a British born radio actor, was coming off of a run as Sherlock Holmes when he assumed the lead role on Pursuit). Wright came by his British accent naturally, but like de Corsia he was a versatile actor and a master of different voices. Though it was his natural voice that was often in demand, Wright also doubled as Asian characters on shows like Frontier Gentleman, The Green Llama, and as Hey Boy on Have Gun - Will Travel.
Lewis made changes behind the scenes as well. The orchestral scores that accompanied the earlier run of Pursuit were replaced by the organ music of Eddie Dunstedter, and he enlisted Antony Ellis to write scripts. Lewis secured sponsorship from Wrigley’s Gum and from Sterling Products, makers of multiple drug store items such as Ironized Yeast and Molle shaving cream. When the sponsorship ran out, so too did Pursuit, another victim of the increased attention (and advertising dollars) being paid to television.
Pursuit had a relatively short run (less than 70 episodes aired on CBS), but the surviving episodes show some of the best writers, directors, and actors of the Golden Age of Radio doing some of their best work. Even if it flew under audiences’ radar when it aired, Pursuit can thrill listeners today as Inspector Peter Black searches the streets of London for dangerous criminals.