Friday, 1 April 2016

The Peterloo Massacre written by Paul Magrs and directed by Jamie Anderson

What's it about: "They say there’ll be thousands pouring into Manchester tomorrow. From all over the county, north and south. It’ll be a piece of history. People will remember this!" Lost in the smog of the Industrial Revolution, the TARDIS crashes four miles south of Manchester, in the grounds of Hurley Hall – a grand mansion belonging to a local factory owner, a proudly self-made man. But while Hurley dreams of growing richer still on the wealth of secret knowledge locked up in the Doctor’s time and space machine, his servants hope only for a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. His young maid Cathy, for instance, whom Nyssa learns is looking forward to joining the working people’s march to St Peter’s Field, in the heart of the city. There’ll be speeches and banners and music. It’ll be like one big jamboree… Or so she thinks. For the city’s establishment have called in their own private militia, to control the crowd. One of the darkest days in Manchester’s history is about to unfold – and the Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan are right in the thick of it.

An English Gentleman: Even the Doctor is partial to twisting his ankle, something that is usually reserved for his companions. Tegan describes the Doctor as a 'posho', suggesting the title of Time Lord speaks for itself. It always serves as a good dramatic device when the Doctor knows about the truth about the horrors of history to come. There was a stifling feeling of Androzani about this story too, that the Doctor is swept along in the events despite trying to fight against the tide. He's just trying to get away but fate seems to conspire to force him to live these terrifying events. As time travellers they have to remember that they have to see things they were never supposed to see.

Mouth on Legs: Tegan has a bit of a problem with the class system of this time, specifically the class divide between above stairs and below. She fulfils the same purpose as Donna in Planet of the Ood, reminding the audience of the inhumanity of the slave trade and how rich men leech off the poor in order to build their business empires. Like Donna she's not forward about coming backwards about it either. She cannot understand how workers can be consider such a disposable commodity, how they aren't treated as people. Is she always this argumentative? Of course she is. There's an invaluable insight into Tegan at one point in this story that explains a little of why she is so abrasive in her attitude. She questions what she doesn't understand, probably a little too harshly but if somebody has the nerve to stand up to her then she finds that she learns something. This is Tegan's first real slice of brutal history - she might have visited the time of the Great Plague but she wasn't privvy to any of the suffering that the people endured at the time. This time she is right in the thick of it, watching as the militia charge the crowds and cause mortal wounds.

Alien Orphan: Not a princess but from somewhere a little more exotic than Cheadle Hume. Nyssa admits that she isn't very good with babies, something that will be rectified in the future as fans of the range are well aware of. From this vantage point it sounds like she is going to be a natural. Nyssa comes to the conclusion that she has had every handed to her on a plate in her life too but at least in her case it hasn't spoilt her character. The Doctor has taught Nyssa that they always need to try and make things better. Nyssa is as up close and personal as it is possible to be in this story, befriending one of the protestors, discovering her secret and narrowing avoiding being killed in her place. It is rare to see the daughter of Traken unleash her anger the way she does here which makes it all the more impressive. Nothing can placate her, she wants justice for the murder of Cathy's child and she will go to any lengths to get it.

Standout Performance: Peter Davison has been given some terrific acting opportunities of late, certainly in the last two trilogies but this has been his most mesmerising performance for many a year. The moral indignation of which he bellows at the yeoman on what has become a battlefield is a thing to behold. For once he has every right to size up the oppressors and judge them viciously.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'It seems like rich boys dressing up and playing at justice.'
'Time travellers need to have brave hearts.'

Great Ideas: The TARDIS doesn't much care for the Industrial Revolution. Immediately Paul Magrs sets up a believable, flawed family unit for the story to focus on. They're a struggling working class family and one of their number is in touch with the protestors that are the catalyst for the bloody massacre that is to come. As soon as the 'speechifiers' are mentioned, I couldn't see this story ending well. There is an ominous tone to the piece as early as that. People are starving, poor and desperate and they are being pushed around by those who have a bit of money behind them. That's the nub of the complaint that the protestors are gathering for. The trouble with these peaceful protests is that they can so easily get out of hand or appear to be getting out of hand, the 'peace-keeping' forces feel threatened and violence erupts. It's catch-22 because you need to make something of a fuss to be heard but the consequence of your pleas being listened could be as extreme as mass murder. The story captures the unnerving atmosphere of a mass gathering turning into a riot a little too authentically. I felt as if I was part of the crowd, stifled, crushing, terrified. William forcing his father to face up to the truth of his actions is quite gripping.

Audio Landscape: Grandfather clock ticking, a cock crowing, birdsong, smoke billowing out of the TARDIS, thundering machines grinding in the factory, knocking, dogs barking in the distance, a baby gurgling, horses whinnying, pegs being hammered, singing, music being played, chanting soldiers, the marching hooves, the horses trampling the crowds, the people screaming, firing field guns at the crowds. 

Musical Cues: The music really stood out in this release as something a bit different from the norm, the beautiful choral moments connecting scenes in particular. I loved the booming bass of the factory scenes, making it seem like genuinely threatening place to work. Where Nigel Fairs' music was obvious and drowned out the action in Last of the Cybermen, he provides a startling and frightening musical backdrop to The Peterloo Massacre. He helps to build up a near intolerable feeling of tension leading up to the massacre itself.

Isn't it Odd: The revelation about Cathy and William...really isn't. But it does give the final episode some loose ends to wrap up otherwise it would be an extended coda after the massacre that wasn't really needed. Magrs has built his characters and the situation so well that this time is needed to deal with the regulars reaction to the massacre and to tie up the fates of all the cast.

Standout Scene: It might have been a manipulative move to introduce a baby just to kill it off in such an obscene way but that doesn't stop the moment being an extremely powerful one, especially thanks to Sarah Sutton's extraordinary performance at the end of episode three. How awesome for the regulars to be scoring acting opportunities like this. It just goes to show how vanilla so much of the main range is these days. The massacre is brutal and stark but the death of a child carries a weight all of its own.

Result: 'This city is about to go to war against its own people...' Unexpected, dramatic and different. The pure historical was in full operation during the first 100 releases of Big Finish Main Range but somewhere along the way with the transfer from Russell to Briggs the sub genre was all but wiped out. Hurrah to Paul Magrs then who has the chutzpah to tackle his difficult subject matter head on without a monster or a time travel twist in sight. He's always been one of my favourite character writers and a vivid cast was vital to make a story that dismisses science fiction work and fortunately he has assembled a collection of flawed, memorable characters to savage in this conflict. My buttocks were clenched early on thanks to an ominous tone and some truly haunting music but nothing could have prepared me for the massacre scenes themselves and the reaction of the regulars. Like The Massacre, it is a period of history that I had relatively little knowledge about and dramaticised in such a way I am not going to forget about the events in any hurry. I really want to applaud Jamie Anderson at the end of his first trilogy for his outstanding directorial work in all three stories. He's had three tonally diverse and challenging stories to bring to life and he has done so with real verve and skill. If there was ever an argument for fresh blood in the main range, Anderson is at the heart of it. It's very very rare for the main range to surprise me like this anymore and it's even more rare to provoke this kind of emotional response. Bravo to all concerned: 10/10

6 comments:

Carrick Nisbet said...

I thought you'd love this one, you like the historicals far more than I do and I couldn't stop listening. An event so horrifying it manages to anger both Nyssa and Five is always going to be worth the story it's in.

Also, I love Paul Magrs but (correct me if I'm wrong) I don't think I've ever heard anything from him which is less Paul Magrs-y. It shows a versatile writer who can leap from absurdist fantasy to brutal historical drama.

Lisa said...

I loved this release and broke my heart at the end. This is like a Hartnell historical with the Season 20 TARDIS crew. Back in the time of Peri and Erimem we had some nice historicals but in the later years they have dried up. I love Magrs as a writer, both in paper and audio(except The Blue Angel due random weirdness on that) and I was looking forward to more stories from him. I know you aren't a fan of The Lady of Mercia but I loved that too. He grabs Tegan and makes her a living, breathing three dimensional character, so different from the moaning machine we had on TV.

Tango said...

I think it's the first time, since Spare Parts, which Nyssa shows anger and emotion. Why could not we have that emotional and realistic Nyssa in his last "Old Nyssa"trilogy? Even Amy Pond showed up anger and desire for revenge for the loss of his daughter to torture Kovarian, while the old Nyssa is bizarrely very forgiving with the Doctor in "Equilibrium" for ruining his life to take away his family.

Magrs did a great historical, but I will never forgive him for what he did with Adric in that abominable history.

Anton said...

I studied the Peterloo massacre ad part of my A Level History and am so impressed that Big Finish has tackled a period of history that isn't so well known. All credit to Big Finish for dealing with the event with incredible sensitivity. Peter Davisons righteous indignation is spot on.

dark said...

I'm actually releaved to read people's comments about this one, sinse honestly this one was hard to judge.
Awesome? yes, tence? yes, soul wrending? also yes, however I listened to this one the night before my dad was to go into hospital to have a heart bypass, (he is, thankfully fine).

I was therefore not exactly in a sanguine mood to begin with, especially sinse my dad is a big fan both of historical stories and of the Victorian period, not to mention the fact he knows all about the peterloo massacre. So, this one rang some real cords from me, not just for the death of a child or the story in and of itself, or the horrific events, but because I was sitting there thinking "Oh god, my dad would love this!"

Thankfully he'll get to hear it :D.

The story in and of itself though is truly astounding, I particularly like the cathy and william revelations at the end because they weren't as you expected them to be, after all Magres could've so easily gone the soap opera route but all too frequently in reality things just aren't that clean cut.
I did rather wonder what it'd be like hearing Nissa again knowing where she ends up, but when she burst streight onto things with this much life and character I can't complain.

@Lisa, I also enjoyed Lady of Mercia as well, albeit I think Magres character writing is better here than it was there. I actually miss Erimem, it's a shame she couldn't come back sinse really we never got enough time with her and having a character from such a distant point in history meant for some really fascinating story potential, (not all companions have to be undistinguished bolshy ladies from present day earth you know).bb

Dan Lee said...

I knew it. I just KNEW you would give it a 10/10.