Sunday, January 20, 2019

016 Speculative Fiction- New

016 Speculative Fiction – New 

I always look forward to a Lenny Henry drama.  His more recent ones have been less comic and more serious (while still retaining comic elements).  In In Vino Veritas, Henry plays the Rev Marcus Campbell, a Midlands minister (who isn’t above playing up a Jamaican accent in the pulpit, while his long-suffering wife, June, played by Nadine Marshall, is Jamaican).  Marcus was an alcoholic but was recovered by June.  Marcus and Deacon Edwards (Peter Bankolé) are aiming to put their church on the map, raising money to incorporate a café, a market, and a shop (in true 21st century style; it’s most interesting to contrast this drama with Kwame Kei-Armah’s Father, Son and Holy Ghost from 2012).  The drama has an at best ambivalent relationship with modern Christian churches as opposed to the original Christian message; a homeless man berates the congregation for mistreating him, given that Jesus always had time for the indigent and wretched.  In the midst of preparing for the Sunday service to be recorded and televised on American TV, Marcus accidentally hits a pedestrian.  Although he calls an ambulance, he flees the scene.  At home, the demon drink is calling.  Someone else is calling:  Jesus (John Bradley) (like many inner voices, it’s never clear if this is actually Jesus or not).  Jesus encourages Marcus to get drunk in order to expose the true messages of Christianity.  A dark comedy, In Vino Veritas also stars Martina Laird, McKell David, Sean Murray, Lewis Bray, Cameron Percival, Liam Lau Fernandez, Elizabeth Counsell, Emma Handy, Ryan White, and Jeanette Percival.  It was directed by Mary Peate.

And that ends Quarter 4 reviews!  As tradition dictates, the next post will be the 2018 Golden Weevil Awards.

015 Speculative Fiction- Old

015 Speculative Fiction – Old 

By far the largest category of this quarter . . . 

I’m really glad that they rebroadcast the first series of Pilgrim upon its 10-year anniversary.  I caught a bit of various series over the years but found them difficult to get into.  Admittedly, the first episode of the series left me less than enthralled.  Nevertheless, by this, the second episode, I was starting to warm to the great possibilities offered by a long-lived, un-aging protagonist trying to right the wrongs of the supernatural world invading the normal one.  Pilgrim (Paul Hilton), as the intro helpfully tells us each week, was William Palmer, who was “apparently” cursed by the King of the Elves/Fairies in the 1180s for denying the existence of the Grey Folk.  He’s been living a liminal existence since then, naturally having taken on lots of identities since.  Although haunted and haggard, he seems more at ease with his fate than other immortal characters we’ve encountered in fiction before.  Anyway, he does yearn for death, and throughout the first series he is trying to find Joseph of Arimathea who can hopefully help him die.   These are mostly adventure-of-the-week type stories, with little to link them, as Pilgrim moves around interacting with various legends of the British Isles.  In the first episode, he was trying to retrieve a dragon egg that Puck stole.  That didn’t go so well, really.  In the second episode, he does a bit better.  He rescued Noreen (Trisha Kelly) from being attacked in the supermarket as a witch.  Her son disappeared seven years before, but no one will talk about it.  He was “a bad sort,” according to his friend Darren (Robert Lonsdale) and boss, gravedigger Abel Jags (Malcolm Tierney).  But Josh didn’t actually disappear:  he’s been covered in hawthorns in a coma in his mother’s house all this time (!). With Pilgrim’s help, Darren, his wife Tina (Jill Cardo), who was Josh’s fiancée, go under the hill where they discover him in thrall to elemental tree spirit Mr Mulverhay (Paul Rider).  It’s an interesting story and acted with the kind of urgency that helps make real its fantastic premise. Pilgrim is written by Sebastian Baczkiewicz, and Then Fancies Flee Away was directed by Jessica Dromgoole.

The final episode of the first series of Pilgrim, “No Foes Shall Stay His Might” continued, of course, to star Paul Hilton as Pilgrim and was written by Sebastian Baczkiewicz.  In it, Mr Haddonfield (Adrian Lucas) is banker who comes from a long line of land-owning, power-hungry men.  He has headed the Lupercalia, who sound a bit like the Death-Eaters of Harry Potter, except their amusement is seeking out supernatural what’s-its.  Haddonfield is aiming for a hat trick, having captured Freya (Alex Tregear), a young werewolf, and hopefully to bag El Vagabondo de Diablo, Pilgrim himself.  When he finds out his cover is blown, Pilgrim wants to flee and take on a new identity.  However, he is charged by the mysterious river spirit Mr McAdam (Dudley Sutton) and the witch Doris (Susan Engel) to help free Freya and Haddonfield’s imprisoned daemon, Mirabella (Janice Acquah), who has been kept in glass in a cabinet since the 1600s.  It’s all pretty spectacular, actually, and suffers little from having no visuals.  Freya and Doris, we soon find out, are to become recurring characters.

The finale of the second series of Pilgrim, “Hope Springs,” had a similar level of spectacular.  Throughout the second series, we found out that Doris was Pilgrim’s grown daughter (half-Avalonian spirit, it’s implied), and Freya (a recast Rachel Spence) was chafing at both Doris’ and Pilgrim’s authority.  After an interesting wander in “The Lady in the Lake,” “Hope Springs” brings us back the tensions established in the very first episode of Pilgrim.  Doris has also been recast and is played by Judy Parfitt.  The wonderfully-voiced Anna Wing played ancient Hilda, the lady guardian of Hope Springs, who to the outside world is a doddering old resident of an old people’s home.  There’s a complicated subplot to do with a bracelet, in which young hoodlum Dexter (Lloyd Thomas) is embroiled.  I don’t know whether to smile or be appalled that Hilda’s particular manifestation of power is to make grown men pee in their pants (I guess it makes sense if she’s the lady of the spring).  What is it all in aid of?  Well, Pilgrim’s sometimes-friend, sometimes-foe Puck (Jamie Foreman) has decided he is in love with Doris.  Dramatic and well-made, the second series of Pilgrim was from 2010.  This episode was directed by Jessica Dromgoole and also starred Sean Baker, Leah Brotherhead, and Agnes Bateman (as the narrator).

An absolutely stunning standalone, I See the Moon by Alex Ferguson, directed by Melanie Harris, stayed in my thoughts for days after I heard it.  Originally from 1999, the drama kept you guessing throughout whether poor Richard (Cliff Howells), the narrator and protagonist, was just drink-addled and bitter from a life that hadn’t turned out the way he planned, or if he really saw a ghost in a house in the 1960s.  It was beautifully written, beautifully acted, and offered an interesting reflection on British history of the second half of the twentieth century.  I thought the repetition of “I See the Moon” (the song) was a little too frequent, but otherwise I thought the drama was entirely effective. Its message is essentially conservative, something of which all ghost stories have been accused, yet it doesn’t feel too out of place. Richard, employed by a planning office, attends a conference in the 1960s with his friend, Douglas (Martin Reeve) at an eminent professor’s house.  The order of the day, of course, is to tear down elitist aristocratic estates and replace them with accessible housing for all.  Richard gets on his host, Professor Taylor’s, nerves, and further offends his starchy wife (Mary Cunningham) by insisting that there is a child in the house who is wandering.  Mute, sad, and pleading, the child Richard saw cannot be found.  But he gave her his watch, and he is convinced he saw her.  This section only works because of the strong performance and the light touch of the writing, which makes what could be an awkward or creepy situation have real pathos.  The girl haunts Richard for the rest of his life.  Douglas’ star rises and Richard’s falls, as he reacts more and more strongly against the tearing down of historical buildings and replacing them with ugly council housing.  His wife, Allison (Kathryn Hunt), eventually leaves him.  He gets work as a contractor in the 1980s, at which point his trauma comes rushing back as a child’s body is discovered buried in between the walls of a structure.  Prevented from reporting this as part of the laissez-faire, nothing-stops-for-money attitude of the times, Richard buries the child’s remains himself.  His company tumbles headlong into 1980s deregulated greed, which lands Douglas in hospital and Richard in jail for bribery (while his corrupt boss gets an OBE).  Richard returns to the Professor’s house when he gets out of jail and meets the kindly Mrs Ford (Anne Reid, richly characterizing this part), who shows him a tiny room where a child once lived . . . I don’t want to spoil the extraordinary ending, but it’s fitting. 

Haunted Hospital by Trevor Hoyle was more uneven, in my opinion, but still worth highlighting.  I totally get the struggles this writer must have gone through: how to integrate a great historical story with a parallel contemporary story.  All of that said, there was a great deal of scope for creepiness here, with Julia (Jo-Anne Knowles) returning to Rochdale to see her friend Sam (Elianne Byrnes), who works in Rochdale Hospital.  Apparently, there is a haunted floor, haunted by a crying baby no one can see and a ragged old man with a dog on a string.  However, the drama quickly moves beyond the scare factor to a more uneven story of Julia trying to decide whether to keep the baby she has conceived with Yorkshire Steve (Michael Begley) or to focus on her career.  Meanwhile, there is the parallel story in the hospital records of Lizzie (also played by Knowles), an unwed young mother who is treated horribly by the workhouse staff, including porter Mr Cragge (James Quinn) and compassionless Dr Pinch (Mark Chatteron).  Her neighbor Daniel (also played by Begley) breaks into the workhouse hospital in order to see her, and his defiance of social convention is inspiring, especially as it comes naturally to his independent, northern character (in the face of southern characters like the workhouse governor, Josiah Ogden).  The saddest part of the story, as Steve himself notes, is that there were women in the Rochdale Workhouse/Hospital still living there in the 1970s, having been unwed mothers who had lived their whole lives in the facility.  It was directed by Liz Leonard.

The House on Spook Corner, originally from 1987, was a doozy.  This “docu-drama,” part found footage decades before the term was in use, was absorbing but also quite confusing, mainly because it was not very clear when we were in the “past” and when we were in the “present.”  The past was the documentary The House on Spook Corner, which had been made ten years previously on a BBC local radio-like station as the most infamous episode in a long-running series on paranormal investigation.  The reason the drama was so confusing is that the documentary within the drama was so convincing, made similarly to the way these kinds of documentaries are always made.  In the documentary, produced by new producer Justin (John Abineri), presented by Ellis (Michael Drew) and with contributions from David Morris (Frank Windsor), an ordinary if racist East End household was rocked by seeming poltergeist activity centering on pre-teen Garry Griggs (Nicholas Csergo).  Garry would be possessed by “Peter,” who spoke guttural patois and insulted women, and household objects would be destroyed.  Mrs Griggs (Jo Anderson) utterly accepted the strange phenomenon. Professor and Christine Vecchi (Geoff Serle and Kim Hicks), a father and daughter debunker team, were brought in to investigate.  While the machinations of ambitious yet unscrupulous Justin seemed to suggest that the phenomenon was real, expert David Morris and the Vecchis both were about the debunk the phenomenon.  Professor Vecchi died of a heart attack during the making the programme.  Ten years later, Morris is determined to revisit the story,  As I said, multi-layered and interesting, but somewhat difficult to process. It was written by Bob Couttie and directed by Alec Reid.

I was absolutely spoiled throughout October, November, and December with excellent speculative fiction.  Yet another series worth detailing is Mind’s Eye from Northern Ireland, directed by leading light Eoin O’Callaghan, originally from 2006.  I was blown away by these fascinating, well-acted and well-written dramas which pitted a father and daughter psychologist team, Lorcan Molloy (Dermot Crowley) and his daughter, Aoife (Cathy Belton) against phenomenon that was unclassifiable:  was it all psychological, to be explained away by rational means, as Aoife inevitably had it, or were there more things on heaven and Earth, as Lorcan was beginning to wonder?  Set in the Republic of Ireland, they presented a fascinating window on a culture often ignored by mainstream Radio 4 dramas (because, surely, RTÉ has a monopoly on such stories).  Lorcan’s familiar refrain, which opened each episode, suggested to me, at least on my first listen, that as a rational scientist, he was at war within himself over extra-sensory perception powers that were going to fully manifest by the end of the series.  This never overtly happened, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was all going to come out in the next series (if there ever was a second series).  The Molloys’ nemesis is the intriguing Fergus Rainer (Richard Orr), a former Guard (it took me several episodes to understand this referred to the police) who decided, after an unsuccessful session with Lorcan, to believe in the spiritual/supernatural explanations for phenomena.  Rainer dogs their every step, but as this is as realistic as you can possibly make such stories, they can’t really do anything about him (other than trying to prevent vulnerable people from talking to him, as he makes his living as a hack for a local rag).  And in some cases, Lorcan is beginning to realize that Rainer may have a point.  The other recurring character is Brian Walsh (Mark Lambert), a Northern Irish surgeon whose pursuit of Aoife is on an extremely slow burn.  Nevertheless, I quite liked that burgeoning relationship.  In the first story, “Virtuoso,” which in hindsight was a little too short, the Molloys meet Brian through his patient, Maggie Renshaw (Margaret D’Arcy), an elderly woman who fears her hands are being possessed by someone else. Her miraculous recovery from arthritis does suggest something bizarre is going on.

The second episode in the series, “Faith,” sidestepped gracefully, I thought, both questions of faith and religious disagreement even as ex-seminary student Jake Lewis (Sean Campion) claimed he had his own guardian angel, a doppelganger who saved him and others from unpredictable violence.  In this episode, we were also introduced to DCI Talbot (John Hewitt), who appears later in the series, and Father Tom (Niall Cusack) who confirms to Lorcan that Jake was taking communion in his church at the same time witnesses claimed he was helping people out of a hospital where a fire was taking place.  According to Lorcan, “Whispers” was the case in which he thought Fergus Rainer might just be right.  Lorcan and Aoife try to help David McAlease (Sean Campion) whose teenage son Eamonn (Eamonn Owens) seems to be suffering from a haunting, which their arch-nemesis Fergus Rainer identifies as a poltergeist although it sounds a lot like a banshee talking to Eamonn in Irish.  Eamonn is certainly psychologically troubled, having been unable to come to terms with his mother’s death due to his father’s emotional constipation.  Aoife is convinced that Eamonn is not possessed, just in need of therapy, but the solace Eamonn receives is when he calls up a late-night radio talk show hosted by Rainer.  An excellent use of the audio medium in this story.
The Prophet” was quite a sad and bleak story that once again put Lorcan in opposition to his daughter, even as Aoife and Brian’s relationship seemed to blossom, albeit in a shaky fashion.  In an arresting opening, Paul Strong’s (Gerard Murphy) landlord comes to demand rent from him, only to find him trying to hang himself.  Strong, it seems, notoriously murdered a man while robbing a small country post office, even after the man handed all the money over.  Racked with remorse, Strong was visited in prison by his mother’s fetch as she died, and from then on he became a model prisoner.  Given early release for good behavior, he is distrusted by Aoife once she finally meets him as a dangerously pathological villain who will easily kill again.  Lorcan feels differently about Strong, noting Strong’s seemingly genuine repentance and transformation, even when it puts him at personal risk. The final episode of Mind’s Eye, Lodgers,” was by far the most chilling, in which Lorcan and Aoife went to visit family friend Maeve (Stella McCusker) after allegations from her son, Daniel (Miche Doherty), that Maeve was losing her grip on reality.  It transpired that Maeve had been running a guest house for many years, one which always had negative connotations for Daniel (indeed, though he was in denial about it, he had seen the invisible guests staying at the house ever since he was a child).  Developed (and mostly scripted) by Gemma McMullan and Gerry Casey, I found Mind’s Eye to be addictive listening.

I had a hunch I was going to enjoy The Doppelganger by noted writer JCW Brook, starring Nigel Anthony at the height of his (creepy) powers and with music by Paddy Kingsland (it was 1977, after all).  While I didn’t find the ending entirely comprehensible, while listening in the middle I was hanging on every word, waiting to see what would happen and how it would all resolve.  Anthony starred as ordinary Adam Oxton whose relationship with his wife Jane (Emily Richard) has been fraught for as long as they can remember.  They are on a make-or-break trip to try to salvage their marriage when Adam has a weird experience, seeming to see his dead mother at a train station.  He had a troubled relationship with her, as well, and his older brother, who was convinced in the existence of doppelgangers, in the old German sense of the sinister Other.  While in Oxford, Adam and Jane meet Beth (Elizabeth Lindsay) and Sarah (Penelope Lee).  Beth is a young woman who is developmentally abnormal, having been electrically shocked when working as backstage crew in a theatre.  If that seems far-fetched to you, you’re about to be validated.  Nevertheless, Beth shares an uncanny resemblance to a younger Jane.  Adam is strangely drawn to Beth, going into a weird sort of trance state when they are left alone, in which Beth discards her developmentally abnormal personality for one of great intensity and purpose.  She seems to be trying to intervene between Adam and a mysterious and evil Woman and Man (who I imagined in my mind’s eye looking like the evil spirits in “Kinda”) on another plane of existence.  Things get really strange when Ralph Steadman (Geoffrey Collins), Sarah’s husband who has been in Canada, turns up and says he has orchestrated the whole meeting on the advice of Adam’s brother.  Directed by Ian Cotterell, it’s a trippy experience.

Stretching the definition of speculative fiction to something altogether lighter, The Wainwrights by Tom Wainwright from 2013 is a rare blatant parody (Desert Island Desserts and At Home with the Snails being the only examples I can think of).  However, there was a definite whiff of Conundrum (a Doctor Who New Adventures novel of which I’m sure Tom Wainwright was unaware) in the breaking of the fourth wall (of which Wainwright was aware, citing Pirandello, etc.).  Indeed, the radio station writer, who ended up being the mastermind behind the whole plot, sounded a lot like I expected the character in Conundrum to sound.  In any case, I’m getting ahead of myself.  Tom Wainwright lives an idyllic life in Middle England in a village where everyone is named Wainwright and no one can remember much beyond last week.  Their radios are permanently tuned to Radio Rural, but one day the discontented Tom tunes into another radio station and hears a radio serial not only about his life, but taking moments that later are heard in the drama.  At first he accuses his wife and his friend Jack of recording him constantly, but eventually he goes in search of answers, leading him out of fictional land and to the very radio station that created him, unbeknownst to him.  I thought it was clever and, mercifully, not too clever for its own good.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Quarter 4 Reviews- 014 Adaptation- New

014 Adaptation – New

Naturally, I have a great respect for Angela Carter’s radio writing, and I think she is unique among writers in the way her prose influenced her radio writing and her radio writing influenced her prose (I’m thinking principally of her 1976 radio drama Vampirella becoming “The Lady in the House of Love”).  And I’ve actually read The Bloody Chamber, which was adapted this Halloween in five parts by Olivia Hetreed and directed by Fiona McAlpine.  The adaptations are extremely successful at 15 minutes, wonderfully, sensually packed into that slot, well-directed, well-acted, and evocatively packaged.  Carter knew how to write erotically charged prose and radio, which comes across well here.  I remember being a little underwhelmed by the title story in the short story collection, but I really quite enjoyed the radio version.  It was an Allegra production with sound design by Lucinda Mason Brown.

I do believe that “The Black Cat” by Edgar Allan Poem is well-nigh undramatizable, but despite that, I thought Anita Sullivan had an excellent stab at it as part of the series The Second Pan Book of Horror Stories.  There’s not a lot in the story for dramatization purposes, so adaptors since the 1930s on radio have had to get creative with their approaches.  In this version, the narrator’s dead wife haunts and torments him all the way to the scaffold.  It’s a tricky thing for radio, as if you faithfully tried to reproduce via sound effects all the cruelties the narrator inflicts on his cats, it would not only be aurally unbearable, but you would probably get a lot of audience complaints.  This adaptation fortunately walked that fine line carefully, giving the cats enough of a physical presence through a few sound effects and cat vocalizations without giving us the reality-based sounds which you would hear if someone actually removed a cat’s eye with a knife.  Strong performances also set off the essentially insane position of the narrator. It was a Sweet Talks production directed by Karen Rose.

I was quite impressed with Toby Hadoke’s dramatization of Nigel Kneale’s TV script, The Road.  Its central conceit is by now familiar to anyone (they even used it in a Matt Smith episode of Doctor Who) but in 1963, it would have been modern and arresting indeed.  I find Mark Gatiss’ “old man” acting to be quite irritating, though in the closing moments of this drama, he actually became reasonably convincing.  Set in the 1760s, its power is in the opposing temperaments of its characters, Gideon Cobb (Gatiss) and Sir Hassall (Adrian Scarborough).  Hassall tries to use scientific methods like electricity to detect ghosts; Cobb scoffs at him.  The intriguing Lady Hassall (Hattie Morahan) is not fleshed out enough and remains ambivalent regarding the experiments and the interventions of Cobb.  Perhaps the most interesting character is Jethro, Cobb’s black servant, very well-portrayed by Colin McFarlane.  Tetsy (Susan Wokoma) is the servant maid who, one year previously, had a vision/sound visitation of a road.  While there were rumors that the meadow was once a Roman road upon which Boudicca’s troops had fled, this is unsubstantiated and does not really fit Tetsy’s experience.  It’s nice to hear Ralph Ineson, as usual, though very much typecast as Big Jeff Beale, a servant. It was directed by Charlotte Riches.