Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Grel Escape written by Jacqueline Rayner and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about: Young children can be difficult. Tantrums, toy-throwing, not wanting to go to bed, whisking their mothers on dangerous journeys throughout all of time and space. Jason wants Benny's son Peter to have a normal childhood. Peter has other plans. And unfortunately, Peter also has Benny and Jason's Time Rings. And knows how to use them. Even more unfortunately, the fact-obsessed, tentacle-faced Grel have built a time machine, and they're after Peter. So Benny finds herself on the run, landing in frightening festivals and deadly deserts, facing ridiculously inaccurate robot doubles and hideously accented tourists, in what can only be described as a sort of chase

Archaeological Adventurer: Given all Jason went through for Benny and the rest of the children on the Collection in the Axis Occupation you would think that Bernice would cut him some slack. But no, she’s screaming and hollering at him more than ever! I always adore Lisa Bowerman in the role and she has managed to keep Bernice a riveting character for 11 (count them because there are more to come!) whole seasons but I feel that in this story Bernice comes down far too hard on Jason and Bowerman overplays it slightly. That’s the closest you will come to an insult about either from me! She’s an archaeologist so she should like dirt! Bernice very sweetly takes this road trip through time to teach Peter a few things about the Pharaohs. As the child of a Killoran and an ancient sorceress conceived and born via a temporally displaced human Peter is the only one of his kind – the Grel want to study him to quell their ignorance. Even though she says she wants to be with Jason he wonders if she actually likes him all that much, or if she likes anybody all that much. The Grel were going to tell Bernice something about Peter and his anomalous life but it all goes homicidal before they get the chance leaving her wondering what the future will bring.

Jason (bloody) Kane: There’s a beating heart at the centre of all the high jinks in this story and the scene where Jason calls Benny a bitch for the way she is treating him made me want to punch the air with delight. Somebody had to tell her how sanctimonious and self centred she was being, her behaviour towards him borders on domestic violence! Jason wants Peter to have some magic in his childhood, the sort that he didn’t have when he was growing up. He tells Joseph of the one time that he visited the seaside where he brought a lump of seaweed home and hung it over his bed and when his Dad finished his regular dish out of beatings he would smell the sea on it and remember being happy for one day. He doesn’t want Peter to grow up to be a loser like him. With very few words Jac Rayner reminds us of Jason’s tragic past and shows how much he has grown into the role of Peter’s father. When he comes face to face with two Benny’s he can’t decide if it is his best fantasy or worst nightmare come true! He cannot believe that any child of Bernice’s could ever grow up to hit his mother.

Slimy Sofia: She cannot verify if the she has a brain similar to a Terran originated cephalopod mollusc! What an awful thing to see your own son die in the future and have to go back to your time and bring him up knowing how and when he dies. Bernice does try to tentatively apologise for Peter’s actions and Sofia quietly admits that all this is her fault because she informed the Grel of Peter’s birth.

Standout Performance: I rarely mention Steve Wickham as Joseph and yet he constantly manages to make this very cute drone emote marvellously! Julia Houghton provides a memorable Sofia, making me giggle with her literal translations of the scenes that are playing out.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Up yours squid for brains!’
‘For the glory of the Grel I will infiltrate and steal. Infiltrate and steal!’
‘I drink lots! I have no breasts!’ – I think the Grel need to work on the list of defining characteristics for Benny that have gone down in posterity!

Great Ideas: As soon as Benny and Jason accidentally tune into a transmission of the Grel planning to time travel back and study Peter I picked up the references to The Chase straight away. The reason the festival was abandoned is because the ghost train was invaded by a colony of flesh eater Ephastras that the Grel figure out triumphantly as they head into the darkness to be consumed by them! I almost died with laughter when Bernice asked ‘what’s that coming out of the sand?’ in a horrifically unsubtle lampoon of the first cliffhanger of The Chase! I really like the Grel because there is a lot of comedy to be mined from their literal talking (‘astonished gasp!’) and empathic gesturing (‘astounded query?’)! Rayner adds in a mock up of the scene from the Daleks’ Masterplan, as the time travellers appear on a football pitch their appearance causes chaos narrated by the commentator! Oh no…there’s a scene on the Eiffel Tower, which stands in for the sequence on the Empire State Building. Well if you’re going to take the piss, don’t do it half-heartedly! The Grel that has been pursuing them turns out to be Sofia’s son Tim. Peter grows up before their eyes and turns into a vicious bully and he murders the Grel in a bloodbath.

Audio Landscape: There’s an opening that suggest we have tuned into Playschool, zapped into the time vortex by the Time Rings, the festival of Piranha sounds like a funfair that is slowly winding down, the door of the Great Pyramid grinding open, a jungle full of screaming, chirruping life, a growling beast, one of the Grel has a hilarious West Country accent, the bleeping Time Rings, the Grel Bernice android has a marvellous electronic warble to her voice, the Bennybot goes up like a mad confused firework, flies buzzing by, birdsong, the racing cars, multiple leaps in time and space.

Musical Cues: Picture me doing a very bad faux Egyptian belly dance as David Darlington introduces some terrific exotic music. He also has some fun with a harmonica and accordion as they land in Paris!

Isn’t it Odd: There are a couple of moments when the actors are shouting and the sound effects and music are drowned out – usually when Benny is screaming about the pursuing Grel.

Standout Scene: Any of a number of comedy moments that had me chuckling into my hands especially the Eiffel Tower sequence and the Bennybot!

Notes: This story automatically gets two things very right because it takes two of my all time favourite things and smooches them together – the Bernice Summerfield series and the crazy, everything but the kitchen sink, lets just make it up as we go along 1965 Dalek serial The Chase! Should these parodies be encouraged? If you are an anally retentive fan who cannot bear to see your favourite show ripped to pieces when it fails to deliver the goods, no. If you enjoy a good laugh, yes! I simply adore The Chase against all my better judgement, it is one of my most watched stories with non fans because despite the fact that it is shoddily directed there is a lot of warmth to the performances and it is bloody funny as well. I have had more than my fair share of nights blissed out on wine watching Daleks ‘come over in blue spots!’ and clear the decks of the Marie Celeste. It remains (along with Time and the Rani) one of my naughty guilty pleasures.

Result: Fantastic fun but bristling with hints for the future and emotional undercurrents too, The Grel Escape kick starts the fifth series of Bernice Summerfield audios with a confident waltz through some of Doctor Who’s dodgier moments. There are some people out there (I know one or two) who find the very idea of a spin off series pointing and laughing affectionately at Doctor Who the ultimate insult but fortunately they aren’t writing this review! Jac Rayner is one of the most devoted Doctor Who fans there are and as such this is a delightful pastiche of The Chase (with a dash of Daleks’ Masterplan thrown in for good measure) with some rib tickling moments of silliness. She’s also a massive devotee and supporter of the Bernice Summerfield range and includes some healthy development of Benny and Jason, a frightening possible future of Peter and the return of Sofia who helped Bernice through her trials in The Glass Prison. David Darlington does a fine job of conjuring up a shopping list of locations and his music skilfully adjusts with each leap. All in all, more magic from this series: 8/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:

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