25 August 2016

Audio Review: Bernice Summerfield - Just War


And so my Bernice Summerfield marathon begins in earnest with what I believe is widely regarded as the gem of the first series. Adapted from an earlier New Adventure, as all of the initial run were, this transfers wonderfully to audio. It's quite a harrowing story, and in my mind it's an excellent one. 

This was my first experience of a 'proper' Bernice Summerfield adventure and this seems a good place to start. Lance Parkin's adventure is set for the most part on Guernsey in 1941, and essentially tells the tale of Benny and Jason Kane, her ex-husband, trying to find their way back together. However, the pair came to be in this time period - I'm guessing it's something to do with the Time Ring they use to get home, but it's not made explicit - Jason seems to have drawn the short straw as he arrived in 1936 where as Bernice only materialised at the tale end of 1940. 

Far from the 'romp' of a series I'd come to expect from its reputation in Big Finish circles, Just War is a straight, serious historical. It involves the leads and the listener in the period through the evocative supporting characters, British and German, and they way history conspires. Benny and Jason's attitude to time travel is quite refreshing when compared against the usual Doctor Who attitude of not being able interfere. Several times through Just War, both question whether history should be left uninterrupted or whether it's their meddling that causes the events they know to happen. It's been covered before but feels like more damage could be done here as the Second World War is such an infamous period of modern history, its effects are still highly visible today. Even though this story is over fifteen years old, Jason still represents contemporary views and as such his perspective on the Nazis is the more interesting for the majority of the story.

But there's no doubting Benny is the star of the show. Setting the story in a relatively unknown bit of World War Two is a shrewd move on Parkin's part as it allows for greater dramatic tension. Some listeners may not know the extent of German control over the Channel Islands; I for one certainly didn't have much of a clue what sort of thing went on there. The Nazis that populate Just War aren't all one-dimensionally evil and it's quite interesting to explore the mentality of the 1941 German officer, in various different guises.

At one point - in fact, for most of the story - Bernice and Jason are captured and held prisoner. This is where some truly dark material comes out. Lisa Bowerman is excellent throughout, but the scenes after two days' food and sleep deprivation see her at the height of her powers. Even though this was only her fifth time playing the twenty-sixth century archaeologist, she already has the part down to a tee. She's not just great by herself, as Benny gets quite a lot of monologues across Just War's two discs - she has excellent chemistry with anyone she's paired with. She seems a great actress, and perfectly cast in the role whose eighteenth season was released only this month. 

All of the cast work fantastically with Jacqueline Rayner's excellent adaptation though. Stephen Fewell gives Jason real heart and his many longings for Benny ring true when they come from him. He plays discontent excellently and you can easily believe the trouble past we're told of. Given how prominent he's set to be across the series as a whole, I'm really encouraged by Fewell's performance. There's a few Who alumni amongst the rest of the cast too - most notably Maggie Stables and Mark Gatiss. Both are great in their roles, and in fact I didn't even recognise the latter as Standardtenfuhrer Wolff which either means I was being extremely dense or Gatiss was especially unrecognisable (or both of course) since Wolff occupies such a large portion of the running time.

The sound design and soundtrack are understandably less present than in Big Finish's current releases. That's not to say they're lacking - quite the opposite. All the post-production work here is perfectly adequate, it's just less than the contemporary customer would be used to. The music feels a little bit out of places in certain scenes, with tinkling pianos accompanying some pretty upbeat or dramatic action. Overall though I was really impressed by Harvey Summers' work and I think it's a shame he only worked on four Bernice Summerfield stories for Big Finish (this was the last).

This is an amazing release. It tells a really intense story, using a very strong cast of characters and actors. It's astonishing that Big Finish were capable of material this good this early on. This is proper drama, with no science fiction elements. A lot of the time, I actually prefer that kind of storytelling. The one point I would make would be that it doesn't make any use of Bernice's archaeological tendencies, apart from in passing, but if that's sacrificed to get a story this good then I don't mind. Every scene is gripping and electric; Gary Russell directs with tight style. This is an extremely promising start for Benny's own range and certainly has me looking forward to more. 

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