Friday, October 19, 2012

Snape's Diaries

I have to admit, up to now there has been no audio drama series that has so engaged me that I had to finish listening to it within a week.  I was surprised that it was Snape’s Diaries that made me do this, but it’s going to be really difficult to do a spoiler-free review.  So let me just say if you like Harry Potter and you like audio drama, do give this a try.


Now that’s over with!  Misfits Audio has recently impressed me with their good ideas and high production values.  Whoever Artemis Riddle is, I’d like to shake his or her hand.  I never would have thought to do a Harry Potter fan audio, though the tales Snape’s Diaries chooses to tell are natural fan fiction territory.  However, I had not yet found them told to my satisfaction in prose form, so it was a great joy for them to be posited in an intelligent and creative manner in this form.  

Unfortunately it’s true that many of the amateur audios sell themselves short with their casting.  Yes, I’m aware that amateur audios, whether fan-made or wholly original, don’t have the luxuries of the BBC; they usually have to advertise on audio forums and wait for the best takes and do their casting based on that.  Then the actors usually have to perform in isolation and the director mixes it all into a semblance of a scene.  I make no bones about it; if it were up to me, I would always get cast members (even if it was just 2 in a cast of 30) to record together.  But I recognize practicalities.  So although I try to cut some slack, it really makes an impression when the actors rise above these limitations.  Snape’s Diaries was going to succeed or fail based on its casting of Snape and Lily, and I am very pleased to say they are excellent.  In a surprisingly small world of Internet-based audio drama, certain names crop up again and again.  So, fresh from recognizing Alex Gilmour in Wendy On Board, I am pleased to say he makes a superb Snape.  The accent is a little muddled:  a little Rickman-esque, a touch of Cockney, a touch mechanical at times, but it really does grow on you until you can’t imagine an audio Snape being played by anyone else. Whoever Sophie L. really is, she makes a wonderful Lily.  She is bubbly and bright and sympathetic and reacts well off what the script can give her, although her laughter sometimes falls flat through no fault of her own—I am pretty sure she can’t hear the joke she’s supposed to be reacting to.  

James Potter, played by Andrew Edwards, has another case of the wandering accents, sounding slightly twangy sometimes and with something of a Somerset accent going.  However, in general he is pretty good.  Lupin, played by Steven Jay Cohen, has one of the most distinctive voices in the serial although he sounds considerably older than his fellow Marauders.  Sirius, played by Ronnie Rowlands, has a good voice although sometimes not that well distinguished from James’.  Pettigrew is being played by audio gadabout Stevie K. Farnaby, who had quite a distinctive and almost slapstick comic voice.  I was at first a bit distracted by Dedrick Woodard-Jensen’s Kiwi (or is it Aussie?) accent as the casually evil Avery, but it grew on me and he ended the serial as one of the most powerful performances. (Though I don’t know why they chose for Avery Snr to be played by the same actor.) David Maciver provided a number of voices including the thickest of them all, Mulciber.  All the other actors were adequate—the less said about the complete miscasting of McGonagall the better—though I should mention Morganne Reed as Rebecca Smith, who was absolutely adorable and almost reduced me to tears when describing how “her” mum had been killed.  

The idea of a fan audio is still a bit foreign to me, though I don’t know why it should be—I’ve been listening to Big Finish for years and that all started as the AVs.  However, I had to admit to being surprised when hearing that most, if not all, the music in the serial came from the Warner Brothers’ films. I can see why this was done—it’s a way of almost effortlessly setting the scene and putting you in all the correct settings without having to rely on copious and tedious SFX.  And sometimes it does work well.  Other times, however, the music doesn’t quite suit the mood and seems obtrusive and incoherent.  However, I was very impressed with the SFX use.  Overall, they were quite effective.  You can always tell when people are walking, and little shorthand effects—from chopping vegetables to drying goblets to the long sequence in episode1 in the carriages crossing to Hogwarts—are a nice touch.  “Magic” sounds in particular should get a mention—with just the commands, well-known to readers of the books, it works surprisingly well on audio.  The Knight Bus and the Hogwarts Express are two particularly good scene-setters, as are most of the crowd scenes.  Sectum semprum is also very imaginatively done.  Occasionally, however, scenes could be set with a bit more information to help us understand what’s going on—I’m thinking specifically of the werewolf scene in episode 2 (it works fine in episode 1) and Snape’s worst memory scene.

Overall, there are very few moments where you have to be given obvious audio prompts; ie, the writing has been intelligently written for audio, giving you clues when you need them but in a very naturalistic way. “Interestingly, the way he’s writhing in agony, isn’t it?”  “Mesmerizing.”  And “I made a chart.  Look, it’s in my trunk.  Yellow font is hard to read on parchment, especially in the dark.”  “Lumos!”  Unfortunately, there are long stretches of silence—not total silence, absence of speech—which quite baffle me.  I think they are trying to set scene, or perhaps indicate the passage of time, but they just leave me fiddling with the volume and wondering what I’ve missed.  The school song was very funny but went on a bit too long.  Also sometimes during the screaming the track clips badly.  

And as for the script . .  . It’s got to be to the author’s credit that this is a world I’m sad to leave by the end of episode 7.  I like what s/he’s done with the characters and overall I agree with the way it brings Lily and James closer together (not a favorite pairing for me but there you go).  I like the hints of prurience.  One of my favorite moments was Snape having to turn his back as Lily got changed on the Hogwarts Express—only Lily could be capable of that kind of innocuous torture.  The mistletoe moments in episodes 5 and 6 are extremely eloquent and I really like the way Lily tells James to shape up and she will consider going out with him.  Episode 7 is really good to conclude after having sat through Snape’s worst memory à la Artemis Riddle—which doesn’t really work.  I imagine s/he felt it had to be included for completeness’ sake, but I almost wish it had been left out, or staged differently.  Rowling wrote it as a compressed memory to give us lots of information about the relationships of the past, so using it word for word dilutes its power—Lily doesn’t seem to have gotten to the stage where she would say such things, and Snape certainly has given no evidence as to why he would burst out “mudblood.”  (And out of gossipy curiosity—why has “pants” been changed to “trousers”?)  

Artemis Riddle’s Snape is capable of moments of really smile-inducing sarcasm, when speaking to Avery and Mulciber and Professor Slughorn in particular.  My favorite is still in episode 1, when Mulciber gets the crazy notion to send Voldemort a Christmas card.  “We all like to kill mudbloods . . .”  “Needs work.”  One of the best moments of the serial is a *facepalm* when Snape says, “Oh, Lily.”  (Also, “I don’t know why you hang out with me.  “I lov- you’re my friend.”)  (Even Lily gets her moments.  “Honestly, you should marry him!” she snaps at Snape’s obsession with Lupin.) The serial also gives us a Snape who treads the fine line between creepy obsession (“That’s a bit creepy, Sev”) and hangdog sympathy.  “I won’t let him touch you!” he shouts at Lily in episode 7.  “I’d kill him first!”  Lily’s very measured response is, “I’m sorry, Mary, did you hear something?”  Interestingly, though, and true to its supposed motto of trying to tell “the truth” about Headmaster Snape, Snape’s Diaries give us a more moral and less selfish Snape than perhaps is strictly warranted.  The final episode and Snape’s inexorable pull toward being a Death Eater show that he was actually trying to save an innocent’s life long before he unintentionally caused Lily’s death.  “Quidditch brings out the worst in people,” Snape mentions back in episode 2, and it seems he’s often right.  

Hogwarts feels a bit like the Wild West—everyone is constantly doing hexes on someone else, making it seem very unsafe (I suppose that’s the whole point of the books, but it never seemed to be quite this bad).  Also, Lily doesn’t seem outraged enough when her friends are constantly being attacked, and shouldn’t Avery and Mulciber be expelled for torturing Smith?  And why didn’t Snape actually use the Felix Felicis?  After all, even though James  got to Lily first, that didn’t mean Snape couldn’t try.  

And what’s up with the incredibly abrupt ending!

The two “behind-the-scenes” features (particularly the “interview” with spoilers for Snape and Lily—“I didn’t want anyone else to play myself, they’d only get it wrong”) were cute, but I would have loved to have had a real documentary on the making of this series.  I’ve really enjoyed it and found it inspiring.

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