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

 

 








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