Altaban the Magnificent by Sebastian Baczkiewicz

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Altaban the Magnificent by Sebastian Baczkiewicz (1999). Dir. Claire Grove. Perf. Clive Swift, Nicholas Farrell, Charles Bernecut. BBC Radio 4 Extra, 4 Mar. 2015. BBCiPlayer to 3 Apr. 2015.

Set in postwar Berlin, this fantastic morality-tale centered on the mysterious death of an American sergeant, and the British soldier accused of his murder. The investigating officer (Nicholas Farrell) believed it was an open-and-shut case - all it needed was for the accused to come clean and everything would be well. As with most such cases, however, things did not turn out quite like that, as the accused told a tale of an encounter with a mysterious showman Mond (Clive Swift) and his seven-foot companion Altaban. The two of them had pursued a show-business career in the past, even admitting to a date at the London Palladium, but by some misfortune had fetched up in Berlin, with no money to speak of.

Eventually it transpired that the American had met his death as a result of the encounter with Altaban, a story so fantastic that the investigating officer was prompted to doubt whether the accused was right in the head. In an intriguing twist of fate, however, the moral tables were turned at the end.

Author Baczkiewicz`s reference to a seven-foot being immediately called to mind Mary Chase's charming comedy "Harvey," a huge hit in the Forties and early Fifties, where the hero Elwood P. Dowd, a self-confessed alcoholic, communicates with an imaginary rabbit, the Harvey of the title. No one can see him, but he provides considerable solace for Dowd, as well as suggesting that sometimes the unseen and the intangible exert more power over the human consciousness than the corporeal. Likewise in "Altaban the Magnificent" we never heard from the seven-foot being; his actions were described in the third person by Mond. Yet he had a profound effect on the American`s behavior.

The setting worked extremely effectively - in a world carved up by the Allied powers, good and evil no longer appeared to have any real significance. This was an ideal situation for Altaban to flourish.