Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Ghost Town written by Rupert Laight and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about: Sarah and Josh set off for a well-deserved break in a remote Romanian village, hidden deep in the Carpathian Mountains. They're staying with Sarah's old friend, Yolande Benstead, a retired journalist and ex-pat who lives in an eerie mansion with no one but her mysterious manservant for company. By chance Sarah has arrived at an appropriate time - the village has become the setting for a top-secret International Peace Conference. Sarah is awoken in the night by a terrifying apparition. Is it a ghost or just a figment of her imagination? What is that unbearable noise? And will the others believe her story? But Miss Smith is not the only one who's had a fright. Conference delegates are being terrified too. Literally scared to death. Is there something curious about the old house or something deadly about the whole village? It's down to Sarah and Josh to piece together the mystery that surrounds this Ghost Town.

Until Next Time…Miss Smith: Elisabeth Sladen and Jeremy James have a very relaxed, natural chemistry that makes this Nat-less adventure roll by much more comfortably. Visiting Yolande has been high on her priorities for a while now, she has always been something an inspiration to her. Cutting edge, anarchic and slightly eccentric back in the mid sixties, no newspaper, television or radio station would employ her – a bit like Sarah these days! She’s taken on Claudia Foster’s flat since her unfortunate death and is giving Nat a wide berth after her terrifying experiences. She rather likes the idea of spending the night in a creepy old house full of character, she can probably sense all the mysterious nooks and crannies to explore (just like she did in the SJA adventure The Eternity Trap). She absolutely doesn’t believe in ghosts, a remnant of her time with the Doctor. Sarah thinks anybody is clever if they can successfully further the cause of international peace. Something that Lis Sladen put in her portrayal of Sarah on audio and in her own show was a certain unexpected frostiness that could emerge at any time. It keeps her from being a predictable character and sometimes makes her teeter on the edge of being unlikable which keeps you on your toes. The reason she was asked for a holiday was because of the strange goings on – Yolande knew that Sarah wouldn’t be able to resist the mystery and she doesn’t want to get involved herself in fear of upsetting the locales, her neighbours. She feels that a really good journalist is someone who can make the right connections and she has never been short in that area of expertise. She has an annoying habit of getting mixed up with the wrong types.

Jubilant Josh: He’s a terrible flyer and always tries to get the boat whenever possible. The thing Josh is looking forward to most is the cheap Romanian beer! He’s so mocking of the possibility of the spirits of the dead rising you almost want something horrific to happen to him to frighten some sense into him.

Standout Performance: Robert Jezek is so recognisable as Frobisher to me that I cannot distance him from the character when he tries his hand at something else with Big Finish. It just reminds me of how much I would love to hear the big talking bird back in action.

Great Ideas: There are some pleasing references to K.9 and Company, how Sarah has sold Morton Harwood since the death of Aunt Lavinia. If you did want to tie up this series and the Sarah Jane Adventures then that is that little mystery sown up and explains why she moved on to Bannermen Road. Brendan doesn’t know about the sale, he’s busy over at Silicon Valley at the moment. It’s that the series can take flight and move away from London and Romania is not a plough that has ever been furrowed by Doctor Who or any of it’s spin offs so it makes for quite a refreshing locale. Dr Bobarova found a scientific explanation for the phenomenon of the supernatural (blimey – he would be worth millions!), extreme low magnetic fields create the sound, sight and sensation of being haunted. Abbortly offered him the opportunity to develop his ideas, to create a wave that was powerful enough to kill, to literally scare people to death. International peace is extremely low on the agenda – Abbortly is a stooge for a much bigger organisation that is very aware of Sarah and her investigations.

Audio Landscape: A good ghost story on audio needs the help of some sinister sound effects and between them Gary Russell and David Darlington conjure up a landscape of creepy noises to ensure that this isn’t a story that you want to listen to in the dark. Rain and thunder, footsteps, banging, a plane coming in to land, eating plane food (bleaugh), biting winds, squeaky doors, ticking clock, chiming, a screaming spectre, birdsong, crows screaming, garden shears, ice tinkling in a glass, washing up, café ambiance, crackling flames.

Musical Cues: David Darlington was a regular at Big Finish at the time this first series of Sarah Jane Smith audios were released and at the top of his game. He abandons his usual trendy guitar theme for something much more subtle and menacing in Ghost Town. He plucks the electric guitar during the freakier moments to make it sound as though the soundtrack itself is shivering at the events taking place.

Isn’t it Odd: There is something charming about the way that Brian Miller plays Abbortly that instantly points to him being the mastermind behind all these ghostly goings on. It’s not necessarily a problem per se as half the fun of a horror story is being able to guess who the culprit is but this is so screamingly obvious it’s not even worth casting the net any wider. When Sarah speaks to all the other characters in the play and then heads of for dinner with Abbortly it is obvious that she is taking advantage of the date to make her big reveal.

Standout Scene: It’s not often you get to hear husband and wife tackling each other in such a vicious fashion but that is exactly what happens at the end of this tale as Abbortly attempts to polish Sarah off. They are so clearly enjoying their time working together and the thought that that will never happen again brings a lump to my throat.

Result: ‘We’ve been the victim of a murderous joke!’ Written by a future Sarah Jane Adventures contributor and directed by its future script editor, Ghost Town should give you a pretty good indication of what to expect had the series been aimed at a more mature audience. Given that Laight was responsible for one of the best (Lost in Time) and another very decent entry (The Gift) it really isn’t representative of his later work at all. This story is pretty thin as it goes but it is propped up by a rare transatlantic visit to another country and some fine atmospherics to ensure there are some disquieting moments. Really good horror requires the creators to do something revolutionary with the genre or to offer a new spin on old ideas and Ghost Town does neither of these. It is a perfectly sweet ghost story (that turns out to be nothing of the sort) with enough momentum to keep me amused for an hour but not offering anything especially groundbreaking in any respect. If the entire range had been this risk-free I would have despaired but it makes for quite an entertaining one off and a chance to touch on a fresh, more old fashioned kind of story. The villain is obvious from his first appearance and at first I thought I was being lead down the garden path because he was too obvious but no, he really was a transparent as he appeared. Harmless, enjoyable and easy to predict: 5/10

Sarah Jane


Audrey the Leviathan Vampire Girl said...

What a pleasant surprise. Only the other day did I re-listen to 'Test of Nerve'. Will you be covering series 2 any time soon? I can unashamedly declare it to be one of my all time favourite things to have come out of Big Finish Towers.

Joe Ford said...

Definitely, I remember really enjoying series two so I can't wait to explore it again. Test of Nerve is one of my all time favourite Big Finish's.

Anonymous said...

I was very happy to see review about a Sarah Jane's audio. Hope that there will be more of them soon. Also it would be so nice if you could cover her audio-novels too! Just recently listened Sarah Kingdom's audio-trilogy with a creepy house and its secrets, BF knows so well how to make such ghost stories alive with very atmospheric use of music and sounds. Extra experience if you listen them at late evening in the dark. :D

Joe Ford said...

That is so odd - I just started listening to Home Truths, the first Sara Kingdom companion chronicle, this morning! It really is fantastic. I still think it is one of the most disquieting stories they have ever produced. I'm going to review through to the end of SJS audios now, and I'm particularly looking forward to David Bishop's second series.

Anonymous said...

And I have listened Sarah Kingdom's trilogy yesterday, I just couldn't stop and wanted to hear everything about it. It is a rare example of a story where the framing narrative is as much as interesting and captivating as the main one, or even better than it. For me Doctor and Steven are a bit of focus in these audios, but that's is absolutely acceptable, because older ghostly Sarah and Robert are so dramatic and psychologically deep characters!
Funny part is that recently I re-watched "The Chase" episode about ghost house too.