Thursday, 12 September 2013

Fanfare for the Common Men written by Eddie Robson and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What’s it about: If you remember the Sixties, they say, then you can’t have been there. The Doctor remembers the Sixties. That’s why he’s taking Nyssa on a trip back to November 1963. Back to where it all began. Back to the birth of the biggest band in the history of British music. Back to see those cheeky lads from Liverpool... Mark, James and Korky. The Common Men. The boys who made the Sixties swing with songs like Oh, Won’t You Please Love Me?, Just Count To Three and Who Is That Man. The Doctor remembers the Sixties. And there’s something very wrong with the Sixties, if the Beatles no longer exist...

An English Gentleman: ‘I’m not the police but I do investigate things. Strange things…’  Probably the best characterisation of the fifth Doctor for some years, Eddie Robson taps into that energetic, amiable persona that dashed about having madcap adventures on screen and translates it perfectly onto audio. There’s something so gloriously exciting and simple about the Doctor and Nyssa travelling alone together (after the complications of Tegan and Turlough thrown into the mix so much of late) and him taking her to a concert in the 1960s. For the most placid and scientifically minded of Doctor/companion combinations, it is a lovely thing for them to take a bit of a walk on the wild side and just enjoy themselves for a change. He’s not planning on getting on a plane again anytime soon after what happened the last time. He’s a little nostalgic for his stay during the 1960s, always feeling as though he has come home when he lands in this period. The Doctor was always shepherding people into the TARDIS in his fifth incarnation and so whisking Rita away from her proper time and place feels perfectly genuine. He thinks there is no shame in not knowing what is going, he spends half his life in that state of mind. How great is the idea of the Doctor following the alien Common Men around over a period of time, turning up a various gigs and trying to get their attention. He’s an inveterate groupie. How wonderful to hear the Doctor talking so passionately about the Beatles. I always thought he would have excellent taste in music. He didn’t like the Common Men when Susan were obsessed about them, but then he was so much older then.

Alien Orphan: Nyssa is a little confused at the concept of standing in a rapturous crowd and screaming a bunch of entertainers. It is certainly not how they did it on Traken but she is willing to give it a go, after all she did join the TARDIS to experience something of other cultures. She’s got some gumption, grabbing the gunman and holding him down before he can do any damage but then Nyssa always could jump into action when the situation required it (The Keeper of Traken, Arc of Infinity). I love the idea of Nyssa shacking up with a bunch of international superstars, it is not really her thing and so the culture shock makes for great entertainment. The Common Men are perfect gentlemen and make Nyssa as comfortable as possible when she is cut off from the Doctor through time. Perhaps she just illicits chivalry in people. Nyssa talks very honestly about the fate of her people, stating a fact rather than getting caught up in the emotion of the memory. When you can travel to any time period, times start to feel like places and that is how Nyssa feels about her travels with the Doctor. Her home is with the Time Lord now, although she doesn’t get to answer the question of whether they are an item or not. I would been interested to have heard her response. Nyssa rather likes German because to her mind it is a rather logical language.

Standout Performance: Mitch Benn, Andrew Knott and David Dobson instantly stand out in their roles as the Common Men. It’s not easy to have to emulate the kind of charisma that the Beatles commanded and their down to Earth, understated portrayals capture that effortless sense of cool. It’s also lovely to hear some fresh accents in these plays, for too long now we have been experiencing BBC English and fake foreign drawls. Benn makes the biggest impression, playing the central role of Mark. Ryan Sampson’s gruff, excitable turn as Lenny Kruger is a delight too, a far cry from the nerdish genius Luke Rattigan in The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You and I are going on a magical mystery tour!’
‘Is the Queen Mother actually doing the twist up there?’
‘They called it Commonmania…’ and ‘It’s like we’re Gods…’
‘The problem with people that try to engineer history is that they don’t appreciate the wonder of sheer happenstance!’

Great Ideas: Such an unusual concept to kick start a Doctor Who story with – the Common Men have replaced the Beatles as the most popular band in November 1963 – it is joyous because it is so teasing and funky. A gunman who tried to assassinate the band escapes somewhere in time and takes Nyssa with him. At first the Doctor isn’t sure whether the shift in time is to take the Beatles out of their rightful place in history or to make sure that the Common Men get their big chance in the limelight. The music hypnotising Rita and turning her into an irrational fan hell bent on turning in anybody who criticizes the Common Men reminded me of the similar effect the music had on Ace on The Rapture, except the tone of this story is utterly assured this time around. In sharp contrast to the other release this month (I don’t want to write down the title in fear that I may come out in hives), the conundrums posed in Fanfare of the Common Men are easy to understand, genuinely captivating and encourage a story that is full of fun incident and a peppy atmosphere. They couldn’t be at further ends of the spectrum.  I enjoyed the discussion of the responsibility that celebrities have over their fans and the sort of respect that they hold, and how they could ask pretty much anything of them that they wanted no matter how outrageous. If a group of fans were caught in a violent enough frenzy there is no telling how far they could go if directed. Paravatar is a time traveller, a retired one who came to England to get away. Why replace the Beatles with the Common if you’re going to have them follow exactly the same timeline? If you’re not going to do it differently then why do it at all? Things get deliriously weird when it is revealed that the Common Men are hypnotised aliens from Bional in flesh suits, the kind that can grow old naturally and so if they were never told that they weren’t human they would never be any the wiser. Mark can draw energy from photographs, the images forming a web from moments in his life. The point all along was to make him famous so his fans witness countless images of him. The people on their planet don’t like people becoming popular because they feel that it gives a taste for domination, of power. They banned photographs and anything that records, denying them their true nature. They can travel in time and manipulate the vortex but they never even leave their planet. Instead Kruger wants to use the people of Earth to power his monsters, making them famous. Three linked and working together would have been unstoppable, and Kruger wanted to control that power. Lenny thinks he can slot anybody into the same place in history as the Beatles and get the same result but it isn’t as simple as that – it was a perfect combination of talent and personality that came together at the right moment in time to create something truly marvellous. I love the way this plays out as it always should have – Lenny was always supposed to bring the Common Men to Earth (mentioned in An Unearthly Child) and he was always meant to caught by his own people.

Audio Landscape: A screaming, adoring crowd of fans, a gun firing, an air raid, humming mantra, a ship on the river, running water, ships rumbling into the atmosphere and firing.

Musical Cues: Howard Carter provides a memorable score that is nostalgic for the pop music of the time and smoothly whisks you back to the star studded sixties. Like Jim Mortimore managed with his unforgettable nightclub inspired score for The Rapture, Carter manages to conjure up the style whilst also providing plenty of atmosphere for the story that is being told. It is a massive departure from the cinematic soundtracks that have become the norm in the range and is all the better for it. The songs are fantastic too; I was grooving away, fingers dancing across the keyboard. They give the story a really phenomenal kick start in episode one and Carter deserves a huge round of applause for producing music that sounds as though it has stepped straight out of the sixties. If the Common Men really were producing tunes this good, perhaps they would have been as big as the Beatles. There is also an undercurrent of psychedelia that runs through the story whenever the Guru is mention, suggesting his hypnotic powers. Carter also contributed the music for the sixties based fifth season of Jago & Litefoot  and that was similarly pleasurable and authentic. Let’s get him assigned to Countermeasures next so he can add a little pop energy to that series. The cover of Sounds from the Inferno that Carter pipes in at the climax instantly made me want to go back and watch An Unearthly Child and start this amazing adventure all over again. If you like Carter’s work as much as I do, check out his Dark Light album, it’s fantastic -

Standout Scene: It has to be the songs, but Sadie’s world crumbling around her as the Common Men are pulled from history is very affecting.

Result: Brilliant songs! Brilliant story! Fanfare of the Common Men is a delight to listen to and a massive departure from the usual dreary plod I have come to expect of the main range of late. There were probably a wealth of in-jokes that went right over my head because although I was exposed to a delightful amount of music from the sixties growing up thanks to my ma, she was never a massive fan of the Beatles. What I took away from this adventures was a sense of affection and nostalgia for the period, an energetically paced story with plenty of sunshine and feeling and a strong role for both the Doctor and Nyssa in a story that characterises them both beautifully. Eddie Robson has delivered a polished script with crystal clear narrative that poses an intriguing mystery that is cleverly thought through and I am starting to wonder if there is nothing that Barnaby Edwards cannot turn into gold. He’s by far the most consistently exceptional Big Finish director (if you go back almost a decade he was touching up the work on stories such as The Chimes of Midnight and Dr Who & the Pirates and he is still delivering work of that standard) and he knows precisely what he is doing with this reflective yet groovesome adventure. Perhaps those power hungry dictators should take a leaf out of the book of the Beatles and figure out a more agreeable way to hypnotise a nation. The nature of fandom and the power that stars have over them is woven into the story and discussed, just enough to give this stylishly realised tale some substance (‘All you need is love?’). The greatest contributor to this tale though (aside from the phenomenal guest cast who all deliver pitch perfect performances) is Howard Carter whose music design and songs go a long way to whipping the listener back to the sixties and the height of Commonmania. He’s always complimented any story that he has worked on with his music but he really has surpassed himself with Fanfare. I started listening to this at 11.00 in the evening and planned to review and hours worth and then the concluding hour in the morning. I found this all so delightful I whipped through the whole thing in record time, sleep be damned. I can only hope that the other 60s adventures can live up to Robson’s poptastic classic: 10/10


Unknown said...

I agree 100%. I had very high expectations going in for this release, and they were surpassed. Great review!

David Pirtle said...

This was even better for coming in on the heels of such a dreary trilogy. I really enjoyed it. Great review.