Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Shades of Gray written and directed by Scott Handcock

What's it about: ‘They used to say this house attracts nothing but evil… What are we all doing here, I wonder?’ Many years ago, in an old and dilapidated house, a priceless and powerful artefact was hidden: an item that has long since been forgotten… at least until Bernice, Ruth and Jack were sent to collect it. In the depths of Triptic House, Bernice and her friends find themselves at the mercy of an ancient and ruthless entity, one that has been yearning for escape, biding its time and going mad… It has lived so very long now, with so many stories to share – tales of haunted mental institutions; tormented tapestries; living nightmares – and through each of them now, its stories shall be told. They shall be told, lived, suffered, shared… and ultimately, concluded.

Archaeological Adventuress: Bernice marvels at the thought of living all of those centuries, imagining being a living chronicle of human history. Dorian is there to make sure she is aware that immortality is a curse, watching those people you love die, seeing the same mistakes play out again and again from one world to another...

The Painted Man: What a fascinating exercise, listening to a character as a part of a standalone story in the Bernice series that would go on to have his own series down the line (although the writer didn't know that at the time). It was really rather clever on Gary Russell's part, convincing Handcock that this was an effective way of showing how this concept and character could be made to work and work really well. And it worked a charm, this being one of the more arresting Bernice tales of late. Dorian's panting is found in a dilapidated house gathering dust but the brushwork a fresh as if it were painted five minutes ago. As we experience his memories we learn that he is a bored man with nothing left to do, he pokes his noise into anything that piques his interest because he has nothing left to do and it passes the time. He has seen and done it all and only occasionally does something surprise him.  As the story goes he has a portrait hidden away which holds the secret of eternal youth. A secret so sought after that people will lay traps for him in order to try and convince him to part with it. Handcock cleverly sets the three sets of memories that we experience in different time periods to show how long that Dorian has lived, revealing to the audience that this man is immortal as long as he has the painting and explaining why he was so tired in the far future. Dorian likes men but isn't averse to the ladies either. For years he hoped that he would find unrequited love after centuries of being flattered and sought after, he thought it might make a nice change. The painting eats up all of his guilt, all of his shame and remorse. Dorian genuinely loved Spencer and it broke his heart to have to murder him in order to kill the parasite that was eating its way into existence through his mind. In the future Dorian will lose his portrait and wind up paying Bernice to try and track it down for him.

Jumping Jack Flash: It's nice to spend more time with Jack who is still a bit of a mystery at this point. He turned up in a vital role in the Epoch series (a series I still think is criminally underrated) and then vanished until Bernice finally caught up with Peter on Legion. Who he is and why he has such a vested interest in Brax and Bernice's son has yet to be determined. What works very well is the choice of actor, David Ames has a natural charisma and appeal and it is a delight to listen to his interaction with the rest of the cast, even when his character remains vacuous.

Standout Performance: Introducing the phenomenally talented Alexander Vhalos as Dorian Gray, a masterful performance that I would like to think had something to do with the series getting the go ahead after this was recorded. If you want to hear me drool on about Vhalos then check out my effusive reviews of the Dorian Gray series elsewhere on the blog. There is also the chance for range regulars Lisa Bowerman, Ayesha Antoine and David Ames to turn their hand to different parts as they experience the many lives of Dorian Gray in a very personal way. Antoine as the psychotic patient was really disturbing, a world away from sweet and innocent Ruth. Bowerman is similarly authentic as the upper class hustler that traps Dorian, a sophisticated piece of work who is willing to play a long con to get her mark. Topping off a nourishingly good cast is Richard Franklin who makes an appearance as a villainous sort who relishes the chance to spring traps and prey on the weak. Mike Yates he aint.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'This is a living, bleeding canvas!'
'You mean you own it?' 'As much as it owns me.'
'The curious tale of Springheel Jack. The fabled Professor Summerfield existing at both the start an end of time. And as for you Ruth...I was there back when you were both revered and reviled and the very mention of your name could make whole Empires flee. Your true name, I mean' - a wonderful moment when Dorian, a man from literature, informs all three of our heroes that they too have their place in mythology. Hinting at a dangerous reveal for Ruth in the future...

Great Ideas: People used to claim that Triptic House attracted nothing but evil whilst others believe there is a priceless work of art secreted within it's walls. A long forgotten, powerful artefact and the very thing that Bernice and her gang have been contracted to collect. Much like the segment of the Key to Time in The Androids of Tara, it was never about finding the artefact but what happens once they do. Like Romana, Bernice, Ruth ad Jack stumble across the treasure in record time. A grotesque work of art, painted in blood and fresh as a daisy. Like with haunted buildings, memories captured, stored and imprinted on objects and there is a process that releases them. I like the idea that the preternatural is just aspects of science that we are not familiar with. It's touted by Bernice and again seems like something that she might have picked up on her travels with the Doctor (the third Doctor certainly favoured the science over magic solution). In the séance that Jack is suggesting they perform the conscience should pass through each of them in turn as they hold hands and they will experience its memories as though it happened to them. Spectators in a very personal way. The imaginary friend of a little girl made flesh after she has killed her host? Brought to life by a man who wants to manifest himself and kill everybody in the facility that she is being held in. A tapestry of great history, figures depicted in the threads from different periods of different styles and fashions, generation after generation, captured on a weave. It isn't an artists impression, it is actually the people who have been touched by the tapestry. When they die, they're souls are captured in the weft and the warp, looking out on the world outside but unable to interact. Screaming their silent screams. What a marvellously chilling idea. The art dealer wants the painting of Dorian and laid her head on the chop by putting her tapestry on display in order to lure him out into the open and trap him. The whole thing is a massive con, she isn't an art dealer at all and Dorian is the mark. A presence, living in the dreams of others and manifesting itself in the most chilling of nightmares. It can't exist until you remember, until you will the essence into life. Until then it is just an idea, a scratch in the back of your mind that you can't get at. A parasite, feeding off thoughts. Dorian was the one who paid Benny to track down the portrait, his portrait.

Audio Landscape: From the off it is clear that director Scott Handcock, sound designers Matthew Cochrane and Robbie Dunlop and musician Daniel Brett know exactly what they are doing when approaching a haunted house story. Immediately the music is running its fingers up and down your spine, the sound effects are coming when you least expect them and the usually unflappable characters are on edge. If you are a fan of things that go bump in the night and enjoy an unnerving atmosphere there is a good chance that you will enjoy this story. Creaky door, lightning, beeping equipment, whispering, electrics banging and fizzing, sliding door, party atmosphere, typing on keyboards, alarms, birdsong, doorbell, horse and cart, handing over coinage, crackling fire, snoring, clock chimes, ducks quacking, splashing in water, birds screaming.

Musical Cues: A fantastic score and one that really got under my skin. I love the creeping piano, the sudden low keys being struck and the way the music builds to an dramatic crescendo and then cuts off...leaving nothing by me holding my breath.

Isn't it Odd: More of a fault of mine than of the audio but when I first heard this story I was ready to declare it the most confusing and out of place of all the Bernice adventures, one which made little sense to me. I was running at the time and was taking out a Benny for an hour long jog every morning and I could not get my head around its complexities whilst gasping for breath and avoiding dogs yapping at my ankles. That's because this isn't one of those Big Finish stories that plays out like a soundtrack to a missing TV story, all action and no brains. It is a sophisticated piece of storytelling, layered and intelligent and one that requires concentration and a little effort to yield all of its rewards. Oh what a fool I was. If the story ends a little abruptly then take some comfort that the adventures of Bernice, Ruth and Jack will continue on into the next set of Benny adventures and that you can follow more of Dorian's exploits in the incredible first season of The Confessions of Dorian Gray.

Standout Scene: The first memory, the one where Ruth is living the life of an imaginary friend made real. That really freaked me out.

Result: Genuinely unsettling in a way that these audios don't usually get to me, Shades of Gray is another sterling adventure in what turning out to be an extremely accomplished box set. I love a good horror but so many of the best ideas have been tried and tested and turned into cliché and there is a dearth of original notions that really get under your skin. Whilst Handcock does rely on some horror tropes (the haunted house, the séance, the imaginary friend), he exploits them masterfully and when it comes to the beating heart of the story it is the psychological horror of what Bernice, Ruth and Jack experience that really creeped me out. Astonishingly this works extremely well as a standout Bernice Summerfield in it's own right and an excellent backdoor pilot (although it was never intended as such at the time) for the Dorian Gray range, the two meeting effortlessly without either feeling as though it is being short changed. On the one hand you have the Bernice cast being exploited to the full, playing a range of roles that really challenges them and pushes them as far away from their regular roles as you can get. On the other you have all the required information about Dorian, his immortality and world weary attitude after so many years of living and the means in which he manages to stay so young and beautiful. It helps that the Bernice range has been able to turn its hand to pretty much any genre and tone and the skin crawling terror, layered storytelling and innovative ideas are enough to make any fan of the series sit up and pay attention. It is little wonder that Big Finish green lighted a Dorian Gray series on the strength of this tale. Compare Shades of Gray to The Stone's Lament (another horror story) from the second season of the Benny range and see just how far this series has matured over the years. My only complaint (and the only reason it doesn't get full marks) is that ends a little too abruptly, not giving the story the climax it deserved and never answering the question of what happened to Dorian once he was reunited with his portrait. But then perhaps we shouldn't know how this story ends before the range has even begun. Shades of Gray is a terrific achievement, but don't listen to this one alone in the dark.: 9/10

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