Saturday, 2 April 2011

The Year of the Pig written by Matthew Sweet and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about: Ostend, 1913. War is coming. A war in which millions will die. And the guest in suite 139 of the Hotel Palace Thermae knows it. Which is odd, considering he has trotters, a snout and a lovely curly tail. Toby the Sapient Pig is a swine on the run. Two peculiar strangers have been hunting him across Europe. The first, Miss Alice Bultitude, is an Englishwoman and collector of obscure theatrical ephemera. The second, Inspector Alphonse Chardalot, is a celebrated member of the detective police - the man who brought the trunk murderess of St Germain to justice. This was supposed to be a reading week for the Doctor and Peri. Now they must do battle with a villain who wants to wipe every last human from the face of the earth - once he's had just another dish of truffles. And maybe a valedictory glass of fizzy lemonade.

Softer Six: Its interesting that the two stories that feature scripts with such a gargantuan amounts of complicated language (this and …ish) also feature both the sixth Doctor (who is perfectly suited to this sort of verbose verisimilitude) and Peri (who isn’t but actually fits into the style quite snugly). There’s a lovely relaxed chemistry between the Doctor and Peri, which is a joy to listen to, their battle dictionary definitions and laugh gently at each other. As Nurse Albertine looks through her telescope she sees a man on the beach in a deckchair with a pile of books but he’s hardly dressed for the beach – spats, the colour of a poison bottle, yellow trousers striped and eating a piece of battenburg that matches the colour of his waistcoat! His first incarnation was more of the Francophile but after that his last three incarnations have hardly been great bibliomaniacs – the third being more interested in axel grease and looking in the mirror. His previous incarnation preferred cricket and fizzy lemonade to reading unless it was a Boys Own yarn! He feels lucky to have finally found himself with a persona with sufficient sensitivity to appreciate Proust and the patience to understand that it takes a holiday to read him. Not so dozy after all! His nom de garre is not familiar because he works a little further afield (Varos, you know). The Doctor’s new nickname is ‘Battenburg’ which suits him rather well, I think. The Doctor rushes to the aid of a drowning man, puffing away as he cuts through the ocean like a big blond cormorant! The Doctor almost has an apoplectic fit when he spots Marcel Proust having dinner in the same dining room and accosts him (‘Oi! Marcel! I’ve got a bone to pick with you!’). How embarrassing that he grabbed him by the shoulders and breathed port fumes up his nose! The Doctor doesn’t do retiring, even when he tries to take time out something always happens. He used to be a younger, happier man but then he changed. He and Peri enjoy making life difficult for tyrants, bullies, ne’er do wells and anthropomorphic slugs. Nurse Albertine recognises the Doctor because he crashes through an awning and she’s told that is exactly the sort of thing he does! You’ve got to love how the Doctor pre-empts his inelegant act with a fire extinguisher. The Doctor’s French maid impression leaves quite a bit to be desired. Trust the porky sixth Doctor to be diverted by the sight of Tunnock’s teacakes during a fraught moment!

Busty Babe: Peri read Proust in her gap year, proof if it was needed that not only Time Lords could appreciate its subtleties. She wants to send a postcard to Herbert Wells. She once spent an afternoon being turned into a Parakeet! Peri scoffs at the idea of her and the Doctor being married and says that they are friends – sometimes. She’s’ been with him for a couple of years, she thinks but she has lost track. She never finished her course in botany. She’s not waving her panties in the air for anyone!

Standout Performance: What an extraordinary cast featuring a wealth of Doctor Who actors, old and new. You’ve former Doctor Who companion Vicki, Maureen O’Brien who dashes it up and what-ho’s away as the peck-at-your-sanity Miss Alice Bultitude. Then there’s Martha Jones’ mother Francine in the irreplaceable form of Adjoa Andoh who I have seen in a variety of equally strong roles and gets her lips around some gorgeous dialogue here as Nurse Albertine. Michael Keating will be more familiar to Blakes’ 7 fans as the coward with a heart Vila but he also turned up in the Robert Holmes classic The Sun Makers and played a part in the slightly less successful The Twilight Kingdom for Big Finish. His turn as the identity morphing Chardalot with the spectacular vernacular was a right hoot!

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You have just saved the life of Inspector Alphonse Chardalot, the cutpurses and the pash of Paris will be obliged to celebrate some other day!’
‘I do adore the flickers!’
‘Our Inspector is as fishy as a Grimsby herring lugger! Fishier!’
‘Do we keep them prisoner or eat the evidence?’
‘What a marvellous telescope! The people down there all look like ants!’ ‘You’re pointing at the balustrade, Miss Bultitude. They are ants…’
‘How extraordinary! The beach is covered in raw steak. Some of it still moving.’
‘Have you ever wondered how a ham feels just before the gong goes for Sunday lunch?’ ‘To die! To eat! To eat! Perchance to lunch!’
‘Touch my chocolate biscuits and I’ll fillet you!’ – who hasn’t been there?
‘There’s a cow on the track!’
‘He’ll eat anything…it doesn’t even touch the sides on the way down!’ – my mum says something similar about me!
‘What were his parents like? Were they pigs?’ ‘They looked like him, yes. He always says that in Essex that doesn’t matter so much!’
‘Whoops…I’m still leaking.’

Great Ideas: I was howling with laughter as the Doctor prostrates before a stuffed rhesus macaque suggesting it could be an alien ambassador silenced by their bad manners (‘Welcome to the planet Earth, your Excellency!’). They’re all here on this side of the channel, plausible bigamists, the more successful sort of poisoner, unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort! Toby the Sapient Pig, the celebrated stage performer! Toby on what he can see in the future: ‘I see death, I see blood, razors, barbed wire, cruelty, torture, rats, poison gas, boys dead in the mud with photographs of their mothers and sweethearts stowed next to their silenced hearts, I se the blasted earth, I see the carcases of horses half submerged in the slimy feculence, I see women weeping over fields of whitewashed graves, I see war. War and revolution!’ Chardalot is on the trial of an extraordinarily dangerous individual, pursuing him for 20 years, he’s devious and vicious and the master criminal of our time. Toby’s mother was fine 700 pound fancy Devonshire and his father was portly Essex half-black. The heavens open and it starts raining cows! Chardalot turns out to be Toby’s father! Toby is an alien from the planet Gamantus. Chardalot has left a number of not too elaborate traps for the Doctor; giving their names to the gendarme so they will be brought to police if they follow them to the train station, a fun sized volatiser balanced on Albertine’s door, a few razor blades slipped into the apples on the Doctor’s fruit bowl and a time bomb clamped to the petrol tank of Toby’s car, primed to explode when the engine reaches a certain temperature. When it explodes the impact will be felt in time and space, you will be blown into the middle of next week! The explosion in the field threw the cows scattered thirty miles back towards the Channel and four hours back in time – the twitching beef they saw land on the beach! There were many failures but Charlie and Toby took. Chardalot was a time traveller and died years ago and the Inspector took his identity. The TARDIS: ‘a multi dimensional travel capsule for surfing the loops of the time spiral!’ Toby and Charlie have pieced together the evidence and they’ve got it all wrong, truffled through the personal effects of the man who made them and playacting with them ever since. Their creator came here from another world and did something extraordinary; he brought two boys into the world.

Audio Landscape: The sea rolling and folding in the distance, seagulls screaming in the air, the Doctor snoring in his deck chair, the dining room experience, cows mooing as they fall from the sky, steam filling the room, a bleeping bookmark, the grinding engine of a motor car, whistling steam train, clackety clack on the tracks, the car goes up with some force, birdsong, heart monitor.

Musical Cues: Andy Hardwick always provides memorable music and this tinkly piano, madness about the town score gives this (at times) painfully slow story some real bounce!

Standout Scene: I loved the explanation for the cows raining over the beach! The finale that sees two brothers finding themselves once again is beautifully poignant. Notes: The Trial of a Time Lord theme is in place, probably to suggest the more amiable relationship between the Doctor and Peri. Lets set this just before The Mysterious Planet. Ooh Toby and his nurse consider Eastbourne or Brighton as next possible destinations – I love it when my hometown gets some recognition!

Result: Not the best story to listen to whilst you are trying to diet! I have never been gormandised with such a nectarous display of culinary exquisiteness! Immaculately performed and sumptuously written, The Year of the Pig will appeal greatly to consumers of the English language as you get to gorge yourself on the loquaciousness of this piece. For those of you who enjoy a brisk narrative and lots of action will be left feeling extremely short changed. I’m trapped somewhere in the middle, I couldn’t help but enjoy the verbal luxuriousness of the piece and the quality of the incredible guest cast but at a whopping 145 minutes I couldn’t help but wonder every now and again when the story would get moving. As a Doctor Who story shaped into a comedy of manners Matthew Sweet’s unforgettable debut perfects the genre and there are many amusing moments of nonsense. An impressive piece of erudite theatre and an intriguingly experimental piece that ends on an optimistic note Gary Russell’s turn as producer of Big Finish: 8/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @

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