Henry Gordon Jago and Professor George Litefoot are back – and for their ninth series no less. With four stories loosely hung on the central conceit of a cruise aboard the Fata Morgana, a mysterious and somewhat ill-fated ocean liner, series nine lacks nothing of the style of its earlier stablemates.
In Jonathan Morris’s The Flying Frenchmen, our heroes embark on their cruise only to find themselves engulfed by and becalmed in a multi-dimensional fog. The intrigue is heightened by well-fleshed ‘guest’ characters, and the only downside is the plethora of suspicious foreign accents that show up towards the latter half.
Back on dry land for Justin Richards’s The Devil’s Dicemen, the Morgana having docked at Monte Carlo. Jago gets himself in deeper with the gambling set than he ought, leading to a somewhat Crowley-esque dénouement, and a very enjoyable partnership between Litefoot and David Warner’s Dr Betterman. (Warner is becoming a bit of a staple of the BF repertory company, and it’s all the better for his presence.)
The third outing is The Island of Death by Bafflegab’s Simon Barnard and Paul Morris – and damned by faint praise though this is, everything you need to know about the plot in a review like this, you can get from the title. Despite the obvious shades of Doctor Moreau, there is plenty of humour to be had here, and some great performances, not least from Dan Starkey (another rep regular now) as Neville Tibbs.
Lastly, Justin Richards’s second story for this series, The Nightmare Returns. A murder, a suspect with a story, and mysteries explained – and to say more than that would be to give too much away.
So, as ever with Jago and Litefoot, this is all rather wonderful. Performances – especially from the leads Trevor Baxter and Christopher Benjamin irrespectively – are full of humour, pathos and believability. Sounds design is like a decent Belgian paté – so smooth and sophisticated it’s hardly noticeable, and possibly therefore a bit evil. And the writing has found a level that is just complex enough to engage, but not so complicated as to confuse – and which always makes space for Baxter and Benjamin to conjure up the chemistry between their characters that makes these series work so well.
Which is not to say there are not problems with series 9. First off, and despite the fact that all four stories are well worth the cover price in their own right, the series as a whole does feel a bit like something of a filler. By which I mean, it’s a great, can’t put down, engaging journey; but it doesn’t really seem to take us anywhere so much as just keep us busy for an hour or four. The overall story arc is, well, more of a circle.
Secondly, there is a noticeable lack of female characters in this series. Ellie is completely side-lined, becoming more a commentator than participant; and apart from Lady Danvers, who’s a bit pantomime, and Miranda Raison’s Madam Diabolique (who’s actually very good, admittedly) there is not much else. A little gender variety would not go amiss here.
But don’t listen to me. Or if you do, listen to this bit: as ever with J&L, it’s a polished and satisfying set of plays. Forget the treading water aspect, and forgive them the oestrogen-light castings: it’s still a great series. Buy it or miss out, basically.