Situation Vacant


Sadly, I’m still really peckish. Situation Vacant is not bad, it’s just not great. And a series opener really ought to be.

I have to admit that from the off, the idea failed to excite me: the Doctor places an ad for a companion, and tests four temporal wannabees Apprentice-stylee. It just seemed a little too self-referencing, a little too… meta. Possibly, a little too smug.

Before listening to the play, I’d wondered if the concept may fail to provide the tension usually associated with the Doctor meeting a companion. Think of Rose or Donna, neither of whom was given a choice. Or the Eighth Doc’s own Charley and Lucie, where the Doctor didn’t have much of a choice either. In all cases, the tension created narrative and stories that wanted to be told. I was concerned that this small-ad premise would lose all that.

And the problem is, that’s exactly what Situation Vacant does. None of it feels very… challenging. Arguably there’s the competition aspect, but even that loses it frisson when you take into account the fact that it’s scripted, and so whoever becomes companion, the competition itself is pointless: the outcome has already been decided.

Over and above this, the Doctor seems no longer to care who knows he exists, and that he’s an alien. The more I think about it, the more I realise he has never really been all that careful about hiding his identity. This, however, feels carefree to the point of recklessness.

To be fair, there is a (minor) plot twist halfway through which reveals the Doctor to be less the cynical Machiavellian companion-collector that the premise suggests. This goes some way to alleviate the sense of narrative doom. On the other hand, coming halfway through, its ability to raise the audient’s lowered expectations is somewhat undermined by the nagging suspicion that the writer is playing with the listener and f***ing with the oeuvre, rather than delivering story.

I’m afraid I also have a problem with Robson’s dialogue. On the plus side, generally his characterisation is extremely good, and the four companionettes work well. However, totally unexpected from a writer of Eddie Robson’s calibre, the pseudo-science is execrable! A ‘entirely new mineral’ that will be ‘a source of super-low waste nuclear energy’? Possibly such a thing is feasible; I’m not convinced. Call me Old Mr Picky, but uranium and plutonium aren’t minerals, they’re metals – and their isotopes produce radiation, not nuclear power. What? Overly-pedintic? Me?! Well, maybe so – but whether or not that’s the case, the language used feels lazily researched, and it makes me sad saying that. Just a little bit of work on getting the right words in something like the right order would have made all the difference.

Likewise, the more prosaic dialogue is sometimes way off the mark. Viz, the Doctor asking Rachel to “get us a big jug of orange juice off the conference buffet.” Get us? Off the buffet? OFF?! This is the Doctor! The Eighth Doctor! The one that even uses apostrophes when he’s speaking, he’s that exact! He would NEVER say ‘off’ in that context! Ooh, I nearly wept, I really did.

I need to get out more.

Okay, that’s the existential angst over with. Like the audio itself, I’d like this review to appear bad at first sight, but end up having some good stuff in it. So let’s get positive.

The Doctor is very much the Doctor, and it’s a joy to have him back. Paul McGann is obviously comfortable in the role, but there is no feeling that he’s coasting: his performance is exemplary.

Despite my comments above, the story here delivers a level of mystery and peril that engages a fair bit, and it is worth a listen. There is an emerging series arc, too, I think – and that’s intriguing.

Rarely considered in reviews, the incidental music is superb. In places it almost leans to the Star Wars, and I’m sure there was a hint of Amidala’s Theme from time to time, which is No Bad Thing. This is really working well, and BF should be proud of all aspects of their sound design.

The companionettes are generally well played, especially the one who ends up the permanent Tardis crew member. James Bachman – who may or may not be that person – puts in a particularly fine performance as the bumbling Hugh.

Situation Vacant is not the best, I’m afraid. But it’s okay. It leaves me looking forward to the rest of the series, rather than dreading it – which can only be good. And to be honest, I can’t wait. Roll on Nevermore!


Sherlock Homes: the Death and Life

Sherlock Holmes: the Death and Life

This is something of a mixed bag, it has to be said. After the adventure that was Sherlock Homes: the Last Act, which I loved, I was looking forward to this immensely. And it should have been as good as the first, coming, as it does, from the same stable. Same actor in Roger Llewyn, same writer in David Stuart Davies, and Big Finish’s same solid production values. Same provenance, too: both were adaptions of one-man stage shows.

So, what went wrong? Well, many things didn’t, so let’s start with the positives. Once again the sound design and background music it atmospheric, non-intrusive and generally the epitome of professionalism. Very nicely done.

The acting, too, is rather wonderful, although flawed in places (see below). Roger Llewellyn has a gift for accents, and ably moves from English to Scottish with little or no hesitation. His working-class Lestrade and Mrs Hudson are also fine, although I suspect something more the caricature than the leads.

There is a slight issue here, however, and I think this begins the problems I found with the adaptation: the show is basically a four-hander between Holmes, Watson, Conan-Doyle and Moriarty, and it is often difficult to discern which of the English Holmes and Moriarty, and which of the Scottish Watson and Conan-Doyle, are currently monopolising the monologue. This is possibly intentional, and I suspect is legacy from the stage show, in which I have no doubt the differences are immediately apparent; in audio only, however, there is a problem.

The writing, too, is often confusing. The basic conceit is that Conan-Doyle is bored of Holmes, and concocts, or engages, Moriarty to dispose of him. We therefore hear an increasingly surreal exchange of letters between the arch-criminal and his creator, which sounds great as a literary device, but in execution feels more like an exploration of mental illness. (To be fair, that is partly what’s going on here, with some time spent on Conan-Doyle’s father’s time in a mental institution.) This is compounded by Holme’s own decline, paralleling Conan-Doyle’s efforts to rid himself of his finest creation, and subsequent, short, revitalisation at the end. So, the story is somewhat confusing. But that’s not the main problem.

The entire experience feels tired. The end of Holmes’s life, the end of Conan-Doyle’s career and the Strand Magazine’s years of burgeoning circulation, and eventually the end of the writer’s life too. It’s all a bit depressing.

Fundamentally, Sherlock Holmes: the Death and Life is misnamed: it should be called The Death and Life – part 1. Because, sad to say, there seems to be precious little life about it.

Nic Ford, June 2010

Sherlock Holmes: The Last Act

Which means that Big Finish’s “Sherlock Holmes: the Last Act” was a wonderful way to break my duck, so to speak.
The Last Act is, essentially, a Holmesian primer. A monologue from Holmes to an unseen Watson, after the former has attended the latter’s funeral, this story gives rise to a veritable infostamp of data about the man. Not just the succinct synopses of a number of stories, including Hound of the Baskervilles, the Final Problem and the Speckled Band; but also, and more importantly, a frank and slightly disturbing insight into the mind of what was, let’s face it, one of fiction’s first anti-heroes.
Because Holmes was very much a flawed man: arrogant, selfish, more than willing to use Watson to his own ends. And, of course, a cocaine addict, with the frailties brought about by that addiction very much a part of the interpretation here – as much in the self-loathing to which it led him, as the physical manifestations.
Holmes is played by Roger Llewellyn, who brings a brilliant, dark and somewhat camp angle to the role. I was immediately taken by the class with which Holmes was played – utterly believable, and inspiring sympathy and antipathy by turns without ever the transition jarring.
Indeed, I was initially slightly surprised, considering how well Holmes was played, that the other actors seemed to be doing little more than caricaturing, for example, Watson and Lestrade; and Mrs Hudson could have been a man, as far as the performance went. It was after I’d been listening for a while that I realised that Llewellyn was, in fact, playing all the roles; and more importantly, playing Holmes playing all the roles. Testament to a great performance, in fact. (I should read the sleeve notes more accurately, I suppose.)
The script, by David Stuart Davies, was tight, well balanced and gave great insight into the Detective. Nick Briggs’s sound design, as to be expected from Big Finish, was subtle and lovely. Even the theme music was memorable.
I should, since this is a review, think of positive criticism as well as heaping on the praise. But, possibly because of my general ignorance of Holmes, I actually can’t think of any. What I will say is that it has inspired me to read, watch and of course listen to more – so maybe next time, BF, I’ll be more knowledgeable and less gushing.
Until then, the Last Act was a joy to listen to.



Sherlock Holmes: Holmes and the Ripper


Following my disappointment with The Death and Life, I am happy, nay, relieved to say that Big Finish’s Holmes sequence is right back on form with Holmes and the Ripper.

As with the others in the series, this is an adaptation of a stage play – this time from the pen of renowned British playwright Brian Clemens. Or, as we now have to say, Brian Clemens OBE.

The set up is pretty straight forward: there have been some deaths (this, of course, we knew), and Holmes is contacted by medium Katherine (Kate) Mead with snippets of half-glimpsed information concerning the crimes. Disdainful but intrigued, not least by the attractive Mead, Holmes is pulled into an investigation that goes to the heart of the Establishment.

So far, so samey: it’s good, standard-issue Holmesian fair, and follows a, let’s face it, fairly well discussed route with regard to the Ripper case itself. The story is necessarily restricted by the facts – or at least, the lack of them – and there are really only a few paths it can follow. Holmes and the Ripper (not, as I accidentally just typed, Holes and the Ripper, which I can only assume would be a terser work for a more specialist audience) takes a fairly well travelled route. But it does it with aplomb, keeping it comfortably within the confines of both history and the Holmesian universe.

The writing is pacey and extremely atmospheric, straight from the off hitting tones of occultish mystery that take it sailing close to the horror story it so easily could be. It benefits, however, for staying true to its detective roots.

There is one glaring anachronism in the use of a teddy bear about twenty years before Roosevelt so named it; but this is more than made up for in my anal book (that’s the one without the pictures, I’m not weird) by correct use of the word ‘insoluble’. So it all evens out.

Acting is, as ever, very fine: Briggs’s Holmes is less arch than his predecessor Roger Llewellyn, and begins ever so slightly shakily – with less, dare I say it, gravitas than the latter. However, his Holmes quickly grows in stature, and becomes an assured performance. By the end he is commanding, severe, sarcastic and socially maladroit in almost equal measure, and it works well.

Supporting cast is also good, with Richard Earl as Watson putting in a most convincing performance. India Fisher achieves great things, also, with Katherine Mead. There are hints of Charley Pollard here – but then, there are only so many ways an upper class woman of the turn of the last century can be played. This is no criticism. Mead is immediately and obviously different from Pollard, despite the similarity of accent: less well assured, and more weighed down by the enormity of her gift, or curse.

Sound design is something I’ve mentioned before, and I’ll say it again now: it is very good indeed, and builds well on the atmospherics of the writing.

The music is rather good too. Jamie Robertson’s Holmes theme is haunting, and has now become totally evocative of murky, threatening Victoriana – at least in my mind.

All in all, this is one of those audios that draws you in and makes you come back for more. I hope there more to come back for, and soon please, BF.

Sherlock Holmes: A Study In Pink

In this version the pair are located firmly in the 21st Century and meet for the first time in A Study In Pink. Taking not so much plot but cues from Conan Doyle’s own A Study In Scarlet, this adventure brings our two heroes together as they search for a link between a series of seemingly unconnected deaths – are they murders or, as they appear, suicides? Lestrade of the Yard, played abley by Rupert Graves, is at a loss to explain them, but instinct tells him there is more to them than meets the eye and so, under sufferance, consults Holmes.

This production goes to great lengths to prove it’s modern and set in contemporary London – Watson is an Afghan War veteran pensioned off, Holmes prefers to text than talk, the Study in Scarlet clue “RACHE” becomes much more modern and the now habit-kicking Holmes has a three-patch problem rather than a three-pipe one.

Despite the noticeable differences from the original text, this is very much Holmes and Watson as you know them, with Cumberbatch all you’d expect from Sherlock Holmes, from his sallow complexion, addictions, his sociopathic nature and his quick fire deductions. It’s clear to see why Moffat vetoed Matt Smith’s coat-and-scarf costume as the Doctor, too, as Cumberbatch is all billowy coat and collars. It’s a credit to the story that you actually think you’ve seen cobbles and horsedrawn carriages when you haven’t. Freeman’s Watson too is exactly how you’d expect to see John Watson – with his infamous diaries however replaced by a blog to help combat his post traumatic stress – and his trusty revolver now a .22 beretta.

Paul McGuigan – nice name – does a fab job at directing too with some worth noticing clever camera tricks with sweeps and tracking shots mixed with steadycam familiar to anyone who knows his work and David Arnold’s score is Victorian enough, without being too memorable, to evoke ye olde stories without clashing with the contemporary setting.

Grand Recycler The Moff of course can’t resist a couple of sleight of hands, and also re-uses a couple of Whovian beats and lines – most noticeably the “Christmas” comment – and imbues Holmes with an acid wit, particularly with the horn locking he does with certain members of Lestrades team.

One little flaw in this very watchable story is that the reveal, which I won’t reveal here, echoes a recent Luther episode, which is coincidence but much have had the Moff kicking himself when he saw it. Still, Cumberbatch and Freeman fill the roles well, ably supported by Graves, and even Una Stubbs as a more than passable Mrs “I’m Not Your Housekeeper” Hudson.

Spot the Conan Doyle references shouldn’t be hard either, and a nice little cameo from Mark Gatiss as one of the two other famous names in the Holmesian canon makes, along with the final name mentioned in what must be the arc, means that there is going to be a thread through these three episodes.

Well worth watching, and, despite the modern setting, very, very Sherlock Holmes.

Discuss on the Forum

Prisoner of the Daleks

At first this story may frustrate you – Draconian wars are mentioned, Earth Empires, Dalek Wars etc and the whole thing is clearly set between Frontier In Space and Destiny of the Daleks and for some reason the Doctor doesn’t think he should be there. There is a very loud echo of Waters of Mars with the Doctor being shifty and not getting involved and saying “No, really, I should go…”, but events take over from him, and he has no choice but to get involved,.

The ship itself and the crew are nothing new in sci-fi – think Firefly, or even Alien Resurrection – but there is a nice twist near the start when… well, the reason the Doctor hangs around, to be honest, so I won’t spoil it.

As I said there are echoes of Waters of Mars in the themes, but also Frontier In Space and Dalek get more than a little name check, and there is even, and actually quite improbably, an Osterhaagen Key! It seems the writer has thrown everything he knew or liked about Daleks into the mix to create this story. That’s not to say it’s bad. Whilst far from original, it does rattle along, and engages the reader – or in this case listener – with a “what happens next” mentality. It maybe works better for younger readers rather than old embittered ones like me.

A revelation here, and sorry if he’s done it before, is Nicholas Briggs. Of course, supplying the voices of the Daleks in impeccable style, he manages to imbue every character with a distinctive voice and characteristic which makes them sound real. His big triumph though, is the Tenth Doctor. Sometimes when listening to David Tennant read the Tenth Doctor I find it a little flat – but having seen how David needs to wind himself up into the character that maybe isn’t a surprise. Nick captures the essence of the Tenth Doctor effortlessly, and to me, surprisingly, seems more “him” than David can! He has him in different modes – manic, dark, hurt, happy – and he even manages that speech impediment thing David sometimes does, as if the words are escaping too quickly.

This is a decent filler for anyone who’s missing a full series – it fits in with the wandering Doctor of this year, and his lack of companion – and necessity for one, and allows us a decent and authoritive look into his psyche.

So what if the plot is a “best of”? Thanks to an assured reading by Nick Briggs, the five hours are worth going through.

If I was to find fault outside the lack of originality, the lack of music or sound effects, compared with other audios, is very noticeable. Stick in a sonic screwdriver here or a TARDIS there wouldn’t have hurt.

However, if you’ve a couple for hours a night to spare through the holidays, you could do worse than this.

Patient Zero Review

Forced into a position to protect his companion and prevent the Daleks ultimate victory, the doctor has no choice but to team up with the strange aliens on the Amathist station to protect it’s secrets from being revealed, but most importantly to stop anything which would upset the ominous Viyrans.
The Music is top notch in this production, so much so that for the first time it actually makes one feel they are watching a cinematic blockbuster. It superbly blends in with the atmosphere perfectly adding both distress and tension to the relative parts.

Colin Baker and India Fisher are on fine form as always and Jess Robinson is inspirational (I choose not to give information on this character to avoid spoilers) but the real praise must go to Michael Maloney who plays Fratalin and the Viyrans as well as every other character in this production which goes totally unnoticed. His Viyran voice certaily creates the image of some for of alien but is so unique it masks any emotion in the voice making it impossible to work out the nature of their actions, and this really adds to their unique nature.

As always Nicholas Briggs voices the Daleks, with some new variations in their tones which works rather well. Incidentally like the previous adventure, Brotherhood of the Daleks, the TV sound effects of the new series have been added to the Daleks movements which works quite well.
So is this play worth all the Hype- Yes. Many a time the expectation does not always match what one gets, a criticism leveled at titles like Zagreus, but in this case it really has paid off. I cannot think of a single flaw with this production and strongly advise any BF listener to give this one a go.


Patient Zero preview

As someone relatively new to the Big Finish continuity, I thought I might struggle with the whole Charley-arc, but writer Nicholas Briggs has excellently created a self-contained story which works well as an adventure in its own right, as well as one which enhances the arc and rewards faithful listeners.

The story? Well, what to say without giving away spoilers… Charley is suffering from a mysterious virus, something with long-term ramifications. The Doctor, determined to find himself a cure travels further than he ever has before, and for longer, but, inevitably, bumps into some old enemies with an agenda of their own. Questions are raised and not all are answered – what do the Daleks want? Who are the Viyrans? And do the answers to Charley’s condition actually lie deep within the TARDIS itself?

There are a number of outstanding performances in this adventure. Colin Baker is, as ever, remarkable as the Sixth Doctor, all bluster and noise, but full of compassion and drive, and this is a wonderful tweek on his tv persona. It’s all there, the indignation, the arrogance, the passion, but done in such away that makes the Doctor much more a hero. This is Colin at his very best, and, as the story allows him to show us a multi-layered character so frustratingly not allowed to come out properly in a lot of the TV adventures. Think his speech to the Inquistor in The Trial of a Time Lord(the “power mad dictators” one) and you get the picture. A tour de force from an actor at the top of his game.

India Fisher, who I’ll be chatting with soon about Charley and Big Finish, is another masterclass in audio acting, conveying illness, delirium, desperation and sadness as perhaps a fate worse than death awaits Charlotte Pollard in events she has no way of controlling and the Doctor is desperately oblivious too. Charley is a wonderful companion, for any Doctor, and her arc is one perhaps never seen before in the Whoniverse.

Nicholas Briggs again brings us the Daleks with a multiple performance as good, of course, as his tv work. His Dalek voices have evolved since his early audios, and even Rob Shearman’s Dalek and are now filled with a vicious, poisonous, hard quality which is spinetingling. These are Daleks with thought we heard in the past, but really never did. His Time Controller Dalek is a wonderful hybird of the Emperor from A Parting of the Ways and poor, mad Caan from Journey’s End and is creepy and scary all at once. Each of his other Daleks is given it’s own personality too, and when the Doctor says “I’d’ve thought you were the more intelligent one,” to one of them, you get exactly what he means.

It’s actually a surprise that this story has such a small cast – Michael Maloney’s collective Fratalin and the fabulously eery Jess Robinson’s Mila complete the ensemble, but it sounds like an epic.

For this, as well as the actors’ performances, we have Howard Carter to thank, who’s music is evocative and appropriate but who’s sound design is crisp and clean. The voices of the Viyrans’ is brilliantly scary and foreboding

Nicholas Briggs, wearing his third hat in this production, does a good job with directing too, with the action skipping from place to place reflecting Charley and Mila’s relationship with a nice contrast of pairs, as the Doctor and Fratalin bond in an unlikely friendship too. It definitely merits a second – or third – listening.

There are some nice echoes of the “new series” too. The Doctor pre-empts his Tenth persona with a heart felt “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” and, as mentioned, the Daleks are very, very modern, perhaps not surprising considering the guy behind the modulator.

Colin Baker reckons this adventure could turn out to be a classic, and I have to say I find it difficult to disagree. I loved it. It kept me gripped from start to finish and left me asking questions and wanting to know what happens next. Luckily, Marc Platt’s Paper Cut follows next month.


You can now order patient zero from the big finish website

Myths & Legends Review

First in the machine is The Time Monster, a story which script editor Terrance Dicks told me “I really don’t remember much,” and it shows. It’s a story which looks like he’s spent very little time on.

Split into three definite parts, this is a story with plenty of good ideas, but which should really have ditched at least one of them. The first two episodes are typical Season Nine fare with a competent regular cast including Roger Delgado going through the motions of a Master-up-to-no-good-in-rubbish-disguise mode messing around with Time experiments which release the terrifying (read awful) Chronovore. This leads to frozen Time, a baby Benton and the Doctor being particularly patronising. There are some nifty ideas but they’re not really expanded.

The next two episodes are the fillers of all fillers as the Doctor and Jo are trapped in a TARDIS within a TARDIS plot aped by the “Nothings ever original now” C H Bidmead in Logopolis and at least show some creativity with the TARDIS and the concept of dimensions, but don’t really go anywhere either.

The last two, a best, episodes take place in Atlantis and have a Peladon feel to them. It’s disappointing these two episodes didn’t make the whole story.
There are good bits all the way through this, but there is some awful stuff too. The main cast are underused or phone in a performance, concepts are looked at then ignored and the Doctor’s legging it from a devastated Atlantis is a bit out of character. It really did require a polish on the script editing front. It really didn’t need the Master, and some of the names – TOMTITT (yik) for instance are just poor. And so is the substandard Words And Pictures Chronovore. As bad as it gets monster-wise.

Extras are good though. A lively and busy commentary features John Levene, Susan Penhalligan, Barry Letts, Production Assistant Marion McDougal, writers Graham Duff, Phil Ford, Joe Lidster and James Moran all moderated by comedian Toby Hadoke and is almost a gag reel, but this is a good thing, and no one is taking this hokum particularly series. Hadoke and Levene are particularly good value for money. Between Now…And Now! is a geek filled documentary about time travel orchestrated by Professor Jim Al Khalili and gives some nice insights. The Restoration Comparison also shows how well the RT clean up these old episodes.
Add to that the usual PDFs and Coming Soons and there is plenty to recommend.

If The Time Monster underperforms, the next adventure, Underworld, by Bob Baker and Dave Martin is a pleasant surprise. Using the Jason and the Argonauts legend as a template, it is a layered, clever and highly watchable piece of Doctor Who, and this might be a surprise given its reputation. The main thing people talk about with this episode is its CSO effects, but these actually aren’t that bad, and in some cases enhance the story – K9 actually hovers, for instance.

Overshadowed by this is some fabulously large and expansive sets and, with the exception of Norman Tipton’s Idas, the cast are universally great. Of course this serial was crippled with budget issues, but bearing that in mind it works brilliantly. It’s a lot better than you think it’s going to be.
I managed to track down Bob Baker to talk about it with me…

Dave Martin talks about a specific strategy in pitching Underworld – giving the producers what they wanted with stories. How did it come about?

I don’t recall a “specific strategy” (unless in hindsight!) It was again, “Boys, come up with a story that doesn’t cost too much.” A usual refrain from the DW office. Dave and I thought over the Greek Odyssey idea after seeing – Oh the Italian movie with the fighting skeletons/combined with an article in Scientific American about the possible future of gene banks. The endless journey was sort of a recurring idea in our work (I recall an outline called “The Road “ which was exactly like the current one – only with a better, even more depressing ending, along the lines of Soylent Green) Of course Underworld was discussed with Bob Holmes before he let us loose on the story

How did you find the change in producers – you’d worked with Barry, Philip and Graham… or was it more the script editors that helped mould the story? How important is that relationship? Both between script editor and writer and writer and producer?

It was super going with Philip, since we’d known him from his ITV days. We got on well with Barry. We found Graham was quite enthusiastic for our mad ideas! We got on very well with Terrance, there was a sort of schoolteacher and pupil feeling at first, since he’d guided us through our first Who’s which at caused him, to quote his letter to us. “Great angst, requiring plenty of Macon from the BBC bar!” We found in Bob Holmes a good mate and a built a rapport, second to none. All editors and producers of “Who” had our respect for what they achieved on the budgets they were given

Do you think Underworld gets undue stick? Watching it, I have to say it was a hundred times better than I “remembered”. The CSO isn’t THAT bad, is it?

Yes, I do think Underworld gets undue stick. Seeing it again it wasn’t half as bad as I thought it was, and the dialogue resembles something like “I Claudius” at times. The CSO even after working in CGI was pretty reasonable and a brave decision to do it by the director. Definitely under-rated

What struck me was the cast – they are almost universally great… how important is it that a cast “gets” what’s going on?

We had no say in the casting of our stories, but in the main, our characters have been cast with appropriate thought and care and was occasionally brilliant – as in Underworld, a superb cast. With such a cast, the story is clear, disbelief is quickly suspended . The entire piece starts to work on an entirely new plane. (Sorry self praise there!)

When you heard about the CSO etc at the start, did your heart sink?

When we heard about the CSO we grimaced, but after seeing the recording of Ep one, our spirits were raised somewhat. We felt it better to experiment than use weak SFX.

It’s fair to say that it’s quite a layered tale, with lots of characters and lots of plot. Perhaps too busy? As a classics student I followed it perfectly now, but for your average viewer at that time do you think it was maybe asking too much?

It is essentially an adventure story – as was The Odyssey. It should work on that level – and those that see the lower layers can enjoy that too. It’s a pretty energetic story anyway. (Like Wallace & Gromit. Kids don’t get the allusions to genres and old movies, but they still like the film.)

Are there any aspects of the story you see now and think don’t work? Or any that do?

I think the story works well. I can’t think of anything too outrageous.

The solid sets are actually very good, aren’t they? The P7E for instance is a massive place…

The P7E was a great piece of design, it was the most used set of course – that how the CSO paid off I guess.

How was Tom by now? There are rumours of unrest, of fights between him and Louise etc? Where you aware of the force of nature he is as you write a story for him?

Dave and I loved writing for Tom Baker, we could give him complicated exposition speeches or the odd joke and he always said it as we’d heard it in our heads – as partners we would say the lines to each other to clarify and hopefully edit things as much as possible. Working in a barn in South Gloucestershire, Dave and I saw little of what went on at the shop floor level. Louise, (Who lived next door to me when at Bristol Old Vic) has never mentioned anything. Though you did hear the odd bit of gossip, but that’s what is was as far as we were concened. Gossip.

You also use K9 “properly” – which of course, you above everyone else would know how to. How frustrating was it to see K9 reduced to a “gun” or a quick fix?

We got very annoyed seeing K9 used simply as a gun. It was irritating that we’d created a real character who could “out think” the doctor at times, who was a real godsend for action set pieces (superior tactics) and also for humour. No, K9 was so often wasted, being stuck around in the set for the odd “Affirmative” and as a piece of artillery, The Doctor of course, disapproved of “Killing”.

Did you think the relationship with the Doctor and Leela worked any better or worse than say, Jo, Sarah or Romana?

There was a tension between the Doctor and Leela, she wasn’t always the obedient servant of the genius master. Less of the “But Doctor?” kind of dialogue. Leela could take care of herself often to the Doctor’s chagrin. I think they worked well as the team and were on a different level to Romana, Jo and Sarah Jane. Not necessarily better, but certainly different.

Was Underworld a frustrating tale? Did it come out as you had imaged?

Underworld, apart from a few changes agreed with Bob Holmes, was pretty well as we wrote it. We were of course delighted with the P7E set. That helped it become something a bit special. (I’m sure they will have used pieces of the set in another Dr Who story some time.)

This was the directors first job wasn’t it? Do you think controlling Tom, working with such ground breaking effects and pacing the story was a daunting task for him? How do you think he did?

All praise to the Director. He chose a rocky path for his first show, but I think he pulled it off brilliantly and we can look back on it knowing that ground was broken on this show – as you said seeing it again after so many years it looks pretty damn good! From the feel and pace of the story I guess he must have controlled Tom, despite being a ‘rookie’ director. All in all I think this is one of our better ones. And that’s a lot down to the director.

Extras wise, this one pulls it off too. There’s an affectionate and heart warming reunion between Tom Baker and Louise Jamieson, who finally seems to actually “get” Tom, ably refereed by Bob Baker. Louise is happy and in reflective mood, Tom is his usual exuberant and erratic self. A joy to listen to. Into the Unknown and Underworld in the Studio are well researched and contributed studies of the making of the serial, with some wonderfully candid scenes of Tom and Louise onset.

The final piece of the mythical pie is the Horns of Nimon, based on the planet Skonnos and wrapped around a Minotaur legend.

Now, where to start. People are either going to love this or hate it. It all depends on where you take your appetite from Doctor Who from. If you like serious, reflective and dark Who, forget it. If you like Tom Baker playing with the biggest toyset in the universe and encouraging others to do the same, then you’ll love it.

This is an episode where nothing is small. Tom is beyond out of control, his Doctor is almost manic most of the time, and he sits and waits on cues “live” on camera. Or perhaps this is the genius that Tom brings to the role. He’s clearly having a ball. And, if you join in, so will you.

An almost unrecognisable Graham Crowden is explosive as Soldeed from start to finish. I sense to ill will towards Who in his waaaaay over the top performance (stand up Paul Darrow), but he is Pantomime Incarnate. Tom told me: “It was heaven to work with Graham Crowden. We did improvise and did offer Kenny new lines. I remember Graham quoting from The White Devil: “I have caught an everlasting cold.” It is a wonderful line and made even more wonderful when after a tiny pause Graham gave a big SNIFF!

“We adored him. I always felt a deep sympathy for his style. He was wonderful in “Heartbreak House” by G. B. Shaw at The National Theatre and of course he was just sublime as the PLAYER in Tom Stoppard’s play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.” How I hope he is well and happy. He resembled Alastair Sim I think.”

Director Kenny McBain could have struggled to reign in everyone, but in the end allows them carte blanche, even adding his own anarchy with some whistles and bangs as the TARDIS console explodes. Tom has good things to say about him too: “I seem to remember that Kenny McBain enjoyed the piece; we certainly did. Kenny was quite slight physically. He was not at all slight in any other way. I got on well with Kenny. Looking back I got on reasonably with nearly all of them.”

But was, I asked Tom, the absurdity of the story relevant to his own performance? The dafter the better? “The absurdity of the stories never bothered me at all,” he said. “I was brought up as a Roman Catholic in Liverpool so I grew up steeped in absurdity. I still am. I find most of life utterly absurd. And what seemed important years ago now seems to me to be farcical. There seems to me no meaning. The pains and pleasures were all real but meaning? Oh, no.”

And of course, script editor Douglas Adams would have something to do with that absurdity… “ Douglas Adams compelled affection. We loved him and he loved us. I was very amused by his sense of the ABSURD! There we go again! I was deeply grieved when Douglas died. I’m grieved right now to think of him.”

There were rumours of a tumultuous rehearsal period during this time… does Tom remember? “The rehearsals may have been tumultuous. I liked Tumult. I cared about making the story interesting for our fans.”

And he cares about the fans too, that much is obvious… “I still love the fans and often go out to meet them. When I’m in Soho where there is a great deal of new building going I the scaffolders yell out “Aye aye, Doctor.” and I yell back and people on the pavement look amazed and then THEY recognise me and sometimes tell me sweet things as the memories of long ago come swirling back”.

Tom also has a lot of nice things to say about John Leeson and K9. “David Brierly was perfectly competent as K9 but he was not in the same league as John Leeson whose work in rehearsal was sometimes miraculous. The BBC was committed to their version of the Robot Dog and did not see the genius, yes, the sweet genius of John’s work in the rehearsal room. The look on John Leeson’s face when the incomparable Myra Francis barked the line “Point the Dog at the rock.” I wanted to develop it. I thought it would be better if we all looked at each other and someone should say: “What did she say?” And I wanted to say” “She said Point the dog at the Rock!” And then we could all shout together: “POINT THE DOG AT THE ROCK!” (Cue for a song) That line became a catchword from that moment on. But there in the rehearsal room we saw the power of a reaction. Barry Letts would have loved that scene. I think Barry Letts would have seen all the possibilities. More sad thoughts! He was very special.”

So a great time then, Tom? “The Doctor was the best part I ever had. Nothing admits of comparison, nothing. I am so grateful to Barry, to Bill Slater and Shaun Sutton and to Ray Harryhausen who directed The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.”

Extras wise, this has the best of the lot, with Gethan Jones introducing Who Peter, a documentary about the symbiotic relationship between Who and Peter, natch, including many famous faces from both series, including my mate Peter Purves. Genius. This promises more instalments, and I’m really looking forward to them. Add to that a doc about Anthony Read and some interesting Peter Howell music demos and this is a great bunch of extras.

Most Haunted Live: Hell on Earth DVD Reviewed

Your enjoyment of this series in general will depend on your openness to the subject and goodwill towards the crew. If you believe in ghosts, or want to, they can look like earnest, genuinely brave investigors who take one for the team to record bumps, groans and moans in some of the worlds most haunted location. If you’re most sceptical it can look like some opportunistic charlatans pretending to get scared in the dark to generate what’s become a multi-million pound company. Past scandals – their previous psychic Derek Acorah was “outed” as a “fake” and sacked, for instance – and numerous internet discussions about the valididty of their investigations suggest to some that it’s just some harmless hocum and late night scares, but the crew, headed by Yvette, are adamant that they are a serious and honest investigation – indeed, the dubious nature of some of Acorah’s revelations were outed by the show’s own parapsychologist who set him up in a “stinger”.

So it is a hard series to review without giving an opinion. The episodes – whether three or seven hour Lives, regular hour long series episodes or special “Event” weeks and weekends usually take the same formula – an initial lights on walk round the chosen place with the psychic of the day who will glean information from spirit guides and the ether having been taken blind to the place, then the lights go off and “vigils” begin, calling out for ghosts or spirits, conducting seances and Qui-Ja Boards and doing lots of close up, wide eyed Blair Witch style “I’m so scared” to a night vision camera. Invariable Karl and Stuart go off on their own and something happens to them.

The evidence they have came up with is sometimes compelling – some decent shapes and seemingly sentient “orbs”, unearthly voices and objects moving on their own caught on camera, and sometimes not so much – Acorah was keen on getting possessed (most famously by Dick Turpin when he decided to yell at the top of his voice “Mary loves dick” much to the amusement of the others), Karl and Stuart have a penchant for smacking each other, Yvette feels sick a lot and, when it all goes quiet, someone almost always gets polaxed by a stone. To their credit they present the information as found, do Lives with multiple cameras, audience members and impartial observors, so it would be difficult to fake, and, despite given the chance to class their series as “entertainment” stand by their guns that each and every show is a serious investigation.

So that’s what it’s about, and Hell on Earth is more of the same. Anchored by a very slick Paul Ross, it’s an edited highlight package of seven hours spent in the abandoned jail famou for holding Al Capone. Invariably with Most Haunted I usually feel a little disappointed – despite moans and stone throwing and the occasional “whats that?” in the dark, they rarely discover anything particularly tangible, and sometimes, like here, have physical reactions to the enviroment, with crew members passing out, getting cut by invisible means and, once again, having Karl and Stuart turn on each other and then “not remember” the incident.

I have to say though that it’s with this that makes me personally believe that these people are earnest in their investigation – it would be a brave, if not slightly disturbed individual who would actually cut themselves so severely as to draw blood, which happens on a number of occasions, or to throw your cousin-in-law off of a three story balcony with only 50 year old rusty metal to catch his fall. That really is above and beyond.

I like Most Haunted. I’m happy to be carried away with the situation, and happy to believe that Yvette and her team are genuine enough, if a little formulaic. Hell on Earth, at just over 90 minutes long, is a good blue print for the entire series, and if you haven’t seen it before, it’s worth a look. Of course, if you don’t believe, nothing will convince you, but for those of us with an open mind it’s a thrill to maybe see, for once, what lurks in the dark.

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