This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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Was David Harding Ahead of His Time?
by Jim Cox © 2006
(From Radio Recall, August 2006)
While one wag observed that, at its start, this show’s methodology was “slightly above the juvenile,” it apparently made little difference to the millions of faithful of whatever age who found David Harding, Counterspy an absorbing spy thriller. Compelled to “tune in next time” in the enchanting style that pervaded radio’s aura, the mystery with espionage themes was an immediate hit. With only a few brief interruptions, it remained on the air for more than 15 years. The series extended from an inception in early 1942—shortly after America’s entrance into the Second World War—to the end of 1957, during the fading epoch of network radio as the medium lost its grip as a primary source for most people’s entertainment and information. In between those years Counterspy, as it was tagged by fans, offered excitement and adventure that fascinated listeners of widely diverse ages.
The show’s distinctive opening was reminiscent of another radio feature that appeared at about the same time on one of a trio of national chains that transmitted it.
First Voice (on filter, over clicking telegraph keys): Mutual to Y-O-U...Sending…Are you ready?
Second Voice (on filter): Y-O-U to Mutual...Go ahead.
The opening of that late-afternoon youth-oriented serial, Chick Carter, Boy Detective (1943-45), tendered an introduction that was similar to the nighttime espionage thriller David Harding, Counterspy. Both were MBS narratives at different times (the latter aired on ABC and NBC earlier) and both proffered a comparable rhythm in their commencements. Counterspy launched like this:
Washington…calling David Harding, counterspy….Washington…calling David Harding, counterspy.
Following an unleashing of explosive teletype commotion, the actor playing the key figure replied:
Harding, counterspy…calling Washington.
Theme up full.
At its start the tale centered on subversives who were committed to bringing down the American government. Specifically, the focus was upon preventing evildoers within the German Gestapo, the Italian Zobra and the Japanese Black Dragon from carrying out sinister plots that would cause harm to Americans and interrupt the freedoms they enjoy. Bringing that forward to the contemporary epoch, it all sounds familiar to anyone contemplating the anti-terrorist activities in which our government is engaged today. Was David Harding’s wordsmith visualizing the modern dilemma six decades before it occurred?
A fabled mythological detail that relied on highly classified intelligence, the counterspies were initially commissioned to halt anti-American activity during the Second World War. Their counterparts today would include the CIA, Homeland Security Department and other branches so charged with ferreting out enemy plans and thwarting them before they can be implemented. Once the war was over, the radio feature adapted to the times by diverting some of its attention to purely bad guys of sundry sorts in the same vein as The FBI in Peace and War and This Is Your FBI, competing aural programs. There seemed to be no loss of fictional ideas that could be turned into incredibly fascinating tales for all three shows to be sure, invariably pulling the masses back for more.
Harding, in the meantime, who was the nation’s chief counterspy, and his partner, agent Harry Peters—most often referred to by surname only—went after the big game in sustaining our nation’s safety. The pair and whatever backup they required ingeniously unraveled the masterful plotting of a given prey, frustrating the adversary while preserving the American way of life for another day. According to one critic, they were faithful to their commission, projecting themselves as responsible “by-the-book, humorless, heavy-footed, hard-nosed, unromantic federal agents.”
The titles of the individual installments applied to many of the Counterspy stories were inherently persuasive. Often they employed alliteration to capture the imagination of fans, beginning words with the same letter or repeating parallel sounds. Here are a few: “The Case of the Carbon Consul,” “The Case of the Infiltrating Insurrectionist,” “The Case of the Pretty Plant,” “The Case of the Kleptomaniac Clues,” “The Case of the Insidious Impersonation,” “The Case of the Washington Woman Spy,” “The Case of the Bouncing Bank Robber,” “The Case of the Murdering Messenger,” “The Case of the Arrogant Arsonist,” “The Case of the Hot Car Killer,” “The Case of the Visiting Vultures,” “The Case of the High Class Hijacker,” “The Case of the Mile High Murders,” “The Case of the Soaring Saucer,” “The Case of the Postal Pirates,” “The Case of the Hoodlums Hero,” “The Case of the Magic Murder” and many more following in that predilection.
The man giving voice to David Harding throughout the show’s lengthy tenure was Don MacLaughlin, one of the busiest actors in broadcasting from the 1930s to the 1980s. His voice became instantly recognized by daytime listeners routinely tuning in The Road of Life in the 1940s and 1950s. MacLaughlin was featured in the lead as the common-sense counselor-type physician, Dr. Jim Brent, who calmly faced many a domestic crisis in his private life. MacLaughlin also played the same part on a pithy CBS-TV incarnation of the show in 1954-55.
Born Nov. 24, 1906 at Webster, Iowa, MacLaughlin studied English and speech at the University of Iowa. He taught and coached briefly before departing academia in 1933 for tryouts on the New York stage. Not only did he appear in several Broadway productions (Fifth Column, The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, The Respectful Prostitute, South Pacific, Virginia Reel, et al.), he won a plethora of recurring roles in radio dramas. His repertoire included Buck Private and His Girl, Chaplain Jim U.S.A., Lora Lawton, The Romance of Helen Trent, The Story of Mary Marlin, Young Widder Brown and You’re in the Army Now. He was cast as the masculine lead in several. In 1983 he appeared as chief justice Earl Warren in the mini TV series Kennedy.
Without question, nonetheless, MacLaughlin’s greatest coup was to win the role of Chris Hughes, the patriarch of daytime television’s initial half-hour serial, As the World Turns, which debuted April 2, 1956. He remained as that pivotal figure until his death at Goshen, Conn. on May 28, 1986, three decades hence. It was one of the most durable runs among actors in broadcast drama.
As David Harding, MacLaughlin was assisted by sidekick Harry Peters, a personality embodied by veteran thespian Mandel Kramer. His nasal-voiced resonations were also quickly discerned by astute audio fans. The son of Russian immigrants, Kramer was born at Cleveland, Ohio on March 12, 1916. He died at Westchester, N. Y. on Jan. 29, 1989. In between those dates he earned credits on more than two-dozen radio series. A few of the more prominent ones were The Adventures of Dick Tracy, The Adventures of Ellery Queen, Backstage Wife, The CBS Radio Mystery Theater, Dimension X, The Falcon, Gangbusters, Mr. and Mrs. North, Perry Mason, The Shadow, Stella Dallas and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.
Kramer, too, landed on TV, initially as the court bailiff on CBS’s premiering The Verdict Is Yours weekday afternoons in 1957. More importantly, however, he is probably best recalled as the police chief of mythical Monticello, Bill Marceau, on CBS-TV’s daytime serial with a dark theme, The Edge of Night (1959-79).
David Harding, Counterspy was created by one of the masters of similar fare, Phillips H. Lord (1902-75), who was also responsible for such important aural properties as Gangbusters, Mr. District Attorney, Policewoman and Treasury Agent—all shows exhibiting an analogous manner.
While there was no television sequel to the enduring Counterspy radio series, the popular espionage caper found its way onto the silver screen. In 1950 Columbia Pictures launched a B-movie flick based on Harding’s seemingly authentic adventures. In David Harding, Counterspy actor Howard St. John appeared as Harding, yet was billed third in a cast of less-than-impressive names that included Willard Parker, Audrey Long, John Dehner, Jock Mahoney and John Pickard. A follow-up film, also issued in 1950, was titled Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard. Howard St. John received top billing that time, flanked by Ron Randell, another unknown, and an alluring femme fatale and future Gunsmoke leading lady on TV, Amanda Blake.
When the radio series ended on November 29, 1957, most of Counterspy’s peer dramas (certainly so on MBS) had departed the airwaves. While The FBI in Peace and War and a few more primetime thrillers were still running, the halcyon days of the radio narrative had passed and legions of former radio listeners had already invested in small black-and-white television sets. The fact that Counterspy was good enough to persist almost until the end of the aural medium’s golden age testifies not only to its resilience against the growing odds but also to its talent (writing, acting, production) in continuing to attract vestiges of loyal fans who still enjoyed a good spoof in the theater of the mind.
Jim Cox is a popular and prolific OTR writer. His next book comes out this winter: “Radio Speakers,” a biographical dictionary of 1,160 performers.