Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Monster Hunters

The Monster Hunters by Newgate Productions was indeed a pleasant surprise.  In description, it seemed to share a similar format to The Scarifyers, whose first series at least was extremely enjoyable supernatural/mystery/historical fluff from great vocal artists like the late Nicholas Courtney, Gabriel Woolf and Terry Molloy.  The Monster Hunters, perhaps, takes itself a bit less seriously and therefore restricts itself to smaller scope, with unpredictably hilarious results.  I was listening to this on the train on the way home and could not help smiling at perplexed strangers as the play wound its way to an outrageous climax.

The prologue, where the evil vampire Count Orloff is defeated in London by Ignatius Chesterfield in 1771, reminded me very much of Doctor Von Goosewing trying to stake Count Duckula in the eponymous Cosgrove Hall kids’ cartoon.  Much as that cartoon succeeds from an onslaught of gaffes, quips, and harmless buffoonery, so to The Monster Hunters: The Discotheque of Nights creates involuntary giggles a-plenty, courtesy of its disinterested mastermind (Sir Maxwell House[1]), its protagonists Roy Steel (Matthew Woodcock), world’s second best game hunter, and Prof. Lorrimer Chesterfield (Peter Davis), fulfilling the Professor Dunning/Terry Molloy role (albeit a bit stupider!).  

I should mention, of course, that one of the reasons The Monster Hunters succeeds so well is because it is set in 1971 and revels in the camp that Life on Mars eschewed.  A brilliant soundtrack and Steel’s completely un-PC attitude work extremely well (it’s hardly surprising that the writers also play the leads).  Like the escapist fantasy of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, it glories in a depiction of a silly, semi-fictional past that just happens to include vampires. I may not know any of the 1970s films it’s based on, but that doesn’t hinder my enjoyment.  

The Monster Hunters—at least in the league of The Scarifyers and perhaps outdoing it.  

Laurence Raw's review

[1] The name for American listeners will conjure up the smell of coffee.

Every Now and Then

Every Now and Then by George Zarr (Voices in the Wind) was an enjoyable tale of a weird incident that was never fully explained as science fiction or the result of allergy medication gone awry.  Although there was no host as such (see Puppets), the presence of Mr Sagan, the antiques shop owner, seemed to suggest a knowing commentator on the action that was to follow, and I have to admit I never quite trusted him.  The drama of Every Now and Then hinged on an extremely mundane situation (a bickering couple enter an antiques shop to choose a wedding present for a friend) shot through with lashings of the bizarre.  

I am unsure why there seems to be such a strong vogue for ticking clocks in the background of indoor scenes; most of the plays I heard on this run used this device!  (Though in this case it was acceptable, as antiques shops should have ticking clocks; no less, they should have ticking grandfather clocks!  It all reminded me strongly of hearing the audio version of “The Power of the Daleks,” one of whose surviving episodes takes place in an antiques shop.)  Even if the dialogue and performances occasionally suggested a less-than-perfect historical rendering of 1903, I was prepared to accept the idylls of the play (even when it got extremely dramatic) because of its obvious love of the worlds of sound.  When Mr Sagan both verbally explained how to turn on a Gramophone, and we also heard the SFX of these actions being performed (the crank being winded, the turntable spinning, the needle being placed on the wax cylinder), it created a superb effect.  The haunting and rather sinister tones of the song “Every Now and Then” followed.  Likewise, the scenes which took place on a turn-of-the-century street were extremely well evoked, with the right mix of birds, carriage wheels, feet on pavement, etc.  The scenes aboard ship were also recreated with loving detail.     

I was surprised, to be honest, that the story had a happy ending; Frank and Diane’s (Gregg Rainwater and Noelle Dupuis) fate in the present day did not mirror that of Kathy Nightingale in Hull in “Blink.”  


19 Nocturne Avenue (I love that name) has a long history of producing audio drama, and the first play of theirs that I heard, Puppets, is an impressive testimony to their years of experience.  Julie Hoverson seems to be the creative powerhouse behind much of 19 Nocturne Avenue, and Puppets is no exception.  The anonymous host is obviously in the style of OTR suspense radio classics like The Witch’s Tale and in the UK, The Man in Black.  While I found Puppets very interesting and quite enjoyable, it was also confusing—due, I think, to the ambitiousness of the production, which excelled in areas like sweeping, atmospheric music and delightfully gruesome sound effects.  

The story is a lot to take on.  It’s historical (set in 1920), refers to the grand guignol theatre tradition which even frequent listeners to suspense may not be aware of, uses a flashback style of narration, and has a Maupassant-like ending.  I was, in fact, familiar with grand guignol, not least because of Big Finish’s Eighth Doctor play, Scapegoat.  Setting aside the fact that Scapegoat is not one of the most effective plays in that range, it at least presented a clear distinction between the backstage scenes and those presented to a crowd whose reactions ranged from the jaded to the disgusted.  However, the nature of the story being told in Puppets could not make those distinctions clear and therefore created a great deal of confusion; confusion that could lead to frustration rather than ambiguity that forms tantalizing questions.  With this fundamental issue taking place, the fact the story was told in a non-linear fashion also contributed to a sense of groping in the dark that had nothing to do with the audio pictures, which were theatrical, engaging, and grim, created in part by solid performances, and the effects which I mentioned earlier.  Even the BBC Dracula (1998) dared not be so aurally graphic in its depiction of Lucy’s staking as Puppets did in the severing of a characters hand, which included the sound of evacuating blood pulsing obscenely!   

Scapegoat and Puppets seem to have the same “wheeze” going on regarding the reality of the murder and violence enacted onstage, but in fact they differ greatly, leading to the aforementioned Maupassant ending, which was entirely unexpected and very clever.  

Lovely Jubilee

Lovely Jubilee is the first part of an ongoing radio soap opera (or serial, if you prefer) by Alison Plant, produced by Rhys Philips for Radio Cardiff.  Its settings are perhaps modest in scope—rival tea rooms in Cardiff gearing up for the Queen’s Jubilee weekend—but they are engagingly created in a short space of time and have already introduced us to endearing characters from just around the block (if you happen to live Cardiff, that is).  Having been professionally produced by a commercial radio station, the background sound-worlds of Lovely Jubilee are surprisingly dense.  Doilies with a Diff, whose proprietor Kate (Mab Jones) stocks more than 40 varieties of tea, is full of hustle and bustle; a more familial atmosphere is evoked in Tiger Bay Tea Rooms, where the family business is being enthusiastically spearheaded by Chris (Ryan Prior).  At first, it’s war:  a barrage of puns is exchanged in a Twitter smackdown, which frankly is quite up-to-the-minute and funny.  The Jubilee celebrations use an outdoor setting (and music by Aretha Franklin, no less!), obviously bankrolled by the likes of Radio Cardiff (a rather clever as well as functional insertion).  The future promises more compromises between the two establishments.  I, for one, want to know what’s going to happen next.

Who's There?

Who’s There? by Yap Audio (Matthew McLean) is a short piece of audio suspense.  It curiously holds back from using sound effects to their fullest, preferring instead to give us a narrative so that it is almost like a very short audio book.  I think the piece would have been far more productive were it to adopt the full audio book treatment, or be more consistent in using sound effects, such as creaking doors, footfalls, and heavy breathing.

Turing's Test

“Why did you have to die, Alan?”

Turing’s Test from Made in Manchester/Dark Smile Productions is an excellent short play which demonstrates the strengths of audio drama:  the ability to take a listener anywhere, anytime, and to probe deeply into the human condition while doing so.  Turing’s Test is an extremely literate and thoughtful script written by Andy Lord and Phil Collinge and performed by Samuel Barnett as Alan Turing and Paul Kendrick as the Machine.  Far more than just a debate about the possibility that machines can be made to think (one aspect of the title, as the Turing Test has become a method for interrogating machine sentience); far more than just an exploration of Turing’s contributions to computing science and the Allied war effort; far more than just an exploration of society vs the self and how sexuality can cloud that issue.  The play combines all of these in an organic whole, using Turing’s questions and the Machine’s non-answers to tease out the themes rather than forcing them down your throat.

It’s appropriate, perhaps, that the first time I heard of Alan Turing was in relation to The Turing Test, an Eighth Doctor (Doctor Who) novel, recommended by a friend.  My friend said, aghast, “Haven’t you ever heard of Alan Turing?”  Like the Machine in Turing’s Test, I turned to the “World Wide Web” (a thinly disguised Wikipedia definition is central to this play, showing how life mirrors art) to find out the short and pat version of his life, which the Machine presents and Turing refutes and/or questions.  The Doctor Who reference is appropriate because the first few minutes of this play make its themes seem to be those of science fiction.  Equally, someone hearing the last ten minutes would insist this play is one about gay rights.  Thrillingly for a play of this length, it uses both themes to dovetail into each other, into a much less proselytizing exploration of fame and self. 

The coolness of the Machine and its idiotic logic (its repetitive responses will be familiar to anyone who has ever used a computer) contrast with its almost diabolically interrogative nature.  The actor’s performance is wonderfully pitched and assisted immeasurably by good sound effects, such as the “chugging” noise of a pre-1980s style computing machine (familiar, once again, to viewers of Classic Who) and the dial tone of a modem.  Turing himself is also well portrayed and comes across as both culpable and sympathetic.  His introduction is the SFX of a man choking on a piece of poisoned apple, which has to be one of the more memorable character entrances I can recall in audio drama.  

Is Turing dying or already dead?  Is the Machine in his imagination?  Where does that put us, the listener?  And why did Alan Turing have to die?  All of these questions may not be satisfactorily resolved by the end of the play, but it’s all somehow appropriate.  This is very highly recommended.