Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Death in Blackpool written by Alan Barnes and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What’s it about: Lucie Miller always loved Christmas back home in Blackpool. Her Mam running a still-frozen turkey under the hot tap at ten. Great-Grandma Miller half-cut on cooking sherry by eleven. Her Dad and her uncle arguing hammer and tongs about who was the best James Bond all through dinner. And in the afternoon, Aunty Pat, haring up to the house on the back of a moped weighed down with ridiculous presents. Christmas 2009 didn't turn out like that. Christmas 2009 was when the Doctor turned up…

Breathless Romantic: The Doctor sounds quite up for a Christmas at the Miller’s until Aunty Pat turns up and then his whole demeanour changes. It’s all awkward exchanges and dark whispers behind Lucie’s back and you begin to wonder if they did make the right choice lying to her about Pat’s death and protecting her feelings. One he rode a magic carpet on the Khyber Pass. The Doctor and Hagoth made the choice to deceive Lucie but he has not borne the weight of the responsibility like Hagoth has, carrying the weight of Lucie’s love all these years. It’s heartbreaking how devastated the Doctor is at Lucie’s accident and refuses to leave her in the hands of well meaning primitives. Pat screams he might miss the chance to say goodbye to her and the Doctor snarls that he will break the rules of time to get back in time. The Doctor helping Pat to die is quietly very touching. He tries to convince Lucie that he is fallible like everybody else and it’s a good lesson that putting the Doctor on a pedestal can be a shattering experience.

Luscious Lucie: Its beyond cruel that Alan Barnes should write for Lucie so gorgeously in the story that she leaves the Doctor, this is her character at her absolute best; funny, sweet, charming and confident. ‘Oh chuff!’ Lucie throws herself into the arms of her Aunty Pat with excited abandon. ‘Oi! We need tea and something hot! – I love Lucie’s bolshie rudeness; because of Sheridan Smith’s endearing performance she is very funny even when she is pushy and insulting! No presents from Santa for Lucie Miller this year. It’s Lucie who wants to talk to drunken, depressed Santa and help him to a shelter in Blackpool. I fell about laughing when Lucie discovers in all horror that Aunty Pat has a James Blunt CD in her car: ‘Aunty Pat what happened?’ Every Christmas Eve since she was small Lucie has put out toast crumbs on the path as reindeer food – come that is adorable! ‘Leg it!’ she cries when she realises that they are a whole year early and she is coming to the door to answer herself. For a while you genuinely believe that Lucie might be dead and Smith plays the panic of discovering that nobody can hear her with real poignancy. If Pat Ryder had had lived do you imagine she would have given a damn about anything that came out of cheap and cheerful Blackpool, if she would have found anything diverting in common as muck Lucie Miller? It’s a heartbreaking revelation for Lucie that every wonderful moment she shared with her favourite relation was a love invented by Pat and the Doctor. What’s wrong with hurting, Lucie tells her faux Aunt, that’s what makes us real, that’s what makes us alive. It’s a magnificent scene that sees Lucie furious with her but then suddenly desperate to hold onto her as Pat gives her life to save Lucie and she fades away. She can’t forgive the Doctor for lying to her – everything has changed between them and she can’t trust him anymore. She is going to hitchhike around Europe until she reaches the point in which she left that Doctor and go home.

Standout Performance: It’s a wonderful cast that have excellent chemistry; Jon Glover provides a hilarious drunken Santa Claus, David Schofield creeps through Lucie’s dreams to convince her to commit suicide in a very forceful performance and Helen Lederer deserves to be a regular for all the emotion she brings to the role of Aunty Pat. But this story showcases Sheridan Smith above everybody else. We get wrapped up in her excitement of a normal family Christmas and watch in horror as her whole life gets unravelled and the two people she trusts more than anybody in the world turn out to have betrayed her. Smith is enchantingly good and will break your heart in the last scene.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I want nephews and nieces crying because they’ve opened everything by half past nine and they still want more. I want mum still running the frozen turkey under the hot tap at half past ten. I want me great Gran half cut on cooking sherry by half eleven. I want me Uncle and me Dad going hammer on tongs over who was the best James Bond all through dinner! And I want the neighbours joining in because the walls are so damn thin and they are as drunk and as bored as we are! In the afternoon I want my Aunty Pat haring up to the house in her tiny moped with some greasy unsuitable riding pillion bringing us a crate of cheap Checz beer like battery acid to render us slowly insensible whilst Del Boy gets repeated for the umpteenth time! And all the while I want the central heating up too high so everyone’s got a blinding headache by four and when we finally head out for a breath of fresh air just as its getting dark the air is so sharp its like being born again!’ – Christmas at the Miller’s sounds positively enchanting.
‘He’s making a list! He’s checking it twice!’
‘You can teach a gnome to build a wooden train…but a games console!’
‘Its chrissssssstmaaaaas!’
‘But you travel in time and space! You’ve got two hearts, you live in a magic box that’s bigger on the inside and you know all about…stuff. You’re the Doctor! And it was great, I mean really bleedin’ great and well that’s how I want to remember it. That’s how I want to remember you.’

Great Ideas: The opening scene is intriguing, a character building exercise that turns into attack of the alien hitchhiker! As soon as Aunty Pat is introduced after the events in The Zygon Who Fell to Earth you just know this can’t end well. A reindeer heist – Santa has had them stolen and has come to looking for a light bite and a low alcohol lager in a service station because nobody leaves him a mince pie and a glass milk anymore. Santa has been crippled by the gnome workers union and he’s decided to splatter himself all over the carriageway and end it all. Why is warlord Hagoth ageing in the body of Aunty Pat, once the body print has taken hold it shouldn’t change?
When a Zygon stays in a body too long it suffers without the Skarasen. Lucie was cheated out of mourning her Aunty once and they wont do it to her again. Ugh – there is a very funny phone call at the hospital by someone who has got something stuck in the turkey whilst trying to stuff it! A Zynog is a Zygon whose original form has been destroyed as punishment for breaking the oldest of laws, using the body print of another Zygon. Billy needs another body and needs to existing hosts to vacate the premises so to speak and has been preying on the depressed and the suicidal and now he has his sights set on Lucie Miller.

[Now for the maudlin part and this is a very personal experience but I want to share this with you because it is a good example of how a show like Doctor Who can mean so much to its fans. Death in Blackpool means far more to me than many other Doctor Who stories. When my Dad went to prison when I was very young I can remember that the Trial of a Time Lord box set came out on the same week and whilst my mum was crying and my sister attempted suicide I immersed myself in this fourteen part epic, I must have watched it four or five times and it took me away from the heartbreak that was going on around me. As such it is a story that means a great deal to me and Death in Blackpool helped me in a similar but very different way. Last year I suffered a breakdown – not something that everybody would care to admit and certainly not something I could admit at the time. I had all those feelings bottled up tight inside and was suffering with panic attacks, paranoia and all sorts of horrid emotions that were making day-to-day life impossible. Going to work was frightening and coming home was a chore. I couldn’t tell anybody, not even my husband. One morning on the way to work I decided to listen to Death in Blackpool for the first time to try and calm me down on the way to work. I loved it but I was still all churned up inside. As I listened to the last scene something snapped inside me, I adore Lucie as a character and her tears released a flood of emotion in me. I cried and I cried and I cried and couldn’t stop. Simon stopped the car and tried to calm me down but couldn’t. I told him what I had been keeping from him for over two months, everything that I had been going through. It was that day that I started to feel better – that I got help from my Doctor and my friends and family. I sometimes wonder if I hadn’t stuck this story on that day if I would ever had finally let it all out. So thank you Alan Barnes – you allowed me to find some strength in myself that day to tell the world I was hurting. Beyond its superb production, performances, writing, etc, that’s why I love Death in Blackpool so much.]

Audio Landscape: Indicators, passing traffic, sibilant Zygon voices, the frothy coffee machine, rusty gate, police sirens, Lucie is knocked down by a car, heart monitor, intercom, phone ringing, bustle in the hospital, the beach scenes at the end.

Musical Cues: The story starts off with the jingle bells ringing and a jolly Christmassy feel but gets more dramatic as the story progresses. The score when Lucie confronts her fake Aunty Pat is heartbreaking. In the Bleak Mid Winter in the final scene is one of my favourite ever pieces of music in a Doctor Who story and always makes tears roll down my cheeks.

Standout Scene: You’ll be screaming ‘Don’t listen! Don’t listen!’ as Billy allows Lucie to hear the Doctor and Pat discussing their manipulation of her childhood. Lucie’s tears as she tells the Doctor she is leaving will wound anybody who adores the relationship between them.

Notes: This was originally supposed to be a one off special but was placed as the first story of season four for subscription purposes.

Result: An unusually melancholic Christmas episode that despite the tragic events still manages to capture the magic of the normality of a family Christmas. This is character drama of the highest order with the eighth Doctor series returning to the dramatic events of an earlier story and letting its consequences spiral out of control and devastate the relationship between the Doctor and Lucie. Christmas is not always mince pies and laughter and Death in Blackpool taps into the darker side of the season that really appealed to me, its far more thoughtful than the usual twee muck. The last scene is a Big Finish highlight, proof that these audio adventures have taken on a life of their own because I always burst into tears when the Doctor and Lucie are torn apart. A story that means a lot to me in many, many ways: 10/10
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