Saturday, 13 February 2010

Oh No It Isn’t! written by Paul Cornell and adapted for audio by Jac Rayner, Directed by Nicholas Briggs

Message Sent 2593 – sender Bernice Summerfield
Recipient Joe Ford – 2010
Subject – Hanging around Balls!

‘Hi Joe, How’s 20th Century life? Remind me to pop back at some point, I’m almost completely out of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk from my last visit…and it would be nice to catch up with you and Simon as well. Sorry I haven’t been in touch for a while but life here has been pretty mad, I haven’t heard from my idiot husband for ages so he’s probably got his head stuck inside the jaws of a Sloathe. Or something. Serves him right. My life’s has been pretty unstable since the destruction of St Oscar’s and all that buggering devastation with the Gods (don’t ask). I have taken a few freelance jobs, working with my trowel, defiling ancient civilisations, that sort of thing and surprisingly I’ve quite enjoyed working with children. It must be my age. Which shall remain indeterminate, thank you very much. Just recently I had what could only be described as a mind altering experience on the planet Perfecton. Can you imagine a world made entirely of panto? Buxom Dames, handsome Princes, a King with far too much obsession about his Balls (you have such a dirty mind!) and seven Dwarves who are far too concerned with politics. And Wolsey, gorgeous, loyal Wolsey suddenly had the ability to walk, talk and tap dance. I know it all sounds unlikely but given my life so far, it was practically mundane! Love to you and yours, Benny. PS, I didn’t sleep with him alright, he was only sixteen!’

What is this series about? Does any Doctor Who fan that was worth their salt in the Grand Canyon sized gap on television in the nineties not know who Bernice Summerfield is? She was the prevalent companion during the New Adventures, often serving as the seventh Doctor’s moral conscience during some of his darkest days and finally married off when he has a new pair of layabouts to look after (Chris and Roz). Bernice’s marriage was short lived, more based on lust than mutual respect (always tricky) and she was lucky enough to have her own series of books once the New Adventures lost their licence to tell Doctor Who stories. To be fair she was the obvious choice. She was established in the heart of the NA universe and she was ridiculously entertaining and heartbreakingly real. Even the dissolution of the NA books could not stop Benny; there were still fans that wanted to see her adventures continue. Gary Russell took on the mantle of responsibility of her character and we finally heard her brought to life by the astonishing Lisa Bowerman who played the character how we had always imagined her. And here we are, at the beginning of those adventures with ten seasons (that’s right I said ten) of adventures for Bernice ahead plus 18 more books. Her life has become an unstoppable engine of storytelling and it is a superb alternative to the Doctor Who line that has to remain within certain censorious conventions but Bernice’s adventures are often riotous, bawdy, rude, insane and outrageously entertaining. I rarely lost interest in the 10 years Big Finish have handled her.

Archaeological Adventurer: Bernice is flirting outrageously with her students…perhaps still on the rebound from her marriage with Jason (even she seems quite embarrassed by how young Doran is). She admits she gained her Professorship on the run. When she wakes up in what she thinks is heaven after the Perfecton missile has struck she thanks the Goddess of having her after her sinful existence and now claims she believes in her! Bernice foolishly tries to convince that she is the sort of person who does the washing during the dinner party…hmmm, nice try Summerfield but I’m not buying it. Described as one sequin short of a ball gown, which sounds far more likely! She has lots of metaphysical comparing the world she is in to heaven and hell but wonders why either should be this confusing. She likes a puzzle but gets frustrated with one that keeps changing the rules like this. In a moment that secures her the important place of lead protagonist she wonders if she is just an incidental character. As If. She enjoys swearing and gets frustrated when she is constantly censored in pantoland. She wants her epitaph to be back in a mo. She loves and cares for Wolsey as best as she can. Beautiful, brave and brilliant which about sums it up.

Great ideas: The whole story is one really clever idea but the story does not reveal its hand until its closing moments, cleverly making both Bernice and the audience work it out for themselves with an abundance of clues. The Perfectons had a perfect (ho ho), God like existence and decided rather than travelling they would create the ideal world. However an aggressive sun was belching destructive matter nearby and the Perfectons prepared for their inevitable extinction the best way they could think of, by preserving their entire civilisation in a computer matrix. That missile was launched at the Winton as Bernice and her archaeology crew visited with the purpose of re-actualising the culture within the beings it strikes. Instead of achieving this it pierced the computer mainframe where Benny was reading a discourse on English pantomime and created a world around it for the surviving Perfectons to live in. That’s the basics but its how we get there that is so impressive:

You can get hurt in panto world but it doesn’t like it, you are healed shortly after (after all there are children watching!). Richard Whittington, the Seven Dwarves, Prince Charming and Puss in Boots all appear. There are anomalies – if it really is the time of Dick Whittington (1490) tea doesn’t exist yet! Bernice figures out that the world tries to integrate her unpredictable suggestions and make them logical – Prince Charming is her brother and when the King suggests he marry her she points out the obvious incestuous flaws but he hasn’t told her that they are not siblings by blood! Like a panto the narrative tries to find a conclusion to the narrative but she screws things up by giving it too many endings. She realises her hands have hardly strayed from her thighs since she arrived. There is an abundance of cross dressing and gender confusion. She can’t swear! Every time she tries a softer expletive pops out! She realises the fairy god mother is addressing somebody all the time and is suddenly revealed…the audience. Once she has figured out the building blocks of this world are made from panto Bernice goes on to make some terrific observations, that they are a satire on the era they are made with audience interaction traditions and phrases that have significance through repetition. There are some astonishing innovations made such as the PNN – Pantomime News Network (‘This genie is not here to grant us three wishes!’) and the audience are described as the fabled land beyond the sky where the big light shines. There has been a lot of thought put in to how to make this insane idea intelligent and convincing – in particular I loved the idea of the A Bon Bon – the characters of panto land have created ‘the most terrifying sugared confection ever developed by mankind’ to take on their harshest enemy – the children in the audience! Bernice adapts to the worlds way of thinking to escape, she starts making up crazy stories to ingratiate herself into the world and get what she needs, she talks in rhyme and uses the oldest panto trick in the book… ‘I bet you can’t get back into your lamp genie!’ ‘Oh yes I can!’ ‘Oh no you can’t.’ Finally the very idea of a cat being given sentience and self awareness only to have it snatched away is utterly absurd and deeply moving at the same time. The oddball backdrop only serves to make Wolsey’s journey in this adventure all the more touching, for such a riotous comedy his stunning realisation that he is propelled by instinct and base desires leaves a lingering sadness to the story.

Standout Performance: Lisa Bowerman, obviously but I’ll save her until last. Nicholas Courtney is an acting coup and the perfect choice for Wolsey, one of his best ever performances in anything Doctor Who related. Wolsey oozes charisma, is fiercely protective of Bernice, a horny little git and full of British charm (‘Why they’ll always be an England…’). He brings some real pathos to the play as Wolsey discovers his real purpose in life. And I can hear him in the ‘Row row row your boat’ scene which makes this whole story worthwhile.
Mark Gatiss also deserves a pat on the back for making me continually spit out my coffee every time he opens his mouth! He’s the hissy, slimy, creepy King’s Visier who manages to make every line sound like a filthy innuendo whether it is or not!
Dame Candy should have her own audio series – s/he is such a fantastic character: ‘Scarper!’ James Campbell had me rolling around on the floor (oo-er) with giggles.
As you can see it is hard to pick one standout performer in this ensemble party piece, everybody gets in to the spirit of the thing and makes it such a joy to listen to.

Sparkling (naughty) Dialogue: Was ever a Doctor Who related spin off ever more like an episode of Are You Being Served? This story is loaded with tons of panto themed naughtiness that kept me chuckling throughout!
‘There’s a bloody great missile approaching from the planet!’
‘Ooh my giddy kippers! I haven’t seen a sight like that since I popped round the back of the fishmonger’s trolley and had a look at his buttered plaice!’
‘Oooh you sinister squid!’ – I remember thinking that on more than one occasion when flies have been unzipped!
‘Hold on to me, Dick!’ – Ahem
‘I always say the more people I have around my balls, the better!’ No longer commenting!
‘The King’s Balls get bigger every year!’
Hello Puss in Boots!’ ‘I’ve warned you about your language!’
‘At least I can safely say I don’t owe it all to my pussy!’
‘I’ll have you know I’ve just returned from the Enchanted Land.’ ‘Is that yet another dimension?’ ‘It’s a nightclub in Camden.’
‘Parathon! Aloo Saag! Peshwari Naan!’ ‘Are you summoning a demon?’ ‘No you fool I’m ordering a curry.’
‘I’ve never had an animated Arab boy in my life! Unfortunately…’
‘When I do it its archaeology. When you do it its shoplifting.’

Audio Landscape: Considering this was the first thing Big Finish ever produced it is remarkably professional and assured with an imaginative script to really show off their talents. The opening scene sees a perpetually chilly and wind driven Perfecton. The Grel – gittish data pirates – have the most astonishing gurgling alien cockney voices! Bernice splashes about in the bath, Wolsey purrs contentedly and there is a hyper camp Nick Briggs computer voice. When Bernice wakes up in panto land she is greeted by fluting birdsong in a forest glade, a hilarious fight of grunts and clinking metal (‘Whose for calamari?’), and some impressive ball scenes with sweeping music, crowds, laughter and trumpets. Wolsey tap dances, claws on marble, horses whiney, the Vizier’s cauldron bubbles menacingly and arrows thump and boing into an embarrassed Bernice! The Fairy Godmother sequence is extraordinarily realistic with an orchestra practicing in the wings, the audience coughing and joining in with the singing and general air of mystery and anticipation. The genie Perfecton has the most arse clenchingly scary voice ever!

Musical Cues: Step forward Alistair Lock! What a story to introduce his talents on, one where he is let of the leash from the word go and given free reign to make us feel as good as possible. The music is pure Disney, upbeat, melodious and it often makes you feel as glorious as the script. One of my favourite ever sequences on audio is where the harmonising bluebirds and singing mice clean up Bernice’s house, it is impossible to not get swept by the madness of it all. It’s Enchanted 10 ten years earlier! The ball scenes have a sweeping and irresistible score, perfectly capturing the romance of the moment.

Isn’t that Odd: Doran sounds like he is about 12. Is paedophilia encouraged in the future?
Adapting popular New Adventures is an interesting idea but wouldn’t have it made more sense to introduce a new series with original stories? Actually no, given the standard of the first series of original stories I am glad they introduced us to Bernice with some her finest stories. They have been adapted to both audio and television now which is a real endorsement of their quality (for the most part).
The theme tune plays again after the missile has struck. Am I missing something?
What is really odd was that I didn’t find that Oh No it Isn’t was a very successful opener to the NA books minus the Doctor. I felt it gave out the wrong message to the punters, that this series was always going to be this ridiculous. Yet I had the complete opposite feeling with the audios, it kick starts them with bags of confidence and feel good style, exactly the sort of thing we have signed up for with this series. Performed, this story really comes alive.
That Big Finish misquoted SFX on the back when the actual review stated they weren’t sure if this was a strong start to the range. SFX rather cruelly pointed this out in the next edition, but hey the series is still going strong ten years down the line so I guess it must have drawn some people in!

Standout Moment: The whole thing pretty much but for the sheer thrill of it the harmonising bluebirds still makes me die every time I hear it! ‘Oh you’re washing them up for me!’

Result: A delightful introduction to the world of Bernice Summerfield on audio. This is still one of my most listened to audios (along with The One Doctor, surprisingly…what do those two have in common?) because it cheers me up every time I listen to it. You have a fantastic cast who are clearly having the time of their lives with the witty, imaginative script and that enjoyment extends to the audience in waves. Paul Cornell has written a surprisingly thoughtful discourse on the nature of pantomime, looking at its conventions and (lack of) imaginative limitations whilst making us laugh until our sides hurt at the same time. Jac Rayner has cleverly taken all the best bits of the book and cut away all the flabby padding. The best fiction is clever, thoughtful and thoroughly entertaining and Oh No It Isn’t! scores on all three. At the heart of this play is Lisa Bowerman playing Bernice as we always imagined her to sound, funny and sweet, commanding and flawed, entertaining and easy on the ear. She has that Tom Baker ability of making any dialogue sound utterly convincing. Very few Doctor Who stories have given me as much pleasure as this one: 10/10

Reply to – Hanging around Balls!
Message Sent 2010 – sender Joe Ford
Recipient Bernice Summerfield – 2593
‘You make me crack up Benny! Pantoland! What next, a prison made out of seasons? It is really good to hear from you, I was getting a bit worried as I hadn’t heard from you in such a long time. Jason’s such a tosser, forget about him. You need people around you who will look after you. Thanks for popping by at the wedding…although next time can you please tell the Doctor to try and mingle a bit! Everyone wondered who this Scots dwarf was hanging around clacking spoons together! Thank God everybody was drunk when he sang ‘As Time Goes By!’ Simon’s fine, he asks if Desperate Housewives is still being made in 2593 – you know life extending drugs and Botox could hardly make Teri Hatcher look worse! Better go, fancy some coffee. Speak soon – and don’t leave it so long next time – your adventures really cheer me up!’

Buy it from Big Finish here:!!

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