Monday, September 8, 2014

Heirloom Audio Productions: Under Drake's Flag (A Schoolhouse Crew Review)

With several hours a week on the road for therapy appointments, I’m always looking to cram “schoolwork” into the road trip. Because the boys tend to be more audio-and-visual learners, I tend to just pop an educational DVD in before we drive away. The big boys like audiobooks to read along with the text, so we’ve never tried an audiobook. We were given the opportunity to review Under Drake’s Flag: The Extraordinary Tales of G.A. Henty produced by Heirloom Audio Productions  and I was intrigued. It’s purely listening – an audio CD – but is considered “Audio Theater.”  This two-CD set ($29.95 plus $6.95 S/H) is about two hours in length, making it perfect for a ride to and from DuPont for us.

What is Audio Theater?

What is “audio theater”? Well, if you were my grandmother, you’d call it a “radio drama” (as opposed to a music or news program). Think back to the heyday of radio, from the 1920s through World War II. With no way to transmit visual pictures, the entire story needed to be conveyed with sound – the actors’ dialogue, their tone and inflection, and the music and accompanying sounds – to be brought to life. With genres from westerns to murder mysteries, the sounds of the show played as important a role as the plot itself in immersing the listener in the story. As television rose to prominence in the 1950s and ‘60s, the radio drama faded to near static.

Over the past five years or so, there has become a reemergence of the audio drama as an art form.  Under Drake's Flag is considered an Active Listening Audio Adventure -an audio drama with fast-moving stories, using dialog, music, and sound effects to captivate the listener. Rather than being a main feature on terrestrial radio (if you can find it at all!), it has found its niche in podcasts and audio CDs.  These audio theater pieces are perfect for longer car trips - more vivid than a sometimes dry book reading, but not distracting from the road.

Under Drake's Flag: The Story

The story is based on the 1880 novel Under Drake's Flag: A Tale of the Spanish Main by G. A. Henty.  It begins with Sir Francis Drake's 1572 voyage to the Americas, during the Spanish Inquisition and English-Spanish slave trade. The main character, Ned Hawkshaw, is a fatherless youth on the verge of manhood. After seeing him brave rough seas to save another sailor in a shipwreck, Sir Francis Drake promises Ned one day he will have him to serve on his ship; that day comes sooner than expected when a crew member falls ill and Ned is asked to take his place. Aboard ship, Ned becomes fast friends with Gerald, another young new crew member. Together, they travel with Drake to the Americas, though not without a few mishaps along the way. Midway through the story, they are washed ashore into "enemy" territory - the Spanish colony - and the second half of the drama tells how the boys are forced to fight for their survival.  The story does not say precisely how long the boys are marooned in America; it is inferred that they return to England on Drake's 1577-80 circumnavigation (Drake's ship is sighted north of Lima, and the boys travel across South America on foot to meet the ship after it passes through the Straits of Magellan).

I admit, I didn't recognize most of the actors' names, but with a quick Google recognized their work. The role of author/narrator G.A. Henty is voiced by Brian Blessed.  You don't recognize his name, either?  Americans may recognize his voice from the roles of Clayton (Disney's Tarzan), Boss Nass (Star Wars), or  Grampy Rabbit and Eduardo Enormomonster (Peppa Pig and Henry Hugglemonster, respectively), but he is a reknowned British actor who has been active in British television for nearly fifty years, including several BBC and Kenneth Brannaugh productions of Shakespearean plays.  Royal Shakespeare veteran Ian Cullen voices Sir Francis Drake.  (That name may be slightly more recognized by Dr. Who fans.)   Many of the actors are reknowned in British theater, television, and film.

The boys each only listened to the CD set once.   However, I listened to it on three separate trips to the hospital.  It actually was an interesting way to listen though - because with each child, it was different.  Jude and Damien just listened, but often seemed to "check out." That doesn't surprise me - with Jude's disabilities, intense listening with no visual input is very difficult for him, and Damien is only four.  The music and dialogue help highlight the tension of the shipwrecks, the battles, and the triumphs of Ned and Gerald; as Jude and Damien listened, they tended to fade in and out of focus, cued by the tenor of the sound.  In reality, it was just me really listening to the story.  As the driver, I found it engaging enough to help relieve the boredom of a drive I have done literally over a thousand times, but not so much as to distract me from the road.  For the big boys, however, Under Drake's Flag was a completely different story.

Some lively discussions

In the CD jacket, there is a short activity book; a more detailed study guide is available for download.  However, instead of using these and making the program more a literary study, the older boys and I opted for discussions of ethics, viewpoint and history. 

Twice more I listened to Under Drakes Flag, but this time with the older boys on individual hospital runs.  The difference in perspective - both from "recreation" to "study" and from their ages and experiences - was impressive to see.  It was an advantage to have them listen individually, because each boy and I had the opportunity to have one-on-one discussions initially, and then we were able to discuss ideas in a slightly larger group. Matthew showed that "dawning of realization" that is the hallmark of the tween years, while sixteen-year-old Luke had some astute observations. Like any good historical story, there are a number of sides, including a final "viewing through objective and modern eyes."
  • Sir Francis Drake was a man of strong "ethics" when it came to plundering.  Treasure was up for grabs, but his men were instructed to take only treasure or the lives of armed men.  None who was unarmed or surrendered was to be harmed, and no women or children to be touched.  A kindness by the standards of warfare for the time,  but it doesn't negate the fact that he was still stealing gold, silver, and jewels and killing those that defended their property. 
  • Drake was shot during an early battle.  Injured, he ordered Ned to keep quiet about the injury and the team pressed on to find a cache of silver.  Drake ordered his crew to retreat and instead search for the "real" treasure - gold and jewels - and then collapses.  A testament to their loyalty, all of his men carry him back to the ship, rather than dividing into two parties; the result is despite the battle and Drake's injury, they remain empty handed. Was this "God's punishment" for the attack, "just desserts," or placing the value a good leader above material gain?
  • The listener's sympathies would almost automatically be with the English - after all, they are the protaganists of the story, off to rid the earth of the evil Spanish regime.  But then...English Ned rescues Spanish Doña Ana from a shark attack; her father repays the debt by hiding the shipwrecked Ned and Gerald with a band of escaped slaves.  Kojo Kinte, leader of the escaped slaves, also makes a good point: the English are the enemy of the Spanish, but it was the English who kidnapped and sold Africans to the Spaniards.  Usually, those at war live by the doctrine, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend," but in this case, the enemy of Kinte's enemy was still his enemy!  The Spanish turn against themselves, executing Señor Segasta for helping the boys.  Listening from an objective viewpoint leads to the question "Is any side truly 'right'?"
  • The Inquisition is clearly not the Catholic Church's finest hour.  However, the Spanish Inquisition took on a more political tone (though authorized by the Church) than the predecessor Crusades.  The boys and I discussed the difference between artistic license (the behavior of the priests) and actual history. Even allowing for some human failings and some priests becoming consumed with their power, the Church was not the entity that actually tortured non-Catholics or sentenced heretics to death, but rather a "religion of the state" being used as secular law. This led to a discussion of the use of religion as a political regime, and discussions of the intents of the American Constitution ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...") as well as the current religion-based conflicts in the Middle East. 
  • We also found ourselves discussing how an author writes from his views.  Henty wrote this story in the 1880s, and many felt his stories glorified British imperialism.  (Even his novel on the American War for Independence was told from a Tory's perspective.)  We talked about how his perspective (an Anglican imperialist) could affect the story he told (with only a passing reference to the English's role in the slave trade and from a Catholics-are-evil view) versus what we might think of the same events, looking at them nearly 150 years later from a American Catholic view.

Final thoughts

From an artistic view, this production is very well done.  The actors chosen for the recording are among some of Britain's best. They have provided a very good show, down to the use of accents and dialect - you can hear the class differences between the educated leader Drake and the rough crew, as well as feminine Doña Ana's breathy and accented English compared to the more fierce and gutteral tone of Kinte and his men.  The music is a perfect example of beautiful composition: it plays a forefront role in providing the listener with the emotion and his imagination with the setting.  The sound quality is even throughout the program; though the music swells and quiets throughout the volume remains constant.  It's perfect for listening to in the car - you're not constantly fiddling with the radio to change the volume or skipping back because you missed something.

The publisher's age recommendation for the program is "six to adult," but I would put it more in the "middle school and older" realm.  With two hours of intense listening, it was too much for a younger listener.  The story is full of rich vocabulary and wordplay - good for older kids, but (if you'll pardon the pun) it sails over the heads of younger ones.  As an action story of sailing the seas and surviving on land, the storyline sounds like it would be appeal to an elementary level student, but the content really is for older ones and adults who can better grasp the history and reasoning of the story.  The study guides provide a strong base for using the CD set as a literary study, including content/comprehension questions and vocabulary, and we found it was a good starting point for a history and philosophy study.

Heirloom Audio Productions has announced Audio Theater production of In Freedom's Cause will be released in November 2014.  In this story about the fight of Wallace and Bruce, Brian Blessed reprises his role as G.A. Henty, as do the actors who portray Ned and Gerald (Jonny Scott and Daniel Philpott).  Actors Joanne Frogart (Downton Abby) and Billy Boyd (Lord of the Rings) add their voices to the program as well.  Given how much we enjoyed listening to Under Drake's Flag, this new production is definitely going on our carschooling list! To keep up to date with Heirloom's releases of these and other titles, follow them on Facebook.

Under Drake's Flag Reviews

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