The Plot: There’s a house across the waters at Ely where an old woman tells a strange story. About a kind of night constable called Sara Kingdom. And her friends, the Doctor and Steven. About a journey they made to a young couple’s home, and the nightmarish things that were found there. About the follies of youth and selfishness. And the terrible things even the most well-meaning of us can inflict on each other.
Hear the old woman’s story. Then decide her fate.
“I don’t believe in ghost stories”
This First Doctor story is narrated by Jean Marsh, who is currently recovering from a small stroke, news of which made me want to re-listen to this audio play. In 1965 she appeared opposite William Hartnell and Peter Purves in Doctor Who (the second of three appearances in the show) as Sara Kingdom, a baddie but one who nonetheless became a sort-of companion before eventually succumbing a spectacularly nasty death – this was all spread across the epic 12-part story The Daleks’ Master Plan. Produced over forty years later, this Companion Chronicle by Simon Guerrier brings the character back to life (more or less) by setting the story in one of the interstices during that long serial. In so doing it presents us with an abundance of riches, starting with a classic haunted house scenario in which a young man (played by Niall MacGregor) travels on a cold and wet night to hear a tall tale told to the sound of thunder claps and creaking doors; this classic narrative reaches a crescendo in the first half and then makes the transition to a smart update of this hoary but still effective concept after the cliffhanger that bisects this release in two.
” … and then there was the house.”
I think that many of these Companion Chronicle releases work especially well as dialogues (or duologues) between two people, rather than as conventional speaking books thus avoiding the need for adding ‘he said / she said’ and other descriptive elements rarely found in natural speech for more than a few sentences at a time, and this release is absolutely top-notch in this regard. The spooky atmosphere of the old house in East Anglia on a cold and rainy night is wonderfully evoked – it is of course a cliché of old-time radio, but it works exceedingly well here, especially as it contrasts with the austere and ultra modern house in which the rest of the story takes place – that the two locations are in fact connected, and quite how, is one of the many narrative grace notes that knit the plot so well together.
“This is a fairy tale – magic always has a price.”
After a summary of the Dalek story, we are told how Steve and the Doctor arrived with Sarah in a house in which a newly married couple are apparently going to settle down. It appears to be hermetically sealed and when the dead bodies of the newly weds are found, without a mark upon them, the visitors decide that they must investigate – things take another macabre turn when it appears that the house itself may be sentient and able to provide for their wishes by reading their minds – and then Steve vanishes …
This is a classic release from Big Finish, in which the story telling, and an audio telling in particular, proves crucial to the main narrative sting of the tale. This proves to be as much about solving the mystery of two deaths as an investigation into the myths and archetypes of traditional narratives, especially in tales of the supernatural, a literal and metaphorical take on the concept of the ghost in the machine. This is easily one of the finest of the Companion Chronicle plays for the strength of its central story, its strong atmosphere, the fine acting of its two leads (Marsh has a really creepy way of stressing the sibilants in her speech that really suits her role here) and the sheer cleverness with which it explores and expands on the format of these small-scale productions for two voices. It has certainly been one of the best received of the series thus far and thankfully had led to more. Originally released at the end of 2008, this proved to be the first part of a trilogy by Simon Guerrier featuring Sara Kingdom and Robert, a young magistrate from the future with secrets of his own. These would be explored further in the next play in the series, The Drowned World.