Friday, 20 September 2013

The Confessions of Dorian Gray Season Two

The Picture of Loretta Delphine written by Gary Russell and directed by Scott Handcock
What’s it about: Florida, 2012. Summoned by the daughter of an old friend, Dorian finds himself confronted by the actions of his past… and a familiar picture that holds a dreadful secret. But can he stop history from repeating itself, or is it already far too late?

The Painted Man: He doesn’t like America very much these days, having lost its sense of adventure and novelty. Familiarity breeds contempt. Dorian offers his contempt for the fast track communications of the day, preferring an old-fashioned pen and ink letter over the technological wizardry of today. He doesn’t like having his image captured. Dorian gets asked the sort of question that every man dreads to hear – ‘Are you my father?’ I can feel the cold sweat of a million men over the years that have had that one sprung upon them. He finds tobacco smoke a vile smell (good man) and that it seeps into your clothes for days (are you reading this, ma?). Dorian realises that he associates the smell of lemongrass with an old friend, something that he had been unaware of before walking into her fairytale bedroom. Your sense of smell is an astonishingly potent sense for generating memories, I have vividly brought to mind old friends and lovers when certain aromas have hit me. He has some experience with imagery and the supernatural. Loretta claims that Dorian cannot cope with the stresses of eternity, that he is already bored and seen all there is to see and done all the things to do.He has a sense of loss and longing, where a soul should be.

Standout Performance: Vlahos has such a wonderful voice for audio. He almost purrs. I could listen to him all day long. Listen to the expert way Katharine Mangold adjusts her performance as her character undergoes a transformation.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘America has replaced enthusiasm and optimism with cynicism and self righteous arrogance.’
‘Even perfection can be corrupted.’
Great Ideas: I don’t want to explode like a firework of enthusiasm but I fell a little bit in love with the first series of Dorian Gray. I went in completely blind (actually that’s a lie, I had heard the backdoor pilot episode in the Bernice series) and didn’t even read the synopsis so I could experience the range ‘live’ so to speak. There was loads to enjoy; a riveting central character, a format that afforded as diverse amount of locations as Doctor Who, some excellent writing talent, strong production values and a really adult feel (as in sophisticated rather than perverse) to the storytelling that pushed it far away from Big Finish’s most recognised oeuvre. I think I might have fallen a little bit in love with Alexander Vlahos as well, playing Dorian with such charm and seduction and I couldn’t help but notice what a handsome chap he was from the cover art. Bizarrely as I typed that sentence, Alex tweeted me with the advice ‘tuck in, devour, enjoy…’ which has kind of made my day. Let’s just say the second series had an awful lot to live up to.

The Hotel Delphine has a history, a cursed legacy. One day the police entered the hotel and discovered that twenty of the top bosses, people allegedly magicked away were trapped in a secret dungeon, dead or tortured. Like all landmarks that have a grisly historical tale, they attract tourists from far and wide that have a taste of the macabre (Simon and I loved the graveyard tour of Edinburgh where we learnt all about the sinister activities of Burke and Hare). You’d have to have deeply rooted feelings about the property that you grew up in to douse it in kerosene and light a match. You’d also have to have doubts to not go through with it. A charnel house with the vivid coppery smell of blood assaulted the senses – Russell paints a vivid picture of crimes recently committed. For a series to develop it needs to be open to new possibilities and the reveal of the photograph is a real jaw dropper. Dorian has the ability trap his enemies inside images, but they can find ways to escape. Dorian helped to trap Loretta Delphine in her photograph. 20 years ago Grant and Gray battled against a swarm of living corpses, zombies summoned into being by the spirit of Loretta Delphine. That’s the clever thing about this series, Dorian has lived such a long life that events from the distant past can return to haunt him in the future. Could you murder your neighbours and friends if they had been killed and resurrected into an undead army? It is the same nightmare that faces the characters on The Walking Dead each week. Delphine split herself between two hosts, the photo and her mother and that was how she was able to escape. A skilfully placed clue leads to Dorian’s explosive solution to the Loretta problem, with a little help from the real Kayla. 

Audio Landscape: Insects in the scrub, lighting a cigarette, squeaking floor boards, crackling flames. 

Musical Cues: James Dunlop provides an appropriately moody score, and one that doesn’t overwhelm the action. The strings that work their way down your back once Loretta has revealed herself are chilling and the climax is suitably stirring. As ever, this series commands the finest of Big Finish’s talent.

Isn’t it Odd: We’re approaching Sapphire and Steel territory with the idea of a malevolent presence that can hop from one photo to another but considering it was such a fine idea in the first place, who’s complaining?

Standout Scene: The identity of Loretta shouldn’t be a surprise given that the story has a cast of two, and yet the moment manages to sneak up on you anyway.

Result: Welcome back, Dorian Gray! If anybody has taken a wander around the blog they cannot fail to notice that I have never been particularly enamoured with Gary Russell’s scribblings (his direction on the other hand is often exceptional, but I digress). Except his entry in the first season of Dorian Gray, which jettisoned all the pomp, overblown concepts and melodramatic dialogue and settled for a far more contained and intimate drama, highlighting a embittered sibling rivalry that quite took my breath away in its raw emotion. If that was what Russell was capable of all along then he has been wasted on Doctor Who. He’s struck gold again in The Picture of Loretta Delphine, perhaps not quite as strong as his debut but it is another terrific piece of writing that draws upon human experience to tell a heartfelt, nostalgia driven tale. I’ve read some criticisms of late that Big Finish has moved towards sound and fury (especially in the main range) and has forgotten how to exploit the strengths of the medium (its not an argument I agree with fully but there are elements of truth in it) but that is not a criticism you could make of this series which mixes both narration and live action to really plant you into a world of evocative world of words. This is an economically told tale with plenty of detail and background, lovely twists and a sense of poetry. It’s great to have this series back: 9/10

The Lord of Misrule written by Scott Barnard and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: England, 1964. Dorian Gray and the Hedonists are touring the country when they come up against a band of Rockers – The Gravediggers – led by the mysterious Otto. But what is the secret behind the rockers’ experimental sound? And will the violence spreading across the country ever stop?

The Painted Man: At one point in his life Dorian was a member of a popular sixties pop band and hand the audience eating out of his hands. It is one of his more enjoyable periods, a time when he genuinely seemed to be enjoying life. Dorian Gray and the Hedonists had their moment in the spotlight, never to be forgotten. He doesn’t mind affiliating with his fans, especially when that means squeezing two girls into his dressing room (the size of a toilet) and fucking them senseless. Sometimes you need to know when to get off the stage…and that is what he did.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You’re a parasite. A leech’ ‘No…a pop star.

Great Ideas: For a moment I thought I had wandered into an episode of Game of Thrones as within minutes I’m listening to the audio equivalent of a threesome and then lesbian sex. Whilst I prefer the emotion sexuality of stories like The Heart That Lives Alone explores, it is so nice to see Dorian letting his hair down I will let the general crudeness of the delivery pass by. This is the Dorian Gray version of Torchwood’s Day One, only written and directed with some panache. I thought Joe Lidster had taken the series to its extreme in last seasons The Fallen King of Britain (which was a parade of drugs, drink and anal sex) but obviously I was wrong. Rival bands make for an explosive atmosphere, recalling the hate that existed between the Mods and the Rockers. The Hexatron will change music forever, sound in six dimensions. Music that makes you feel and sound different, music that literally changes who you are. Otto can feel people, energy and emotion and stirs up riots at his gigs in order to gorge on that sentiment. From Dorian however, he gets nothing but barrenness and it intrigues him. 

Audio Landscape: A screaming crowd, smashing a guitar, feedback, lighting a cigarette, giggling girls, hilariously wild sexual panting, a growling car, a fistfight on the street, a motorbike roaring away, ticking clock, whistling kettle, pouring tea, seagulls screaming, a man being torn apart and eaten…there’s lovely!

Musical Cues: More sixties magic from Big Finish. To be fair The Lord of Misrule was released before Fanfare of the Common Men but I just happened to listen to them the other way around. Regardless, both stories offer a nostalgic path back to the singing sixties with their pop inspired soundtracks, probably the easiest and most potent way of conjuring the era of flower power and free love. The songs that cut in are catchy and fun, pure sixties nostalgia.

Isn’t it Odd: It might seems harmless to some because this series deliberately advertises the fact that it contains adult material but I find the excessive swearing a little too Torchwood for my tastes. I don’t need it to suggest a sleazy backstage atmosphere, the fucking and the drugs manage that perfectly well.

Standout Scene: The ultimate moment of fandom, where the screaming hordes are so drive by their love for a star that they tear him to shreds. It’s a memorably grisly climax.

Result: One of the joys of this series is how stories can rub shoulders that are utterly different in style and tone. Only Doctor Who has managed to switch genre and attitude so dramatically between stories and it equates to a series that is always offering up something fresh and diverse. The Lord of Misrule is about as far from The Picture of Loretta Delphine as you can get and whilst I would say I prefer the subtlety and psychological horror of the debut adventure over the spit and vinegar of a sixties gang war, the writer and director commit to the piece totally and as such it is still a compelling listen. There’s an energy to events that is addictive and the soundtrack expertly plants the listener in the evocative era in which it is set. I love the idea of music that reaches inside and alters you. It is a mesmerising notion but the story takes far too long to reveal it, leaving very little time to explore it. Otto too, is such a fascinating character that it is a shame that we don’t get to spend more time with him. I hope that the ideas are brought back into play at a later date because The Lord of Misrule is the first Dorian tale that I wished had been double the length so there was as much time to create an authentic setting as there was to add some substance to the story. As it stands it is an enjoyable piece (the realisation is as gorgeous as ever) that feels a little short changed by its running time. And I mean that as a compliment to the writer who has brewed up some very nice ideas: 7/10

Murder on 81st Street written by David Llewellyn and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: 1939. Running into his old friend Dorothy Parker on the street, Dorian finds himself accompanying her to the opening of an antiquities exhibition. But when one of the guests is murdered, Dorian and Dorothy have no choice but to find the killer before their culprit has a chance to strike again…

The Painted Man: ‘There’s only three things I require from a man; that he’s handsome, that he’s ruthless and that he’s stupid. Why did you have to go an ruin  number three?’ Parker calls Dorian ‘Dodo’ which suggests an immediate intimacy between them (as well as having some unfortunate connotations for Doctor Who fans). He always did look ravishing in a tuxedo, that I can believe! The first time Dorian and Dotty first met he was running away from a party wearing a kimono and lipstick…that sounds like a night worth remembering! The next time he was caught in the bathtub playing consequences! It is lovely for somebody to hook up with him who is genuinely delighted to see him. Usually he is a harbinger of ill tidings and a portent of imminent death. Because he’s British it takes him an age to get to the questions because the niceties get in the way first. It’s wonderful how Dorian starts gabbling on about the world containing strange things beyond even Dorothy’s imagination and that it isn’t a whack on the head that is making him talk like this…until she points out he has been whacked on the head.

Standout Performance: ‘Don’t try to be cute, it doesn’t become you…’ As sure as day follows night you can be certain that if I stick the first two Superman films on then Sarah Douglas’s ultra camp turn as Ursa will always leave a massive grin on my face. It is perfect ‘down in the dumps’ watching. Her chemistry with Alex Vlahos is very nice in this story, relaxed and natural with some lovely ribbing at each others nationality. Together Dorian and Dorothy (the man who stepped from literature and the poet…sounds like an ideal murder mystery spin off series, doesn’t it?) make a superb team and one that I would have loved to have heard more of. This series is slowly building its own continuity, to a point where it can continue to innovate or pick and choose from locations/characters already established and have more fun with them. I hope this is one of them. Douglas was be most welcome to return. Dorothy compares them to the Hardy Boys – a fictional series about a pair of children who investigate mysteries first published in 1927. If their adventures are anywhere near as fun as this, perhaps I should check them out.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The world just took a shit, Dorian, why not let the NYPD do their thin and pull the flush?’
‘The words ‘Dorothy Parker’ and ‘safe’ sit together as comfortably as ‘Katherine Hepburn’ and ‘talent!’

Great Ideas: Talk about getting to the point. Llewellyn dispenses with the need for a  first episode by introducing all the set up for the story in a police interrogation in the first few minutes. There are enough brief flashbacks to inform the audience of what has already occurred and get them to the midway point of the narrative almost immediately. Using real life historical celebrities is a trick that Doctor Who has often deployed to get its audience interested in history and you can trust Dorian Gray not to go for the obvious choices (Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Shakespeare, Agatha Christie) and settle on somebody lesser known but equally fascinating like the poet Dorothy Parker (whom I became intimately acquainted with when I studied Literature in an Open University course five years ago – hers was some of the wittiest scribblings I read during that course). Llewellyn makes the observation that for Americans, if something is over a 100 years old they consider it a miracle that it exists at all. They prefer to innovate than to celebrate. What kind of man can scale a wall ten storeys high? In every version of the legend the Golem turns on its Master, and this time is no different.

Audio Landscape: Typing, chairs scraping, a slavering monster, cars hooting, the hustle and bustle of the streets of New York, alarm bell. 

Musical Cues: Some lovely piano tunes playing throughout the story that seductively takes hold of my shoulders and gives me a massage.

Standout Scene: Not for its writing but for the audacious realisation, Scott Handcock directs the sequence where Dorian is standing on the ledge of a window and staring down at the vertiginous drop so that the listener is there with him every step of the way.

Result: Told mostly in flashback which gives the story a fantastically robust structure, Murder on 81st Street is top dollar (hoho) Dorian Gray that establishes a relationship for Dorian that I would very much welcome a return visit to. It’s an economically told mystery that still manages to pack in plenty of detail, has some lovely surprises and manages to effortlessly create a busy New York atmosphere too. If you are purchasing the entire season rather than individual stories (and I would truly suggest that you do so) the don’t rush the listen, pace yourself to one story a night as I am doing and let the captivating experience of this series endure. The length of the stories and the intimate nature of the readings makes this idea bedtime listening. This isn’t overly taxing but it is extremely seductive to listen to; if you are looking for an inviting tale that pits a man from literature and a famous writer against a creature from mythology then this should be your first stop: 8/10

The Immortal Game written by Nev Fountain and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: Brighton, 1913. Taking a much-needed trip to the coast, Dorian finds himself intrigued by two old men playing a peculiar game of chess along the pier. However, it isn’t long before he finds himself caught up in a long-standing family feud, and becomes embroiled in a far greater game…

The Painted Man: It would appear that Dorian has dined with all the crowned heads of Europe. In 1013 the only person in the wars appears to be Dorian and his dickie tummy. Despite the biting cold, his natural curiosity forces him to stay and watch the chess board on the pier once the players have departed. Nev Fountain’s intelligent script focuses on Dorian’s curiosity and tastes for something fresh, exciting and stimulating and his obsession with a game of chess of which he isn’t even playing shows a fascinating new side to him. He has an intellectual need that he wishes to satisfy through friendship, a natural response to his inquisitiveness. Dorian has considerable experience in the human condition and he knows that a man cannot look into his heart and through force of will change himself. It might be a bleak philosophy but he has never met a man or woman who has been able to change their nature.  Dorian is playing his very own immortal game, and forgets himself when he is talking to an intellectual equal, discussing events he cannot have witness unless he had been granted the gift of eternal life. Montague is right, nothing good can come of a stranger attempting to heal a rift between family members. I could tell you about a particularly awkward family wedding that me and my estranged father both attended that proves that outright. Dorian has a sister he doesn’t care much for (interesting that the highlight of season one also featured a sibling rivalry of sorts) but he wouldn’t pretend she was anything else.

Standout Performance: Kudos to Hugh Ross for playing two very different characters with equal authenticity. Whilst there are enough clues inherent in the script to figure out what is going on if you are keen minded, the Montagues are performed so uniquely that Ross helps to disguise the twist.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘How ironic that the man who’s elected to witness between black and white is someone called Gray…’
‘A tragedy is only a tragedy if it is avoidable.’
‘Beware a man who is capable of good and evil, because that is a man who is capable of both.’

Great Ideas: There is something in the English spirit that means that the population will steal anything that isn’t nailed down but they would do anything to prevent interference in an ongoing chess match. It says something about our need for closure. There’s no rhythm to the arrival of the chess players, no set times to when they turned up but their game continued with gripping irregularity. Once checkmate had been achieved, Dorian could barely wait for the return of the defeated player, the ragged old man, to see his reaction. The Montagues began a scientific investigation in what constitutes good and evil in the brain, one believing that we have untapped darkness in ourselves that can be suppressed or accessed and the other believing that we quite literally are who we are and that cannot be altered. Is conscience a simple matter of self restraint? When it is removed, is any individual capable of monstrous things because we don’t see them as monstrous? War is on the horizon and new technology spikes the appetite, soon the world will be experiencing bloodier and more terrifying wars than we have ever know. Fountain chooses his period well, you can literally feel the tang of anticipation for conflict in the air. Funds have been obtained from the government so Montague can look into the psychology of an individual and see if they can be manipulated into changing their habits. All truly evil men say that evil doesn’t exist, it gives them an excuse for their abominable behaviour. Friendship is the iniquity in this tale, Montague was safe until he was no longer alone. The half brothers are locked in an eternal game, neither certain which of them is good or evil anymore.

Audio Landscape: Seagulls screaming, chess pieces scattering, weeping, a ticking clock, polite chatter, a screaming giggling little boy, the crinkle and crackle of newspapers, whistling.

Musical Cues: The music makes an instant impression on this release, lulling you into a luxurious and grand mood.

Standout Scene: Dorian waking up with a dead prostitute in his bed. A shocking moment, bitingly scored and performed like a slap around the face.

Result: ‘This is our immortal game…’ Beautifully written, directed and performed, The Immortal Game is the highlight of season two thus far. You know with Nev Fountain you are always going to get something a bit special and out of the ordinary and for once he has discarded his trademark humour and produced a riveting half hour drama based around a game of chess and a terrifying sibling rivalry of the most unusual kind. It grips from the first scene, indulges in some dark games and fires one knockout line of dialogue after another. A have to make a quick mention of Scott Handcock’s direction of this series, which is exceptional. It must an impossible task to try and realise a story told in half an hour and make it unique enough to stand up in its own right and he manages to pace these narrative vignettes perfectly so they never feel rushed and yet at the same time get to the point quickly enough to fit everything in. Both Fountain and Handcock have outdone themselves in that respect here; and it is the most fulsomely structured and satisfying release of the season and yet comes in at several minutes less than the others. The twist ending is brilliantly handled, and yet well signposted for those in the know but it doesn’t stop the moment running up and down your spine thanks to Vlahos’ delivery and the stirring music. I would suggest you buy the entire run of Dorian Gray but if you were only purchase one from season two, this should be your choice: 10/10
Running Away With You written and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: Kew, 1879. On the verge of adulthood, the sudden arrival of a forbidding housekeeper makes Dorian Gray’s life a living hell… Kew, 2012. Now converted into flats, Dorian’s family home has become a very real hell for his latest tenants, and the memories of his childhood are finally catching up with him…

The Painted Man: One thing you can be certain of in a Scott Handcock script is that since he is the instigator of this series, he will be invested in developing and delving intimately into the heart of the titular character. How nice to probe into Dorian’s family history a bit more as we visit the contemporary site of his family home, now converted into flats. At ten years old his Aunt and Uncle had already adopted him, shortly after the birth of his sister and the loss of his father. His mother had been sent to an institute and it hit his father hard. He was close with his sister and they had a good life for a time, playing and eating and learning and being brought up exactly how kids should. He filled his life books and verse, kept himself to himself and shunned the idea of friendship (unlike Isadora). Whilst reading fantastic novels he retreat into his head and go anywhere, be anyone and live in a world where his father never died and his mother never abandoned them. He was 16 when Miss Harker, the housekeeper arrived. Miss Harker punished Dorian by taking away all the things that were precious to him and locked him in a cupboard. It is very sweet to see the usually sexually voracious Dorian as an inexperienced teen, terrified of the advances of the woman who has been entrusted with his care. He had nothing to do with her murder but was treated with kid gloves afterwards, people commenting that he never did much like her. It is the sort of suspicion that could leave a scar. In a world of hedonists and manic depressives, Dorian is no long unique in the world and as a result he finds himself withdrawing again and his imaginary friend is waiting in the shadows to latch on again. Now seemed as good a time as any to finally confront his portrait. Dorian realises that his life was tainted as a boy, before the portrait was even painted. He can tell that the portrait wanted him to tear into it, for it to be over just as much as Dorian did. He wasn’t sure if he could die anymore, not unless he revoked the deal…but it was what he wanted. An old man with nothing to live for. He didn’t die in a blaze of glory but through a selfless act to protect people and for the mistakes he could never stop making. He died for the soul of the woman who loved him, even if he didn’t return the favour. It’s a startling revelation and something I never thought the series would go through with. Right up until the last moment I was certain that this was going to be reversed, Moffatt style. But no, Handcock is too intelligent a writer to insult his audience like that. Stories from now on will be told between the point of his birth and 2012. That still gives an awful lot of leeway. He’s alone now, trapped in the canvas in his attic, reliving all those memories. Brilliantly, Handcock has even delivered an explanation for Dorian’s narration in the past two seasons. Memories are all he has now.

Standout Performance: A pair of impressive performances from Alex Vlahos as the younger Dorian (he genuinely sounds like a teenager) and the always impressive Lalla Ward as the formidable Miss Harker. Ward’s audio performances have always had something deliciously theatrical about them and now she gets to play the anti hero that I always knew she could deliver. It’s an exquisite turn from one of my favourite actresses that Big Finish has been lucky enough to employ.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The sort of woman who could have once been rather pretty but age had carved her face into a harsh and cruel expression.’
‘She showed me just how important and how precious youth could be. How it is the one thing people yearn for. And while experience itself should be embraced, age is something to fear. That knowledge shaped my life.’
‘They always said it was your imagination running away with you…I just never stopped running.’

Great Ideas: You can’t do much better to get your audiences attention than to start with bodies found torn to tatters in their beds. A smell like rotten eggs, heated rows from number seven when it is vacant…unearthly chills wafting through the flats. As soon as Miss Harker and Dorian were left alone for a few days I was starting to wonder if this would result in her murder as she had been treating him so appallingly. However things develop and very different way to how I expected, with her making predatory advances on him. What a chilling idea a psychotic imaginary friend is, preying on his creators loneliness and messily removing the competition as anybody got close. In this case the friend grew up when Dorian was trapped in the same image, now an older man but still as deranged.

Audio Landscape: Screaming, malevolent laughter, rain lashing, wind, ticking clock, thunder clapping, radiation detector crackling, birdsong, making love as the rain pats on glass, heavy rain on the streets of Central London. 

Musical Cues: The music literally gave me chills as Dorian went to hack at his portrait with a knife, it was that stirring.

Standout Scene: I love the moment when Dorian and Miss Harker come together at the piano and two people who have previously been unable to find any common ground find themselves able to communicate through the language of music.

Result: ‘I want to be your friend again…’ Clever title. Clever story. I thought I knew exactly where Running Away With You was going from about ten minutes on and I couldn’t have been more pleased to have been wrong. With ten extra minutes to tell his tale, Scott Handcock writes a dazzling drama that takes a probing look at its three characters, one seemingly to come out of nowhere and yet brilliantly foreshadowed in the play. There are only three performers in this play but they all give a masterclass in acting on audio; Lalla Ward takes an outwardly clichéd character and gives her lashings of depth, Vlahos impresses with a dual performance as Dorian at two stages in his life and Geoffrey Breton aces quiet malevolence as the ace up the sleeve. Should this serve as the last regular story for Dorian Gray then Handcock marks the moment in spellbinding fashion with a flashback across the last two seasons, highlighting the moments that have led to his climactic actions in this story. As we reach the last act you come to realise just how much you have grown to care about this character, as flawed and as malevolent as he can be. A dark, unforgettable place to leave the season. Sublime, I want more: 10/10

Alexander Vlahos Q & A

What were your greatest influences when you decided to become an actor?

Well, initially I didn’t want to be an actor. My interests in school were to work behind the camera, rather in front of it. I had a desire to work as an editor or a writer, but then my drama teacher persuaded me to apply to drama school and thank God she did...

Can you tell us something about your time at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff? 

My time at the College was the best three years of my life. I not only grew as an actor but also as a person. I joined at a very young age, so I was very naive and inexperienced. The college was instrumental in helping me grow as a person and on top of that, teach me skills that I still use now. I look back on my time there with great delight.

How did you secure the role of Mordred in Merlin?

At the time, I was filming a BBC miniseries called ‘Privates’ in Northern Ireland, and my agent called me to say that the Merlin producers were looking for an older ‘Mordred’ to replace Asa Butterfield who’d been in seasons 1 & 2. I googled what he looked like and thought that I could pull it off! It just sort of went from there, I was meeting the producers while still filming in Ireland and then I got the part and started two days after ‘Privates’ finished... It was a crazy time. 

What was it like working for a popular Saturday night BBC show? Was the schedule gruelling?

Immense. And very rewarding. I was ignorant to how big the show was, so while I was filming, I didn’t realise the enormity of the task at hand - which is good, I think. In retrospect, had I known how big the show was, I think I would have got a bit nervous. The schedule wasn’t gruelling as such, more physicaly demanding. The chainmail, the sword fights... the dragon! 

When the show aired, that was when I was dumbfounded by the whole thing. The support - Merlin has one of the strongest fanbases I’ve come across. It would rival Doctor Who - if it had been on air since the ‘60s!

How would you sum up the experience?

I enjoyed every second of every day on that job. I was blessed to play such a complicated character and have a great storyline that focused on Mordred. I got to kill the King on Christmas Eve! Not a lot of people can say that.

What are the main differences that you find acting in television and on audio?

Well, with one... you get given a costume, put into hair and make-up, there’s a big crew and usually a camera. The other, you can turn up in your pyjamas. Ha! I joke. I guess there isn’t a difference. For me anyway, acting is still acting, no matter what the medium. You might have to adapt your technique to favour a certain aspect - i.e the camera, the stage or the microphone. From my perspective, I still approach it as the same and give it my all. Audio requires you to focus more on your voice, to use it as a tool to convey story but as long as your aware of that, then it’s all plain sailing.

Dorian Gray first appeared in the Bernice Summerfield. How did the series come about?

I got asked to play Dorian Gray for the Benny range - and while I was recording, Scott Handcock fleetingly mentioned that this would be a good idea for a series - I thought nothing of it.  Cut to a year and a bit later and I was getting scripts sent through to me, which would later form series one of the ‘Confessions’ range. 

It was bizarre because I didn’t think I deserved a range all to myself. I felt that I hadn’t proven my worth. And suddenly I’m the face of a range, the guy greeting the guest stars into studio - I was so used to it being the other way around... It took a bit of getting used to! Of course, now I’m incredibly indebted to Scott Handcock, Gary Russell and Nick Briggs & Jason Haigh-Ellery at Big Finish for their trust in me. 

Do you have any creative input into the series?

Like all things, if you care about your work, I think you expect a creative input. I believe that one of the reasons why this range has done so well for Big Finish is that the creative team involved truly cares about each episode, from the beautiful music, down to the art work. My creative input comes at the latter stages, the weeks leading up to the studio. Scott and I have a very trusting relationship, so we always talk openly about potential actors, future stories, cuts and changes to scripts... The Dorian range is probably the most involved I am in anything I’ve done. I care about this. But that’s not to take away from the excellent and truly hardworking Scott Handcock - that man makes this show what it is - I just fly in at the end and take the glory! Ha!

How would you describe the series and titular character for anybody who might not have tried the series out yet?

‘The Confessions’ is a supernatural / horror audio range that has the fictional Dorian Gray as it’s anti-hero lead character. It imagines a world where Dorian is a real person, in which he inspires Oscar Wilde to write the famous novel. Each episode is set in a different decade, from Dorian’s humble origins - all the way up to present day. It’s brilliantly written, produced and directed. Scary, funny and heartfelt.

Do you find the first person narration helps to get an intimate look at the character?

Yes, completely, because the eps are only 30 mins long, the narration is a clever way of getting into the plot quicker. It also gives the listeners an insight directly into the mind of Dorian. What he’s thinking, his doubts and his fears. It’s a convention that suits the style of the series and I wouldn’t change it.

Would you ever fancy having a stab at writing a Dorian piece yourself? 

It’s funny you should ask, because I am! Or have. Am writing. Have written.  I don’t know what the correct tense it - but yes, anyway, I’ve co-written a 60minute New Years Special! We go into studio in two weeks time - the episode is a hoot! And terrifying. It pushes Dorian into dark territory and introduces two characters that have a very close place in my heart. I love them. But you’ll have to wait until it’s out... spoilers! 

Do you have any favourite stories, and why? Or any particular guest actors that you have particularly enjoyed working with on the series?

Each episode is a favourite in one way or another. Scott’s ‘The Heart That Lives Alone’ from series 1 has become a fan favourite and I can see why. All the elements are there for that. Series 2 has Dorian meeting Dorothy Parker, and the joy of having Sarah Douglas in the studio coupled with David Llewellyn’s fantastic writing - that has to be high on the list. It’s really hard to choose one, it’s like trying to choose a favourite child!

Any words about the series' director? 

I’ve got 4. Brilliant. Trusting. Genius. Brilliant. Yes, I’ve said brilliant, but that man deserves the praise. This range has been in his head, festering away long before I came along. It’s his baby, so I’m thrilled for Scott - the reviews and the success it’s had. He deserves that. 100%.

You have recently written a superb script for the Bernice Summerfield range. Was that a satisfying experience? We're you pleased with the resulting story?

Ha! Satisfying is not the word I’d use. It was definitely an experience. My first dabble in into audio came at a time when I was incredibly busy. I’d just opened at The National Theatre in a 4 month run, my head was in a creative space but I just didn’t have the time to put in the hours. I was scraping 15 - 30 min spurts of writing at the dead of night - which I can tell you now, isn’t healthy for the script or for my sleeping habits. What I did enjoy was writing for Bernice and her team. The characters are so full and three-dimensional that it was a joy to be in their world. And yes, the resulting story was fantastic. I listened to it again the other day and was really happy with how it ended up. It’s a zombie romp on a desolate shipyard! What’s not to love? You’ll be pleased to know that writing for the Dorian New Years special was an all together happier experience.

Scott Handcock Q & A

How did you stumble upon the half an hour format? How do you go about helping your writers to squeeze and entire narrative so successfully into such an economic amount of time?

I can't remember quite why I pitched to do half-hours originally. I suspect, because a lot of them were to be two-handers (or thereabouts), I wanted to keep them short and really focus on the characters. Sometimes plays benefit from a limited cast but, depending on their runtime, you're also in danger of people clockwatching the whole way through, particularly if it's a format you work with every episode. Plus, it meant more stories! Instead of three hour-long dramas, we were able to tell five half-hours (albeit at a push) and an hour special! And it was a duration Big Finish generally hadn't worked to, and meant we could play with the idea of weekly instalments. Generally, there were a number of advantages! In terms of stories, they have to be tight. Audio drama eats up word count like nothing else - because it's told entirely through words and sound - so every pitch had to be simple and straightforward. That didn't mean they couldn't be interesting or challenging, but the writers had to really work out what story they wanted to tell and commit to it, then work up the other elements around it. And, in a way, I think this makes them an easy and enjoyable listen. Yes, there are curveballs and shock reveals, but they're not overly-complex or convoluted. Just simple, spooky stories, well-told... at least, I hope!

Plus, you sometimes get stories that you couldn't do justice in just thirty minutes, which is why we have our specials. Roy Gill's forthcoming Hallowe'en special is a prime example: an idea which had so much going on, none of which I wanted to cut, but we simply couldn't have crammed into thirty minutes (nor would we have tried). And it's a lovely story, with so many different layers, and some lovely stuff for Alex - I couldn't not make it. Similarly, Alex's own script is one that really needed an extended runtime right from the get-go! It's a great mystery and love affair that really showcases new sides to Dorian, and we couldn't have done his writing or the characters justice without it!

There has been a little shake up the writers from season one and season two. Why did you approach Simon Barnard and Nev Fountain to write for the second year?

I wouldn't have called it a shake-up, just a few new additions to the line-up. Generally, I try to work with as many different people as possible. It challenges me, and it challenges the series, but you also need some people who are familiar with the set-up to balance that out. But we've done it a lot with the Bernice Summerfield and Gallifrey ranges, and I'll continue to do so with Dorian, if we make any more!

As for why Simon and Nev... well, they just happened to be on my list! I invite submissions from a long list of writers, then whittle those down based on which stories appeal, provide the most variety, do the most interesting things, etc, etc... Simon's pitch - about an occult record producer - tied in nicely with something Alex had said during series one about doing Dorian in the Sixties, plus I'd worked with him before on the Bernice Summerfield range, and knew he'd deliver a very different tone from anything we'd previously done with Dorian. And Nev's story was just too delicious to pass up! I'd not worked with him before, or even met him, but was very familiar with his work and somewhat daunted. But he was a delight, and so much fun to have in studio.

Do you try and squeeze as diverse amount of genres as possible? Which do you think suits the range best?

I think the joy of Dorian for me, Alex and (hopefully) the listeners is you never quite know what to expect! The series is a bit like the character - volatile, dangerous, erractic, but rather charming because of it. We can do monster stories, bromances, comedies, mysteries, and of course full-bloodied horror stories. Each of them has their place and moment, and I don't think I value one over the other. It keeps us on our toes, and gives the listeners something different every time. I rather like that!

Can you tell us something about the recording sessions for this season?

Because of the amount of material we have to record in a very short space of time, the recording sessions are usually a bit of a blur! They're usually enormously fun though, there's an awful lot of laughter between takes! Which is great! I know some directors who think it's wasting time, but it's actually really good with a series like this - where the scenarios are often rather heightened - to allow the actors chance to relax between each scene. Otherwise, it could all be rather bleak! With something as dark as The Picture of Loretta Delphine, for example, you really need chance to release the safety valve every so often...

And, of course, we've had some great guest cast come in this time around - all of whom gave it their all. Special mention to Sarah Douglas who I love and adore, and who basically hijacked the green room with anecdotes for an afternoon! The chemistry you here betwen her and Alex is absolutely genuine - it was like babysitting an old married couple for a day - but such a hoot! Oh, to have her back!

I’m leading…but do you think Alex Vlahos gets better with each story? What to your mind is his finest performance to date? What makes him so ideal for this role?

The joy of working with Alex - apart from the fact it's lovely working with your mates - is his versatility. He's great at the sulky, spoiled brooding that we've all come to associate with Dorian in some form or another, but he's also got a fantastic sense of comic timing and fun, which is why I wanted to tackle a few lighter stories the second time around. I also wanted to give him some friends because, you know, Alex is great when he has someone to play off, so long as they don't end up dead come the end of the story! He's unpredictable, both as a character and an actor, and that's part of the reason it works as well as it does. He doesn't go for the obvious, but it always works... And as for our adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray... well, that was the first thing we came to record after series one, when Alex very much had our interpretation of the character in his head, and I know he found it daunting effectively reinventing the character... but he's incredible. He brings all the menace and charm from the Confessions series, and channels it into a much more naive, younger version of Dorian. Even when you think you knew what the character was all about, you still get a very real sense of his downfall and comeuppance in the novel, and that's in no small part to Alex's measured performance throughout. 

What can we expect from season three?

At the moment, I don't know... There are no plans for a third series. Or rather, Big Finish hasn't committed to any. I know the sort of thing I'd like to do, and I've had conversations with Alex and a few other people about what might potentially happen. But until we know whether we're doing more, and how many, etc, it's very difficult to say. I've too many ideas floating in the back of my mind! Do we do longer episodes? Series arc set in a single period? Series arc across multiple periods? One big, multi-episode epic? Set after series two, or throughout his life again...? Suffice to say there are a couple of people I'd like to see more of, regardless of what happens... Does that help? 
What else are you working on at the moment?

I've just finished an Afternoon Drama for Radio 4, written by the lovely Paul Magrs, which goes out next Thursday, 3rd October. It's a charming coming-of-age bromance set in the north of England, but with a bit of a sci-fi twist. Not the usual Radio 4 fare, but a lot of fun to do - and features Geoffrey Breton and Daniel Brocklebank, both of whom are or will be familiar to Dorian listeners too! Otherwise, I've a few other plates spinning, including the adaptation of Frankenstein that's been rumbling away for the best part of a year and finally looks set to record early next year... and a few other projects I can't yet mention. But more Dorian's not on that list... yet. Fingers crossed!


Audrey the Leviathan Vampire Girl said...

Your reviews are making this series extremely tempting for me.

Joe Ford said...

I hope so, it's absolutely fantastic (and I think a damn reasonable price too) :-)

Scott Sherritt said...

Whilst I like the idea of a Dorian Gray series I feel strongly that it is fatally flawed by Vlahos' casting. He just seems so terribly wrong for the role both in terms of his vocal cadence and delivery. He is probably one of the worst actors BF have employed from the perspective of him clearly reading the lines for the first time and not 'getting' their meaning or intent. It is sad really - because the potential for this series is phenomenal.

Joe Ford said...

Wow, did we listen to the same series? For my money, Vlahos is one of the best things about the series. He gives a sensitive, nuanced performance that ranges from delivering powerful drama to light hearted comedy. I could listen to him all day long. Astonishing how two people can come to the same series from such different angles.