The Avengers - The Comic Strip Adaptations Volume Two (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 28 February 2017 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
The Avengers: The Comic Strip Adaptations Volume Two (Credit: Big Finish)
2.1 Playtime is Over by Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky
2.2 The Antagoniser by Paul Moris and Simon Barnard
2.3 The Mad Hatter by Matt Fitton
2.4 The Secret Six by John Dorney

Starring Julian Wadham and Olivia Poulet
with Lizzie Roper, Michael Keane, Kiruna Stamell,
Andrew Wincott, John Banks, Richard Earl,
Michael Lumsden, Paul Kemp, Eve Webster,
Maggie Service, Paul Chahidi, John Voce,
Terry Molloy, Ozzie Yue, George Asprey,
Jonathan Telfer, Anita Booth

Directed by Ken Bentley
Producer: David Richardson
Script Editor: John Dorney
Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

Released in November 2016 by Big Finish Productions

Big Finish’s The Avengers ranges offer not only an opportunity for listeners to imagine themselves visiting the 1960s, but for the 1960s to visit them. In this case four stories originally published in D.C. Thomson’s girls’ comic Diana are developed for Big Finish’s older audience and for the auditory instead of visual medium. In doing so they acquire an extra level of knowingness while remaining aware of their roots.

The four stories all draw on familiar girls’ story concepts. Playtime is Over draws on the mystique of the circus and the possibility that some children might not be who they say they are. The Antagoniser is a story about doing harm to animals. The Mad Hatter is about a princess in danger. The Secret Six is about a fancy dress ball which gets very out of hand. All these settings suit the exaggerated, boldly-drawn and brightly-coloured world of the Steed and Peel Avengers, as well as source material where Emma Peel is presented very much as an aspirational heroine for a child readership.

Julian Wadham is a more earnest, straighter Steed than the role’s television originator Patrick Macnee, and similarly Olivia Poulet is a less wry Emma Peel than Diana Rigg, with a tendency to sound a little more exasperated by her experiences. However, these changes arise not only from casting different performers but from the change of medium. Listening to the Big Finish adaptatins, one realises how visual an experience The Avengers was, particularly once it was on film and the budgets seemed to increase every year. There’s no point in a raised eyebrow when the listener can’t see it. The challenge is to find a new way of communicating the tone.

These adaptations succeed to varying levels. Playtime is Over launches the set, but is the most awkward, perhaps because of its subject matter, adults of restricted height masquerading as children to commit crimes. They are generalised in the script as ‘dwarfs’ but one is played with a high voice slightly reminiscent of popular 1960s comedian Jimmy Clitheroe, suggesting a different condition. The effect is disturbing on more levels than perhaps intended. I’m not sure whether it was a good idea to draw attention to nominative determinism as an eccentric feature of one family in this story, when it clearly prospers in other families too elsewhere in the set. However, there is a pleasing reversal towards the end and several performances to enjoy too.

The other three stories are less troublesome. The Antagoniser is at first reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, as domesticated animals turn on humanity, but broadens into satire on familiar 1960s targets such as the television personality and the possibilities of mind control. The Mad Hatter and The Secret Six are both reliant to a great deal on that mid-60s Avengers staple, the comedy foreign accent, which can also make one wince. However, the vocal talents of the cast are impressive. Particularly evocative of time and place is Richard Earl’s Dr Verbatim in The Antagoniser, in a part which one could imagine Colin Jeavons playing in a similar fashion in the 1960s; and Maggie Service as Princess Helga in The Mad Hatter embodying – envocalising? – assumptions of mutual incomprehension and struggles with English, but also bewitching hints of sexual freedom, which seem to have peppered the British view of continental Europe between the Second World War and entry into the European Economic Community.   

The bane of fan reviews, I once read, was the paragraph towards the end which began ‘As for the sets and costumes…’ and I fear that where modern audio productions are concerned the equivalent phrase is ‘As for the sound design…’ Writing of which, there are several highlights, from the Steed and Mrs Peel’s apparent sabre duel (actually attacking a champagne bottle) in Playtime is Over; to the escape in The Antagoniser from angered, stampeding Ayrshire cows (though surely given where the comic strips were originally published they should have been Angus cattle?); to the horse chase in The Secret Six. Most of the music is cheerily Laurie Johnsonesque though not all, and this is just as well for these stories are not strictly speaking in Brian Clemens’s Avengerland but a place close enough to it for there to be policemen and working class characters. Then again, the (literally) highly-flown praise for British engineering (with of course appropriate sound effects) in track four of Playtime is Over made me think the writers were selling 1960s British industry to a 1960s American audience via the ABC network rather than remaking 1960s pop culture through the downloads and CDs of the 2010s.

The Comic Strip Adaptations Volume Two is a self-aware box set, scattered with jokes about the medium and the producers’ other wares. It’s mostly pleasant listening so long as one recognises that this is its own The Avengers and can’t be a recreation of the best of the Steed and Mrs Peel era. I hope that this isn’t the end and that the rights to the TV Comic strips are also available.





Dark Shadows: Haunting Memories (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 19 February 2017 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
Dark Shadows: Haunting Memories (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by Marcy Robin, Adam Usden, Lara Parker, Kay Stonham

Directed by Darren Gross
 
Narrated by Kathryn Leigh Scott, Jerry Lacy, Lara Parker,
& Marie Wallace
 
Big Finish Productions - Released December 2016

Haunting Memories is the second of Big Finish’s short story collections narrated by a member of the Dark Shadows cast. This time around, the four stories are linked by the theme of memories of key events which have shaped the lives of the central character.

Hell Wind by Marcy Robin, narrated by Kathryn Leigh Scott who played Josette Du Pres but in the third person. Years before the arrival of Josette’s notorious husband Barnabas, this is a story of a key event in her childhood as a hurricane devastates her family home on the island of Martinique. This is a well-crafted tale with some deft touches including Josette’s first encounter with a child of one of the servants named Angelique whose significance will of course be very familiar to regular listeners. The story concludes with quite a strong emotional punch as Josette has to come to terms with a terrible loss caused by the hurricane. Overall, a strong opening entry for this set.

Communion by Adam Usman is narrated by Jerry Lacy as Elias Trask. Elias is the father of Lacy’s regular character Reverend Gregory Trask who in the time of this story is a 16 years old and has been re-adopted by his father having been initially raised as a foundling. Set in 1861 during the hell of the American civil war, this is a story about Elias’ faith in God being tested in extreme circumstances and is narrated as if Elias is speaking directly in prayer. After rescuing a prostitute named Chastity from a town of “heathens” controlled by a notorious purveyor of prostitutes, Elias and Gregory are forced to flee for their lives. The story concludes with a pivotal moment which will set both men on a different path from that which they began although those familiar with Dark Shadows will probably guess the inevitable twist from the story’s opening line “In the dark, Lord, I am not alone.” Whilst being somewhat predictable in its outcome, this is an enjoyable story and certainly conjures some vivid images such as that of the brothel “Old Marge’s House of the Heaving Bosom”.

The Ghost Ship is written and narrated by Lara Parker who plays the witch Angelique and has written for her character before. In this story Angelique finds herself transformed from a ghost into a vampire, the form occupied by her one true love Barnabas, however the price of her transformation is the return to Collinsport of a ghost ship bearing a crew of dead souls. This is another enjoyable tale but although with so many of the central events of Angelique’s long life having been detailed in previous stories, it is perhaps inevitable that this memory is not quite as pivotal.

A Face from the Past written by Kay Stonham is narrated in third person by Marie Wallace who played Elizabeth Collins Stoddard. In 1986, Elizabeth returns to Collinsport only to be confronted by a young estate agent who bears more than a passing resemblance to a young man she met many years before who ought to have been the love of her life, had fate not intervened and led her instead to become the wife of Roger Collins. This being Dark Shadows there is a supernatural element at play, and the encounter between Elizabeth and the young man ends with a bittersweet emotional climax which fits in exceptionally well with this collection’s theme of Haunting Memories.

In conclusion, Haunting Memories is a worthwhile follow up to Echoes from the Past. Whilst it is to be hoped that the next series of full-cast adventures, Bloodline (which featured in the trailers at the end of this release) will arrive in the not too distant future, these short story collections are certainly an enjoyable substitute with the next release, Phantom Melodies, due to be released imminently and a further three collections due to follow before the end of this year.

 

Haunting Memories is available now from amazon.co.uk

 

 





The Confessions of Dorian Gray: The Spirits of Christmas (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 31 October 2016 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
The Confessions of Dorian Gray: The Spirits of Christmas (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by Tim Leng and Alan Flanagan

     Produced and Directed by Scott Handcock
 
Cast: Alexander Vlahos (Dorian Gray), Guy Adams (Peter Jameson), Sophie Aldred(Sally Jameson), Tom Allen (Camberwell Haines), Samantha Béart (Catherine), David Blackwell (Simon Darlow), Lisa Bowerman (The Woman in the Woods), Jacqueline King (First Neighbour), Bruno Langley (Ben), Tim Leng (Second Neighbour), Colin McFarlane (The Narrator), Katy Manning (Isadora Rigby), Sarah Ovens (Teddy Quigley), Sakuntala Ramanee (Stella), Miles Richardson (Harry Wotton), Laura Riseborough (Holly), Hugh Skinner (Tobias Matthews), Bianca Stephens (Newsreader), David Warner (Santa Claus), Gabriel Woolf (The Man Upstairs)  

Big Finish Productions -  Released December 2015    

The Confessions of Dorian Gray first appeared four years ago in October 2012, originally as a weekly download only series. This seemed to be something of a risk for Big Finish to produce an original series created by Scott Handcock based upon a reimagining of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, with (at the time) relatively unknown actor Alexander Vlahos in the lead role.  However, the resulting series quickly gained a firm following amongst Big Finish listeners which has subsequently resulted in a further three series and several special episodes including appearances alongside Sherlock Holmes in 2012’s Ghosts of Christmas Past and 2015’s celebratory release The Worlds of Big Finish.

However, it seems all good things must come to an end, and Halloween 2016 sees the release of the fifth and final series of Dorian’s adventures across his long life from Victorian London through to the present day. It therefore seems apt to first review this penultimate release in the popular range which consists of two stories both set in December of 2015 which serve to set the scene for the impending finale.

First up we have the gloriously macabre Desperately Seeking Santa by Tim Leng. Only Big Finish’s casting couch could provide a release which opens with Doctor Who alumna Sophie Aldred being viciously murdered by no less stellar a guest actor thanDavid Warner, whose portrayal of the eponymous Santa is at the heart of this story. Warner shares some great scenes with Vlahos, who has continually excelled in his portrayal of Dorian. The story returns regular listeners to early December 2015, following on from the present day setting that linked the whole of the third series before series four resumed the series’ original anthology format with stories set at various stages of the 20th Century. Dorian has been reunited with the true love his life, the vampire Tobias Matthews, sensitively portrayed by Hugh Skinner, who was first introduced in one of the standout stories of the first series, The Heart That Lives Alone. Dorian and Toby are preparing to celebrate their first Christmas together but the activities of Warner’s evil Santa threaten to cause problems. There is also a brief reappearance by another of Dorian’s former lovers which seems to a hint of things yet to come. The proceedings are given an extra sinister edge with narration by Colin McFarlane. Overall, a great start to this set which indicates that Dorian and Toby’s Christmas is clearly going to be memorable for all the wrong reasons and not just because of some really bad carol singing.

Events take an even more sinister turn as we rejoin Dorian and Toby on Christmas Day itself for All Through the House by Alan Flanagan. Toby and Dorian arrive at a very old and mysterious hotel (although those familiar with Lerner and Loewe musicals will guess the significance of its name) where they start to experience some very strange goings on when they encounter characters who bear a startling resemblance to Dorian’s old friend Harry Wooton (Miles Richardson reprising the character from Big Finish’s adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray) and more intriguingly his sister Isadora, once again brilliant portrayed by Katy Manningwho previously appeared in series one’s The Twittering of Sparrows. Without wanting to give too much away this is very much an adventure story which is as dark and twisted as the series has ever managed. It becomes clear that events are being manipulated by the mysterious Man Upstairs about whom this reviewer will just say that he could only have played by Gabriel Woolf. There are surprises in store which guarantee that this story is compulsory listening for all fans of this series, especially If you have any intention of listening to series five. Basically, this second story is excellent and will justify buying this special release.

Overall, the two stories which comprise this special release continue to push the envelope as part of a great series of audio dramas. The second story in particular sets the scene for the impending release of the finale. Big Finish clearly gambled a lot in commissioning this series but four years on it’s clear that the gamble has continued to pay off with the combined creative talents of Handcock and Vlahos providing some of Big Finish’s finest output.

 

The Spirits of Christmas is available to buy now from amazon.co.uk





Survivors Series Four (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 21 October 2016 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
Survivors - Series Four (Credit: Big Finish)
 

Written by Ken Bentley, Louise Jameson, Christopher Hatherall,  and Matt Fitton

Directed by Ken Bentley 

Cast: Ian McCulloch (Greg), Lucy Fleming (Jenny), Louise Jameson (Jackie), Fiona Sheehan (Molly), Zoë Tapper (Evelyn Piper), Ramon Tikaram (Theo), Jane Maud (Mildred Sanderson/Sarah), Paul Panting (Colonel Stephen Adams), Jonathan Oliver (Lewis Bartholomew MP), Terry Molloy (John Redgrave), Sean Murray (Dr Stewart/Terry Levinson), Alex Lanipekun (Roy), Vinette Robinson (Davina), Laurence Dobiesz (Michael), Enzo Squillino Jnr (Stan)

Big Finish Productions – Released June 2016

With the release of Series Five only a few weeks away, it seems an appropriate time to catch up on the fourth boxset of Big Finish’s extremely successful, dark, gritty and powerful audio revival of Terry Nation’s original 1970s TV series Survivors. It is terrible thing to admit, but when contemplating this release this reviewer finds himself to be at a loss for words. The problem being that whilst, taken on its own merits, this box set is just as strong as the three box sets that preceded it, there is a real sense of déjà​ entendu in terms of the repetition of the format which links the four stories of this box set.

That being said, The Old Ways by Ken Bentley is a very strong opening entry which takes us back to the original outbreak of “the death”. As well as providing a welcome cameo from Terry Molloy reprising his character of John Redgrave from the first audio series, this gives a great introduction to new character Evelyn Piper, played by Zoe Tapper who starred as Anya in the re-imagined Survivors of 2008-10. A neat way of squaring the circle by uniting actors from both TV versions. There is also a strong central turn in this episode from Jane Maud as the Prime Minister’s widow Mildred Sanderson. Having had a paramilitary group of thugs calling themselves the “British Government” in the last audio series, it is a neat contrast to now discover the fate of the surviving remnant of the actual government. It is however to be hoped that having revisited the starting point of the original TV series now in the opening stories of three separate box sets (with only series two having opened several months later), Big Finish will allow the series to move on a little in future releases.

For the Good of the Cause by Louise Jameson returns us to original series regulars Greg and Jenny (Ian McCulloch and Lucy Fleming on great form throughout) who are visiting a potential ally community with a quasi-religious outlook, The Belief Foundation, headed by an idealistic leader called Theo, played with great charm as charisma by Ramon Tikaram. As someone who was a teenager in the 1990s, Tikaram’s performance as Ferdy in the series This Life was extremely influential, and so this reviewer is delighted to hear this actor being regularly employed by Big Finish. I was also go as far as saying that of the four principal antagonists who have appeared in the audio series to date, Theo is by far the most compelling performance and after the chilling performance given by Paul Thornley in series three that is really saying something. However, herein the thorny issue of repeated formula begins to raise its head. Before moving on, some praise for Jameson’s excellent portrayal of Jackie, particularly in the scene where learns of the death of her friend Daniel whose loss is still felt by this reviewer.

The third episode Collision is a welcome contribution from a new writer Christopher Hatherall, who played Tyler in last November’s third series. It starts to become apparent that all is not quite as it seems in Theo’s utopia (this will ring bells for those who remember the villainous Gilligan from series one) as the survivors of the Tartarus bunker from the opening episode struggle to integrate with the Foundation. Meanwhile a young man called Michael seeks to make amends but a revelation about his past sets the scene for confrontation as Theo’s true motives become more apparent (although not especially surprising). There is a still plenty of tension as events build.

Forgive and Forget  by Matt Fitton brings about the expected crescendo. Perhaps the highlight is that the listener may not necessarily find themselves always supporting the decisions of the protagonists. There is, as expected, a predictably enjoyable confrontation between Greg and Theo but also some powerful scenes for Fiona Sheehan as Molly who continues to impress as she confronts her past head on.

Overall, this is another very strong entry to this audio series. However, having ended up with a very similar story arc to the three previous series each revolving around a single antagonist, it ends up losing something. It is to be hoped that the next couple of series can be less formulaic whilst maintaining the powerful storytelling and strong characterisation which continue to mark this series out as a must listen.

 

Survivors Series Four is available to buy now from amazon.co.uk





Dark Shadows: Echoes of the Past (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 6 October 2016 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
Dark Shadows: Echoes of the Past (Credit: Big Finish)
 

Written by Jerry Lacy, Ian Farrington, Philip Meeks & Paul Phipps

Directed by Ursula Burton

Cast: Jerry Lacy, Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker & David Selby

Big Finish Productions – Released June 2016

Echoes of the Past is the second of two special releases to mark the 50th anniversary of the original television series of the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows. Unlike the full cast anniversary tale Blood and Fire, this is a collection of four separate, standalone stories, each narrated in character by a surviving member of the original cast.

Big Finish’s previous Dark Shadows audiobooks have usually featured two characters in a semi-narrated format similar to their Doctor Who range of Companion Chronicles. It is perhaps a slight disappointment that for this and the next release expected later this year, they have only used a single narrative voice for each story.

The opening story Trask the Exorcist is both written and narrated by Jerry Lacy, who probably knows the corrupt Reverend Trask better than most. It is an enjoyable tale of temptation with some great dialogue between Trask and a possessed girl which the author/narrator delivers with great relish.

The second story is The Missing Reel by regular Big Finish scribe Ian Farrington and read by David Selby as Quentin Collins, a character much missed from the previous anniversary release. This story finds the long-lived werewolf in 1950s Los Angeles on the trail of a missing reel of film from a horror film, only to cross paths with a super-fan who is determined to see the footage from his favourite film. This is another enjoyable well-told tale if not hugely original.

Next up is Lunar Tides by Philip Meeks. This finds Kathryn Leigh-Scott as Maggie Evans in the aftermath of the departure of Barnabas Collins during the period of the original 1970s series, struggling to make sense of strange events caused by unusual tidal behaviour and coinciding with the arrival of a young English girl. Again, whilst Leigh-Scott gave a strong portrayal of matriarch Patience Collins in Blood and Fire, this is a very welcome opportunity to hear her back in her usual character role.

Last, but by no means least of these four stories is Confession by Paul Phipps, narrated by Lara Parker as the ever popular witch Angelique Buchard. Angelique is alone apparently writing her final confession, but as ever the witch is not always to be trusted. This is a neatly twisted final tale and definitely the highlight of this particular boxset.

 

Overall, it is a pleasure to have four of the most memorable original series characters appear in these stories. It also serves to remind that whilst all four actors appeared in the full-cast anniversary special Blood and Fire, only one of their original characters appeared in that story meaning it was perhaps not as much of a celebratory release as it might have been. It might perhaps have been nice to have a set of stories with a linking thread (although this reviewer notes that something similar was accomplished with an earlier anniversary release, The Crimson Pearl  in 2011) but this is still good stuff and bodes well for the next release, another collection of short stories entitled Haunting Memories, just in time for the Christmas ghost story season.

 

Echoes of the Past is available to buy now from amazon.co.uk





Survivors - Series 3 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 1 July 2016 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
Survivors - Series Three (Credit: Big Finish)ritten by Jonathan Morris, Simon Clark,

Andrew Smith, Matt Fitton
Directed by Ken Bentley

Cast: Carolyn Seymour (Abby Grant), Richard Heffer (Jimmy Garland), Chase Masterson (Maddie Price), John Banks (Daniel Conner), Fiona Sheehan (Molly), Andrew French (Dalton Roberts), Paul Thornley (John Vincent), Damian Lynch (Marcus), Miranda Raison (Janet), Lisa Bowerman (Gloria), Christopher Hatherall (Tyler), James Joyce (Jonathon), Louisa Clein (Pam), John Voce (Walter)

Big Finish Productions – Released November 2015

Big Finish’s acclaimed continuation and expansion of the original 1970s TV version of Survivors continues with another excellent set of four interlinked stories, although listeners should be warned that the darker adult tone established in the first two series does not let up here. Once again, the action is moved away from the rural setting of many of the TV episodes with the audio medium being put to full advantage through the use of a range of settings from a cross-channel ferry through to the Post-Office Tower in Central London amongst others.

The opening episode, Cabin Fever, consists mostly of flashbacks as Jonathon Morris delves into the back story of Molly played by Fiona Sheehan, probably the most interesting of the new characters created for the audio series. Revisiting the horror of the outbreak of the deadly virus proves just as effective as it did in series one, it also serves to introduce the cruel character of John ‘Vinny’ Vincent, and his group of mercenary thugs who call themselves “the British government” (the irony of listening to this against the backdrop of current events was not lost), whose story runs throughout this box set, and is excellently portrayed by Paul Thornley. His chilling charisma gives The Archers’ notorious manipulative bully Rob Titchener a run for his money. The episode concludes with a shock twist that makes listeners realise that Vinny is not to be messed with.

The second episode, Contact, is written by Simon Clark who is the author of Night of the Triffids, the sequel Wyndham’s post-apocalyptic classic and therefore he feels very much at home writing for this series. This episode reintroduces Chase Masterson as Maddie Price, the American Lawyer from the first audio series who ended up stranded in the UK following the virus outbreak. This reviewer confesses that he may have been rather hard on her character in his review of that series as she seems a lot more agreeable in this box set. The story also marks the return of another original TV character Jimmy Garland as played by Richard Heffer, who slots back into his old role effortlessly after forty years.

The action of Contact segues almost seamlessly into regular Big Finish scribe Andrew Smith’s episode Rescue which sees Jimmy reunited with the only other original TV series character to feature in this box set, Abby Grant, once again effortlessly reprised by Carolyn Seymour who is fast becoming a Big Finish regular thanks to several appearances in their Doctor Who range. The rescue which the episode title refers to is not without cost as Vinny claims another victim and the scene is set for a serious reckoning.

Leaving by Matt Fitton who also script edits the series is a suitably epic finale, whilst one character does indeed achieve their ambition of being able to sail off into the unknown (albeit with a pleasing hint in the behind the scenes interviews that we may not have heard the last of them), the final confrontation is not without cost and one of the most likeable of the new characters created for this audio series is forced to make the ultimate sacrifice. This reviewer is still in two minds (as it seems was producer David Richardson) as to whether the right choice was made to kill off a character which a large swath of the audience would have identified with but in the final analysis this is a dystopian future in which survival is not guaranteed for anyone, and at least they get to go out in a blaze of glory.

To reiterate my introduction, this is an excellent third box set even despite the shocks there is still some hope left at the end. Listeners can only hope that the chances of a future coming to pass where a right wing group such as Vinny’s “British Government” might wreak havoc over a decimated country are a lot less likely than they might have been forty years ago. However, there is a worryingly believable quality to the story and in particular to the performances of the more extreme characters. It is a sign of the audio series’ strength that despite only two of the original TV cast appearing, one of whom was not even a series regular, this reviewer is still eager for more.