Blake's 7: The Classic Audio Adventures - The Way AheadBookmark and Share

Sunday, 4 March 2018 - Reviewed by Damian Christie


Written by Mark Wright
Produced and directed by John Ainsworth
Big Finish Productions, 2018
Stars: Paul Darrow (Avon), Michael Keating (Vila),
Sally Knyvette (Jenna), Jan Chappell (Cally),
Steven Pacey (Tarrant), Yasmin Bannerman (Dayna),
Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan), Stephen Greif (Travis),
Glynis Barber (Magda), Alistair Lock (Zen/Orac),
Olivia Poulet (Avalon), Kate Brown (Cassandra),
Sam Woodward (Sheltak/Freighter captain), Catherine Bailey (Mutoid/Captain), Fanos Xenofós (Interceptor commander/trooper), and Gareth Thomas (Blake).

‘They were titans of a rebellion that tore the galaxy apart, symbols of hope against tyranny. They had been comrades, blasting through star systems to topple dictators and liberate the oppressed. Some called them terrorists. Many called them heroes …’

Hahaha! What lurid nonsense!

Kerr Avon, B7: The Way Ahead


It’s the 40th anniversary of a science fiction phenomenon – and the latest instalment in this space opera opens on a remote island world where our hero is living his life in seclusion, away from the rest of the galaxy which has feted him (much to his chagrin and reluctance) as a hero and a symbol of the resistance against an evil galactic order. The young woman who persuades him to tell his story is convinced that he’s still a beacon of hope and there is good that he can still do …

No, it’s not the plot for the most recent Star Wars instalment The Last Jedi – although you could be forgiven for thinking it is, especially when the supreme commander’s seat of power is trashed in a brazen rebel attack (while aboard said vessel the key antagonist offers the protagonist a shot at an alliance) …

It’s actually the recent Blake’s 7 serial The Way Ahead, a three-disc special release from Big Finish that celebrates the 40th anniversary of the program’s debut on BBC TV on 2 January, 1978 – approximately seven days after the original Star Wars (aka Episode IV – A New Hope) premiered in UK cinemas.

Star Wars, of course, has just commemorated its own 40th anniversary with a myth-busting tour de force of the second film in its sequel trilogy, much to the consternation of traditionalists. The Way Ahead, despite a few superficial parallels with its big screen counterpart, is perhaps not so daring, largely because the broader B7 saga has already been told. Nevertheless, perhaps those same purists decrying the latest Star Wars installment may find some solace in The Way Ahead, which is a more predictable approach to storytelling by scriptwriter Mark Wright, compared to screenwriter/director Rian Johnson’s more unconventional style with The Last Jedi.

That’s not to say that The Way Ahead is a staple B7 adventure – the two-part story doesn’t shatter the status quo of the B7 universe but Wright dares to tinker around the edges a little, particularly in the second half. It is set across three eras: some time in the first season of the TV program (the first episode Project Aquitar), when Roj Blake (the late Gareth Thomas) is in charge of the Liberator; at some point in the third season (the second episode Dissent), when Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) has taken command of the iconic starship; and at least 20 years after the showdown on Gauda Prime (GP) which ties in with Darrow’s Lucifer trilogy of B7 novels.

The post-GP framing device is probably the only thing that might upset B7 traditionalists, as Darrow’s books would be viewed by some – including this writer – as apocryphal (“lurid nonsense” indeed!). Nevertheless, the telling of the two episodes in a flashback is executed well, thanks to the chemistry of Avon and his lover Magda, played by a mature Glynis Barber (who portrayed crew member and gunslinger Soolin in the TV program’s fourth and final series).

Blake's 7 - Project Aquitar (Credit: c/- Big Finish Productions, 2018)Project Aquitar is the most traditional of the two episodes and encapsulates what the first season of B7 was about – Blake’s feud with his scarred arch nemesis Space Commander Travis (brilliantly reprised by the original actor Stephen Greif). Sadly, with Gareth Thomas has passed on, the character of Blake is relegated to the background, and merely mentioned in despatches (ie Blake and Gan, originally portrayed by the late David Jackson, are manning the Liberator when it is attacked by pursuit ships while the rest of the crew teleport to mining world Lorgan Minor to destroy Travis’s latest scheme). It is up to Sally Knyvette (Jenna) and Darrow to shoulder most of Blake’s dialogue and actions in Thomas’s absence. Indeed, if Project Aquitar had been made for TV, it would have been Blake and Travis trapped in an underground rockfall, not Travis and Jenna. Nevertheless, the dialogue between the pair is fascinating, as they attempt to justify being on opposite sides.

On TV, Knyvette fell into the trap that often befell some Doctor Who companions in the 1970s and 1980s – she went from being an Avengers/Emma Peel-type heroine to being (as Knyvette recalls on the 40th anniversary retrospective on the third disc) “a bit girly and a … sex symbol which is a shame because … I would have liked to have seen the stronger sides of her character coming out”. The one thing Knyvette has relished since BF revived B7 for audio has been to restore (again to paraphrase the actor) integrity, feistiness, and strength to Jenna’s character. Those qualities are most evident when she takes on Travis one on one, mocking him for his incompetence. “I don’t need Blake to rescue me!” Jenna tells Travis while in combat. “I can make an idiot out of you myself!”

What’s also interesting about the portrayal of Jenna in Project Aquitar (and indeed in some of BF’s other portrayals of the character) is how much she believes in Blake and his cause (and how much she maintains that faith after departing the Liberator). When Travis asks why a smuggler would follow a would-be freedom fighter on his “senseless crusade”, Jenna insists that if she “dies today … then I’ll die knowing what I did was right”. She also refutes Travis’s allegation that she is a terrorist with the following reasoning: “The Federation endures through terror, so you tell me who the terrorist is!”

This revolutionary idealism is shared by fellow freedom fighter Avalon (Olivia Poulet), a character that was originally introduced on TV in the 1978 episode Project Avalon and bridges the gap between Project Aquitar and Dissent. The difference between Avalon and Jenna, as well as her crewmates Cally (Jan Chappell) and Vila (Michael Keating), is that they will not fight dirty. When Avalon seizes control of the plot’s “MacGuffin” (which hails back to a bit of dialogue in the third episode of the TV series Cygnus Alpha), she is prepared to strike at Federation troops with the same force that has befallen her comrades on the planet Malanar Delta. It takes Cally’s persuasion to make Avalon (it seems) see the error of her ways.

While Project Aquitar is a traditional, serviceable and enjoyable episode in its own right, Dissent is the strongest, most dynamic installment of The Way Ahead boxset. The listener jumps ahead to B7’s third series as the Liberator crew – minus Blake, Jenna and Gan, and incorporating Tarrant (Stephen Pacey), Dayna (Yasmin Bannerman) and Orac (Alistair Lock) – once again cross paths with Avalon. The events that follow are unexpected (albeit only temporary) but they raise the stakes for both the rebellion and the Federation, now personified by arch nemesis Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce).

Having explored the nobility behind Blake and Jenna’s fight in Project Aquitar – to restore democracy and independence to the galaxy – Wright explores the reality of what that fight has truly achieved by this point in the broader B7 saga. In the third series opener Aftermath, Avon remarked that he hoped Blake “survived long enough to realise he was winning”. In Dissent, it becomes clear that Blake’s victory (if indeed it ever was one) was only temporary and that under Servalan’s leadership, the Federation is rebuilding and becoming more streamlined and deadlier than before. Further, Avalon’s zeal and meddling, far from striking a blow to the heart of this new incarnation of the Federation, will merely harden Servalan’s resolve.

Blake's 7 - Dissent (Credit: c/- Big Finish Productions, 2018)My only criticism about Dissent is the “MacGuffin” (or plot device) which is central to Project Aquitar is barely utilised (being reduced to one scene and a couple of throwaway lines). The manner that Wright deploys it – and then discards it – is far less convincing (are we seriously expected to believe Avalon’s group would really have the brains to assemble another “MacGuffin” patterned on the original?).

That aside, the performances of the returning cast members are outstanding. The dialogue of Greif and Knyvette in Project Aquitar and Darrow and Pearce in Dissent are the highlights of the serial. The other supporting actors – Keating, Chappell, Bannerman, Pacey, Barber, and Lock – are solid performers. Knyvette deserves to do more audio work based on the strength of her performance and perhaps the solution would be a box set about Jenna’s own adventures in the years after she left the Liberator (perhaps following the lines of Jenna’s Story, one of the installments in Volume 6 of The Liberator Chronicles).

It’s also a nonsense that going forward Barber may have to play other guest roles if she wishes to continue doing B7 plays. BF claims it doesn’t have the rights to do B7 stories set during series 4 and therefore can’t use the Soolin character (even though two of the serials in the aforementioned Liberator Chronicles V6 are nominally set during series 3 and 4, Soolin is mentioned by Magda and we even hear the teleport effect used in series 4 at key moments in Project Aquitar). While I can understand that BF feels there is plenty of fertile ground to still explore by keeping its serials rooted in the third series, it is inevitable that the company will eventually want to venture into series 4 territory. If so, then BF should already be opening negotiations with B7 Media for those rights and employing a talented actor like Barber while she’s available.

In conclusion, The Way Ahead is an outstanding release. Wright and the BF production team subtly place plenty of Easter eggs honouring B7 throughout the narrative, largely in dialogue and in sound effects. There’s also a couple of fun, humorous parallel moments in both episodes between the same characters (eg Avon’s responses to Vila’s disappointment at the survival of B7’s antagonists are beautifully written and performed). We also get to hear dialogue and exchanges between the antagonists and protagonists that could almost have been written for the 1979 and 1981 finales Star One and Blake respectively. The play also is more than happy to riff off other SF properties in its dialogue as well (notably Star Wars and Doctor Who) but the most touching Easter egg features the titular character himself – Blake – in the closing moments of Dissent, as we hear a monologue by Gareth Thomas (sadly) for the last time.

As an anniversary tale, The Way Ahead is an enjoyable listen and a worthy celebration of a short-lived yet popular and memorable TV program that through BF’s audio output endures today. B7 will never be as grandiose as Star Wars (nor should it ever try to be) but the enthusiasm of its storytellers and artists remains as undimmed and avid as the small band of rebels that it portrays.

The Martian Invasion of Earth (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 1 March 2018 - Reviewed by Callum McKelvie
The Martian Invasion of Earth (Credit: Big Finish)

Producer David RichardsonScript Editor Matt FittonExecutive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

Written By: HG Wells, dramatised by Nicholas BriggsDirected By: Nicholas Briggs


Richard Armitage (Herbert), Lucy Briggs-Owen (Amy), Hywel Morgan (Curate), Ewan Bailey (Daniel), Richard Derrington (Ogilvy), Helen Goldwyn (Agatha), Christopher Weeks (Edward), Benedict Briggs (Boy), Nicholas Briggs (Martians / First Officer). Other parts played by members of the cast.

Available to order from Amazon UK

The last in Big Finishes series of H.G Welles adaptations, The Martian Invasion of Earth is of course a version of Welles’s magnum opus The War of the Worlds. The story has something of a history on Radio with Wikipedia stating fourteen broadcast versions. Most famously Jeff Wayne created a wonderful musical version starring Richard Burton (later re-recorded with Liam Neeson) and Orson Welles panicked America with his 1938 Halloween broadcast. Admittedly I was intrigued to see how Nick Briggs would handle what he stated was a ‘pet project’, when the story has been done many times and done well. I needn’t of worried however, with Briggs achieving that very rare mix of an adaptation that pushes it’s source material into new and interesting directions, yet allows it to be faithful at the same time. Not only that but he manages to rival the Orson Welles version in how utterly frightening it is.

Richard Armitage stars as Herbert Welles (not the first time one of his unnamed characters finds themselves taking their creators name in an adaptation) and it is partly his wonderful performance as a man struggling to keep it together in the face of a terrifying event that lends the play its horrifying power. By adding an extended role to the narrators wife (more on that below) this version works rather wonderfully as a love story. Briggs shows us how the narrator puts on a front for his wife, showing bravery before silently creeping away and sobbing. Armitage makes these moments truly horrifying and it is with this human factor that the play really succeeds.

The most startling change implemented by Briggs is the extended role he has given to the protagonist’s wife. In the original novel, the character disappears somewhat early on, only to miraculously reappear at the end. The tome is certainly a mail orientated one and our hero meets no significant female characters. Period adaptation or not, Briggs appears determined to make this adaptation current and thankfully that includes a strong and respectful female role. ‘Amy’) as she is called in this version) is played by Lucy Briggs-Owen who gives a powerful performance and has wonderful chemistry with Armitage. Briggs appears to have invested much time in her character, allowing her to become a wonderfully rounded character. At times she feels of the period and beyond it, having much to do and making meaningful decisions. Coupled with Briggs-Owens acting, she’s one of the highlights of this version.

Nick Briggs script also includes several interesting moments of commentary concerning some of the socio-political subtext featured within the novel. This includes interesting moments of discussion concerning colonialism, militarism and religion. At times this is somewhat heavy handed but for the most part it’s effective and certainly allows this version to be current and meaningful.

Ian Meadows provides incredible sound design, helping the audio to fully capture the feel of a full scale onslaught with a very small cast. His version of the Martians war cry, is terrifying, particularly when listened to through headphones and mixed with the sounds of screams.  The soundtrack is similarly effective, a mixture of bizarre sounds and an epic feel adding to the chaotic atmosphere. Unfortunately it is let down by some ‘bombastic’ moments early on that don’t quite fit with the intimate nature of the horror as portrayed in this version. Thankfully these moments are brief and less frequent as the play continues.

For fans of the novel, they really can’t go wrong with this version. Alongside Jeff Wayne’s musical and Orson Welles 1938 version, this has to be one of the best adaptations of the novel. Nicholas Briggs really has outdone himself and along with superb performances from Richard Armitage and Lucy Briggs-Owen create a masterpiece and one of Big Finishes best.  

Blake's 7 - The Classic Audio Adventures: Vol 4.1: Crossfire - Part 1Bookmark and Share

Monday, 29 January 2018 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Blake's 7 - The Classic Audio Adventures: Vol 4.1: Crossfire - Part 1 (Credit: Big Finish Production, 2017)Written by Steve Lyons, Simon Clark,
Mark Wright and David Bryher
Directed by John Ainsworth and Nigel Fairs
Big Finish Productions, 2017
Stars: Paul Darrow (Kerr Avon),
Michael Keating (Vila), Jan Chappell (Cally),
Steven Pacey (Tarrant), Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan),
Yasmin Bannerman (Dayna), Alistair Lock (Zen/Orac),
Clare Vousden (Winterhaven), John Green (Mordekain),
Hugh Fraser (The President), Rebecca Grant (Gwen Parker), Walles Hamonde (Gunner Kalvert), Roger Parrott (Mavlek),
Becky Wright (Goddess/Distributor/Curator), Abi Harris (Alta-Six), David Warner (Tavac), Donovan Christian-Carey (Herrick), Rebecca Crankshaw (Zeera), Daniel Collard (Jallen)

“We have to tell the others! We need to be ready!”

“Ready for what?”

“Servalan will do anything to cling onto her throne. We need to be ready for war!”

Cally and Dayna, B7 - Crossfire: Fearless



Following the successful relaunch of Blake’s 7 on audio, with the excellent Spoils of War boxset, Big Finish wasted little time in late 2017 following it up with the first volume of Crossfire, part of a “season” of 12 new adventures across three boxsets. Unlike Spoils of War, which was an anthology of four tales loosely set throughout the third season of the original TV series, Crossfire is intended to fill the “gap” between that season’s penultimate episode Death-Watch and the climax Terminal. And if you think that that “gap” isn’t ripe for exploitation, well, as Avon (Paul Darrow) himself might say, “Oh, you’ll have to do better than that …”
Crossfire reveals that there is in fact quite a lot of fertile ground that can be covered, drawing not only on the rich content of the original TV series, but also from Big Finish’s own B7 output. The opening episode Paradise Lost sets the theme – and a very high bar – for this lot of tales and subsequent boxsets as an old adversary of the Liberator crew (played again with charisma and panache by Hugh Fraser) triumphantly returns. Newcomers to the B7 range of full cast audio adventures are recommended to listen to earlier instalments (notably the serials Mirror, Cold Fury, Caged and Devil’s Advocate, all available on download from the BF website for as little as £2.99) before they begin listening to this set, as they really establish the political state of play in the Terran Federation.
Paradise Lost is the strongest of this quartet of plays, even though it ceases to be a story in its own right half-way through and becomes the first chapter in an epic, broader political saga. Nevertheless, writer Steve Lyons sets up an air of mystery in the opening minutes and throughout the first half of the play. Vila (Michael Keating) and Cally (Jan Chappell), aided by a zealous Federation dissident Alana Winterhaven (Clare Vousden), materialise on the former tourism and entertainment spot of Erewhon (pronounced “air one”) in a bid to ambush President Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce) who appears (to all intents and purposes) to be on the planet.

However, as the crew’s investigation reveals, the true villain of the piece turns out to be someone quite different yet familiar and equally as dangerous. Avon is subsequently forced to be quite ruthless (in a manner reminiscent of TV episodes Rumours of Death and the finale Blake) to protect his crew and his ship as they are unwillingly dragged into an unstoppable tide of events.
Steve Lyons’ script is also a terrific ensemble piece, as it gives all the regular characters, including Tarrant (Steven Pacey) and Dayna (Yasmin Bannerman), plenty to do within the story, as well as some great dialogue. Dayna ends up having a great verbal stoush with the villain, while Tarrant is introduced to Mordekain (John Green), an embittered former Federation space colonel who bears many of the cybernetic hallmarks and scarred psyche of the late Space Commander Travis without being a complete carbon copy of that character (Lyons carefully foreshadows Mordekain’s introduction through an earlier aside to Travis between Avon and Vila).
Tarrant and Mordekain’s conversation about military honour and duty would be dull in the broader SF genre but, thanks to the high quality of the writing and the strength of Pacey’s and Green’s performances, it is entertaining and fascinating. It’s also undercut by moments of light humour; when Mordekain reveals that he has remotely deactivated a landmine that Tarrant has stepped on during their exchange, Tarrant mutters disappointedly: “Oh! Oh, well, you could have mentioned it sooner! I’ve got cramp in my foot now!”
It’s a little disappointing then, that with such a dramatic, momentous first episode, the rest of the plays in the boxset are largely removed from this story arc. That’s especially when the second entry in the boxset – True Believers – is arguably amongst the worst pieces of drivel to be produced under the B7 banner!

True Believers is notable for using a single member of the regular cast – Cally – in the narrative. Otherwise, it’s a totally forgettable experience. It’s another example of BF attempting to replicate B7’s habit (especially in the third series) of experimenting with more mystical, fantasy-driven episodes from SF and fantasy writers (eg Tanith Lee). Of course, the lesson that BF hasn’t learned from history is that such stories in B7 were ordinary instalments and are largely unpopular with the fanbase 40 years on. Worse, some episodes often tied in with Cally’s telepathy and mental abilities, creating a cliched, cringeworthy trope.
Simon Clark is a renowned SF and horror scribe who has received much acclaim for Night of the Triffids (the authorised sequel to John Wyndham’s original Day of the Triffids, which Clark and BF have also adapted for audio). However, drafting a talent like Clark to write a B7 script is no guarantee of quality. The script is universally awful and, worse, unashamedly pulls the “Cally card”, as our heroine, her mind under assault from a powerful entity, teleports alone to a desolate, former Federation colony, whose human inhabitants are besieged by a horde of the planet’s indigenous natives under the influence of a malign being. (Never mind that in the logic of the story, and the broader context of the TV series, no one aboard the Liberator would just let Cally go off on her own, especially if she was under mental duress.)
Cally befriends a self-appointed high priestess (Rebecca Grant) who claims she can commune with the local goddess, and a young militia man (Walles Hamonde) who is besotted with the priestess. They embark on a quest to the Singing Grave, an ancient monolith of the 2001: A Space Odyssey variety, which also appears to be the source of Cally’s distress (and the malign influence). It doesn’t help that the performances from the guest cast are variable (although Roger Parrot is good as agitator Mavlek), and that even Jan Chappell overacts throughout the play.
There is a line from Cally in the play – “My brain is scorched!” – that sums up perfectly just how painful True Believers is for the listener by its close! Paul Darrow would be especially grateful that his services were not required for this script.
Fortunately, the third and fourth instalments rescue this boxset from being a disaster. Resurgence is a terrific episode, and a great ensemble piece, while Fearless is a Vila-centric episode with a twist.
If Paradise Lost and True Believers respectively could be described as political drama and (bad) fantasy, then Resurgence is just good old-fashioned space opera. It is a sequel to B7 series two opener Redemption and features the “resurgence” of another old foe. While TV series creator Terry Nation would not have envisaged the underlying concept of Resurgence as worthy of further exploration, writer Mark Wright demonstrates in his play the wonderful potential the antagonist had to be a perennial “big bad” – in the spirit of Doctor Who’s Cybermen and Star Trek’s Borg. Wright himself argues in the CD extras that the way the adversary was dispatched in Redemption always seemed a little too easy and convenient (designed to meet the confines of a 50-minute TV episode), and that it makes sense for something of that adversary to survive, and to reassert itself.
Resurgence is, in many respects, a retread of events in Redemption. However, the fact it features the later Liberator crew headed by Avon, and not the original crew lead by Blake, means that characters like Dayna and Tarrant react quite differently and unexpectedly to a threat they are encountering for the first time, as opposed to Avon and Vila, whose familiarity breeds contempt and acquiescence (“Oh! That [spoiler]!” Vila exclaims upon realising the identity of their attacker). Indeed, it is Dayna’s own troubled psyche that proves pivotal in the climax …
The “big bad” is well represented by Abi Harris as Alta-Six, who captures the intonations of her predecessors on TV perfectly. She even develops a catch-cry – “All infarctions will be punished with extreme force!” – that is reminiscent of Cybermen and Borg alike (eg “Resistance is useless! You will be deleted!” or "Resistance is futile! You will be assimilated!”). By the end of this tale, the implication is that the “big bad” endures, despite all the damage wrought by the Liberator crew – and that there may still be remnants of its deep space fleet out there that could respond to its call …
The final instalment – Fearless – is a heist tale. Vila and Cally infiltrate a black market auction, managed by a former colleague of Vila’s – Zeera Vos (Rebecca Crankshaw) – on an abandoned Federation station that is orbiting an unstable neutron star. As if conning the con-artist won’t be enough of a challenge, it’s not long before the Liberator shipmates realise that the other prospective bidder is Servalan …
The biggest twist of this story, however, is with Vila. It would be a spoiler to give away how and why he undergoes such a dramatic change in personality, but gone is the cowardice, the caution and insecurity – the qualities that embody Vila’s fear, as he says early in the tale. Instead, the Vila that arrives with Cally on the space station oozes confidence, arrogance, impatience, assertiveness and even a self-belief in his own animal magnetism! Not only does Vila attempt to make Zeera envious of his suddenly new-found charisma and wealth, he even passes off Cally as his girlfriend! And then in the climactic scenes with Servalan, he not only holds his own against her threats but startles her with some cheeky and suggestive retorts:

Servalan: “Stop talking Vila – right now, or I shall cut out that cowardly tongue of yours!”
Vila: “Oh, I can think of far more pleasing things you could do with my tongue!”
Zeera (in shock): “Vila!”
Servalan (equally as shocked): “I beg your pardon?”

It would have been all too easy for Michael Keating to really camp up his performance as this more brash, haughty and self-assured Vila but to his credit he doesn’t overplay it, particularly in the scenes with Servalan. He plays it straight and entirely convincingly. Strangely, in the CD extras, Keating isn’t even asked what he thinks of this new, super-improved portrayal of his character – which is extremely odd by the BF production team!
As a contrast to Vila, the only “cowardly cutlet” in sight is Zeera’s partner in crime Tano Herrick (Donovan Christian-Carey), a former technician who is on the Federation’s “wanted list” for desertion. His reaction when he realises that one of the bidders is none other than the Federation’s President/Supreme Commander/Empress is to panic:

Herrick: “Why didn’t you tell me about Servalan?”
Zeera (dismissively): “I didn’t think it mattered!”
Herrick: “It’s Servalan – (high pitched whine) Servalan!”
[And later] “Yet … (with even more hysteria) She’s Servalan!”

Ultimately, Herrick’s own fright and dread get the better of him, although if the Vila we’re most familiar with was in the same situation, he would be savvy enough not to panic quite so easily and endanger the lives of so many others in the bargain. It no doubt galls another sidekick – Servalan’s accompanying officer Jallen (Daniel Collard) – that he is the victim of such errant stupidity. As a hardened soldier, he remains loyal to his President and is withering of the Liberator crew, even as Cally shows the utmost compassion to try to save his life.
The only disappointment with Fearless is that for a hustle/heist story, the twist is so mundane as to not count as one. The joy of heist-themed tales is seeing how the major characters end up being heroes or victims of their ploys. In the 1981 B7 TV episode Gold, the twist is that the prize becomes worthless because the Federation changes the goalposts on the protagonists. In Fearless, the prize similarly proves a sham – except the protagonists are completely unaware of that as they flee before the big revelation. Only Servalan learns the truth and by that time she has abandoned her hopes of attaining the elusive prize altogether – although in Zeera, she finds a kindred spirit (Zeera is every bit as nasty and ruthless as Servalan, if not as refined). With the closing minutes of Fearless tying back to Paradise Lost, it’s clear that a new partnership is forged … It will be fascinating to see where it goes and how the rivalry between Vila and Zeera is developed against the larger wartime backdrop.
In all, apart from the dire True Believers (which is best ignored by listeners altogether!), Crossfire – Part 1 is a good start to a loosely connected story arc that promises to shake up the stability of Servalan’s Federation while also testing the resolve of the Liberator’s rebels. Who do they back in the impending conflict? Can they step to one side and hope that the lesser of the two evils wins? Or will they have to make a stand when it’s crunch time? If the quality of Paradise Lost, Resurgence and Fearless is any guide, the rest of the Crossfire saga promises to be suspenseful, entertaining and exciting.

Hamlet (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 13 August 2017 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
Hamlet (Credit: Big Finish) Written by William Shakespeare

Script Editor: Justin Richards

Directed by Scott Handcock

Cast: Alexander Vlahos (Hamlet), 
Miles Richardson (Claudius), Tracey Childs(Gertrude), 
Terry Molloy (Polonius), Daniel Brocklebank (Horatio), 
Deirdre Mullins (Ophelia), Samuel Barnett (Laertes), 
Jolyon Westhorpe (Rosencrantz), Geoffrey Breton (Guildenstern), Barnaby Edwards (The Ghost), 
Youssef Kerkour (Barnardo), Alex Jordan (Francisco), 
James Joyce (Marcellus)

Big Finish Productions - Released August 2017

“Not another one!” Recalling Brenda from Bristol’s much-quoted reaction to the announcement of the 2017 General Election I had a similar reaction to the prospect of yet another production of what is perhaps the most performed of all Shakespeare’s works. Hamlet is probably the well-known and widely regarded as the one of the most outstanding works in the whole of English literature. However, much as I am a fan of Shakespeare and certainly feel that his tragedies leave the comedies in the shade by comparison, I’ve always favoured his history plays especially that one about the hunchback king who ended up buried in a Leicester car park, which tend play up the political drama with a strong emphasis on tragedy and a dose of black comedy thrown in for good measure.

Whilst not being my personal favourite Hamlet certainly owes a debt to the history plays with plenty of political goings on for those paying attention (provided you’re not watching one of the film versions which chose to cut out Shakespeare’s intended ending with the arrival of the Norwegian prince Fortinbras at the head of an invading army) even though it focuses mainly on the tragedy of its eponymous central character.

This audio production marks a first (but hopefully far from the last) venture into the works of Shakespeare from Big Finish who have built their reputation largely upon the production of brand new adventures featuring established characters. Recent years have seen them take a few tentative steps into adapting classic works which have included last year’s excellent dramatisation of Dracula and most recently a series of adaptations of the works of H.G. Wells. This production has emerged as the brainchild of producer Scott Handcock and lead actor Alexander Vlahos who have previously collaborated on five series of Big Finish’s first wholly original series The Confessions of Dorian Gray. At this stage I should confess that whilst I thought Vlahos gave an excellent performance throughout that series, I was rather disappointed at the decisions taken on how it was brought to what has been described as a definitive ending last year.  When I first heard that the pair’s next project would be to take on Hamlet I was rather sceptical. I am however delighted to say that my fears that Big Finish were over reaching themselves were unfounded and that this is an excellent production which makes a genuine virtue of the audio medium. Whilst Hamlet remains oft-performed with many stage and film versions available to peruse, a quick online search indicates that there are only a few radio productions in circulation, and only one which was recorded within the last decade.

With so many recent TV actors stage renditions of the prince of Denmark to be compared with including Tennant, Simm, Cumberbatch and the prospect of Hiddleston in the wings, Vlahos is an almost uniquely youthful Hamlet. He is genuinely believable as a distraught university student who has returned home to find his father dead, and both his mother and his expected inheritance suddenly in the control of his uncle. He has a lot of fun with the advantages of being on audio and not give a theatrical shouted performance such as playful delivery of lines such as “words, words, words” and a delicately whispered rendition of the most quoted speech in the whole of English literature from Act III. The dumb show performed by the players in the same act is cleverly adapted into narration of Shakespeare’s stage directions. It is left up to the listener to decide how much of Hamlet’s apparent decent from melancholia at the feeling that he has effectively lost both parents to the very edge of apparent madness is genuine and how much is an act to keep his uncle and step-father guessing.

Miles Richardson, perhaps best known to Big Finish listeners as the enigmatic Irving Braxiatel from their long running Gallifrey and Bernice Summerfield spin-off series, gives excellent support as Claudius, the king who appears to be trying to act in his nephew’s best interest whilst hiding the secret that he has murdered his way to power. One wonders if Shakespeare missed a trick by not making Claudius more central to the action as he certainly shares common features with other anti-heroes including the aforementioned hunchback and the eponymous lead character of the Scottish play. If viewed from Claudius’ perspective the play has the feeling of being a pre-cursor to House of Cards, in which case Richardson is absolutely perfect to play the king with an uncertain grip on power and it was no surprise to learn that he was Handcock and Vlahos’s first choice for the role.

There are only two women in the cast but both give great performances. Tracey Childs is a harsher Gertrude than some previous portrayals. However, she does not seem too overtly under the spell of her new husband which lends the character a little more believability. Deirdre Mullins also gives a very believable performance as Ophelia who is perhaps the most tragic character of the whole play as she gets caught up in the games between Hamlet and his uncle and manipulated by her own father Polonius (an excellent performance from Big Finish stalwart Terry Molloy).

Of the remaining cast, honourable mentions should also go to the always excellent Samuel Barnett (of whom more soon in the upcoming Cicero series as well as BBC America’s Dirk Gently),Barnaby Edwards as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, Daniel Brocklebank as Horatio and James Joyce in various ensemble roles including, if my ears were not mistaken, Fortinbras in the play's concluding scene.

It would be remiss to conclude without acknowledging the excellent atmosphere created by Neil Gardner’s sound design and the music of James Dunlop, whose previous work was a major contribution to the success of The Confessions of Dorian Gray.

One minor quibble, and this is based on a lack of knowledge of different versions of the text which exist, is the choice to pronounce the word “murder” as “murther”. Whilst I assume this must derive from an earlier version of the text than I’m familiar with which it would surely have made more sense for a production aiming to appeal to audiences who won’t be familiar with the play to use a pronunciation which would have made more sense to the modern ear. Script editor Justin Richards is however to be commended for having kept cuts to the text to a minimum and allowing this release to run for a full three hours. However, the line “remember me” appeared to be missing from the ghost’s departure in Act I which would have gone unnoticed had Hamlet not then quoted it a few lines later. Perhaps this was an edit which was overlooked. Overall these did not affect this reviewer’s overall enjoyment of this excellent production.

This reviewer’s appetite has now been well and truly whetted for more of the Bard’s works to find their way into Big Finish’s studios. Already a production of King Lear starring David Warner is on the way later this year and hopefully there will be more to follow in the near future.

Whilst it may not be this reviewer’s personal favourite, this production certainly goes someway to exploring the indefinable quality of what makes Hamlet such a special play to experience in performance but when asked to set down what that quality is one can only conclude by giving Hamlet himself the last words:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”


Hamlet is available now from Big Finish and on general release from September 30th 2017

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