DEAD MEN’S TALES
Writer: Justin Richards
Director: Lisa Bowerman
Music & Sound Design: Howard Carter
Cover Art: Alex Mallinson
Release date: June 2011
Main cast: Christopher Benjamin (Henry Gordon Jago), Trevor Baxter (Professor George Litefoot), Lisa Bowerman (Ellie Higson), Louise Jameson (Leela), Conrad Asquith (Sergeant Quick)
The plot: A friend from the past returns to warn Jago and Litefoot of a threat to the future. Time breaks are appearing in Victorian London, but first Leela must help solve the mystery of the Wet Men – terrifying creatures that are rising from the River Thames…
Juicy Jagoisms: “Ill-informed delusions of illiterate but imaginative inebriates”; “A good place to think, to devise a strategy for our investigation of this tantalising temporal trouble”.
Theatrical impresario Henry Gordon Jago and police surgeon Professor George Litefoot were created by Robert Holmes in one of everyone’s favourite classic Doctor Who stories, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, acting as sidekicks for Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor and his then current traveling companion Leela, played by Louise Jameson. The unlikely pairing of Jago’s working class theatre manager and Litefoot’s aristocratic scientist proved instantly popular with fans and after several decades the duo finally got their own adventure in The Mahogany Murderers, Andy Lane’s truly excellent two-hander made as part of Big Finish’s Companion Chronicles range of audio adventures. The success of that production has led to a spin-off series of full cast adventures, all released in beautifully designed box sets made up of four individual hour-long cases with a fifth disc containing an extended collection of interviews with the cast and crew. For me these are the cream of Big Finish’s current output – and now we reach series 3 (series 4, already recorded, is scheduled for release in January 2012).
At the end of series 2 a classic knock on the door epilogue provided a pleasing little taster of coming attractions as Jago and Litefoot were unexpectedly reunited with Leela, once again played by Louise Jameson. She appears throughout this third series, which continues the high track record for these releases with their well-rendered Gothic atmosphere, good humour and the splendid star power of Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter as its fruity central duo. Leela has been sent by Romana to locate and repair ‘time leakage’ in a ‘Key to Time’ (or should that be ‘2 Time’) style plot that seems to be moving away from fantasy and gothic and more towards science fiction. Following the pattern established in the two previous box sets, story editor Justin Richards has penned a deliberately ‘soft’ introductory segment, seemingly designed to set the tone and get the ball rolling by establishing the overall series arc and ease listeners into the late Victorian milieu by using well established genre elements. For the first set Richards gave us ‘The Bloodless Soldier’, which featured a werewolf and also brought back the mysterious Dr Tulp from The Mahogany Murderers, while the second, ‘Litefoot and Sanders’, the titular companion of the Professor proved to be a vampire and the main nemesis too. Now comes ‘Dead Men’s Tales’ which features the ‘Wet Men’, ghosts that rise from the Thames and which, by way of an incongruous mobile phone (and a reference to Commies and creatures from the Black Lagoon), introduces the mysterious time traveler Mr Paine.
Using a time compass the trio focus on the Jolly Roger Tavern which leads Leela to a highly amusing crash course in cockney rhyming slang, the questionable delights of pints of mild and bitter ale and the intricacies of barmaiding, to which she takes with great elan as she brandishes weapons in a style more in keeping with Crocodile Dundee than Eliza Doolittle. While Leela goes undercover with the help of Ellie the barmaid, Jago and Litefoot meet up with Sergeant Quick to investigate sightings of the Wet Men at the docks, leading to a fogbound confrontation with the zombies who seem to have a particular interest in Johnny Skipton, a seaman currently of no fixed abode.
This is a very small-scale offering – there are only three main speaking roles beyond the principals and the production itself only runs about 45 minutes in total. It is light and amusing and does its main job, which is to set up the series proper though its conclusion, while running along traditional genre lines, requires our heroes to explain complex events which it is hard to believe they can really have understood given the scant information provided, leading to a lot of exposition at the climax. More than anything after a really nice build-up the finale feels quite curtailed and stylistically this really does end up sounding a bit like an augmented Companion Chronicle in the sense of having events explained verbally rather than having them played out in dramatic fashion, which is a bit of a shame as the material is in fact quite strong enough and really could have been dramatised much more dynamically. But if the plot development is a slight disappointment, the dialogue and characters are well up to par.
So we give it a B- and look forward to see how things will develop …