06 April 2014

BF: Fanfare for the Common Men

The overriding message of Fanfare for the Common Men is that The Beatles are irreplacable. I expect you know a little of the premise, but in case you don't, I'll summarise it for you. The Doctor takes Nyssa to 1963 to see the Fab Four, but when they arrive, they find the Liverpudlian trio The Common Men in their place. No-one has ever heard of The Beatles; they've been directly replaced. This is of course as a result of alien intervention, and it doesn't take the Doctor and Nyssa long to figure that out.

A man takes a shot at the group, and whilst trying to capture him, Nyssa gets caught up in his time machine's temporal field. She is then trapped in 1957 Hamburg with a group who are losing confidence in themselves. They think they'll be out the door within a year, but back in 1963, the Doctor's noticed an odd affinity for the band. He remarks that they're even more popular than The Beatles ever were, and this becomes an integral part of the plot revelation. The Common Men even cause the Queen Mother to do the twist during a performance at the Royal Variety. Over the course of the story, it is revealed that Mark, James and Korky are all aliens conditioned into forgetting their origins. 

Their manager, Lenny Kruger, is the root of all the trouble. He kidnapped the Byulnians when they were only children, wiped their memories and brought them to Earth. Their race feed on recognition - the more people see them, the more energy they gain. Kruger was too scared to harness the power for himself though, and so manipulates these three into doing his bidding, He has orchestrated their entire career, from the late '50s right through to their comeback reunion in 1970 (or the planned one anyway, until Mark kills James). The whole of the '55 - '60 period is cut off, so when the Doctor tries to go back to investigate what happened (triggered by a reference to national service), he can't. As the key to Kruger's power is positive fame (love, if you will), the Doctor's solution to defeat him is to forge evidence that Kruger killed James in 1966 (there had been rumours he'd died, after all). 

Howard Carter deserves an unending amount of praise for his contribution to Fanfare. He wrote three original songs that are exactly of the style of The Beatles, but with a few other influences thrown in too. The lyrics are simplistic but meaningful, and they're just bloody good tunes. He really recreates the whole '60s vibe to perfection throughout the four episodes. It's instantly clear what setting you're supposed to be in, before a line of dialogue has been spoken. Although this may sound a relatively straightforward task, with atmospheric sound effects, it's so much more and Carter pulls it off with ease. He's a real talent, and I really appreciate his contribution here. 

I did get a bit confused at times about the time placement. Moving between time periods featuring the same character (Kruger) or similar characters played by the same actress (Sadie and Rita) really confused me. I think Eddie Robson scripted it effectively, showing the whole span and progression (rise and fall) of The Common Men, but it got a bit confusing in the direction I felt. I think Barnaby Edwards managed to get great performances out of the actors he cast (and what a brilliant cast!), but the delivery of some sections and the order in which things were supposed to happen muddled me. I appreciate it probably warrants another listen to iron out any confusion, but non-linear stories are always confusing on audio when there's not visual clues to help you (and I don't mean captions). 

In Mitch Benn, David Dobson and Andrew Knott, you have three very strong supporting roles. They are very much at the forefront of this story, and it's a delight to hear all their Liverpudlian accents purring out across the airwaves, in much the same way as Philip Olivier. They make for a very accomplished trio, and have a good relationship between themselves as well, which was crucial to this play's success I think. They're decent singers too. Although Mitch Benn is supposed to fill the 'frontman' role of John Lennon, I think it was David Dobson's Korky that took most of the limelight; it's him that spends most time with Nyssa and so the listener. He was really likeable and given that he is the Ms Of Traken's main confidant for the story, managed not to be too leading or expositionary. That's a particular strength of Robson's writing, I felt. As in Urgent Calls, he lets you work a lot of the plot out for yourself, and creates a real nasty in the form of Kruger. I was really impressed by Robson and although this is only the second story by him that I've reviewed, he's fast becoming one of my favourite writers.

Ryan Sampson plays Kruger in this, which really surprised me. I had no idea who it was, but I imagined a big, burly, 1920s Noo Yoik character. At the climax to this story, Kruger is obviously defeated and whines and whinges. When listening, I couldn't place who it reminded me of, but it was definitely Luke Rattigan from The Sontaran Stratagem. This is a much stronger performance, and he really convinces you of being an American-gangster type, particularly in his treatment of Sadie. It's a testament to the acting capabilities of both parties that I had assumed he was about a decade or so older than her but in fact the reverse was true (dare I say it). An impressive turn from Sampson.

Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton are excellent in this. I make no secret of the fact that I wasn't a fan of the character of Nyssa during the television series but thanks to Big Finish, she's really improved in recent years. Her scientific knowledge was well used here, and her keen perceptions elaborated upon perfectly. It's a shame they were apart for the majority of this story as the few scenes they do have together (particularly in the spaceship pub) are really enjoyable. They have a very natural chemistry and Peter Davison really emotes well. When given decent material, he always was good, so delivering this script he's phenomenal. I did like his relationship with Alison Thea-Skot as Rita too, she was a particularly good 'filler' companion. I wouldn't be opposed to her returning to the TARDIS at some point, especially given the great influence the Doctor had on her life, even after the timelines reverted to the 'right' one. 

One thing I wasn't overly keen on was the fact that Thea-Skot played both Rita and Scouse Sadie. Whilst listening, I thought they were a bit similar and I did have to think at the beginning of each scene which woman I was listening to. I didn't twig they were the same actress, but it did add to the confusion levels. Aside from this, I found each voice distinctive and strong. All of the actors employed are clearly worth their salt.

My favourite quote (with some seriously stiff competition) from this was the Doctor's, "The problem with people that try to engineer history is that they don’t appreciate the wonder of sheer happenstance!"

In summary then, this Beatles love letter is a staggeringly enjoyable ride, and bears one of my favourite titles ever. I definitely chose the right point to dive back into Big Finish. This was completely engrossing and only confusing at points. Not a second was wasted and I will happily relisten to this at some point. If I didn't have such a backlog to get through, it would be immediately, and I look forward to the time when I do. This is crammed full of Beatles references, and I think perhaps only Eddie Robson could spot them all. It's a genius race that he has created, and the ultimate clincher is that they're just not good enough to succeed. The Doctor says The Beatles were the perfect blend of personalities, talents and music and that that can't be recreated. The Common Men don't simply play Beatles songs because an integral part of the power is that they write their own material. Sadly, it's not quite up to scratch and it's this that's their downfall. Eddie Robson and Howard Carter are brilliant, brilliant men - far from common.

In a Nutshell: An immersive listening experience that you shouldn't put off.

You can buy 1963: Fanfare for the Common Men here, and read Joe from Doc Oho's review here. You can also buy Howard Carter's album here.

PS - we need a full release of those songs at some point; they're so good.

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