"Remember the Purple Nightingale?"
Whilst listening to The Sevenfold Crown my chief feeling was that whilst it's straightforwardness was refreshing, it offered little in the way of future direction for the expected series of plays. It is not surprising then, and rather pleasing, that The Syndeton Experiment (TSE is a popular Chinese surname, strangely) despite a plot which looks similar (nay identical) in synopsis, is radically different to The Sevenfold Crown (or T7FC) in a number of ways. Equally fortunately, it is also considerably better.
It would be unfair of me to encapsulate the plot (this is a get out; I can't) but it rattles along at a fair old pace, exhibiting the main thing that T7FC lacked - Drive. The shorter length (60 mins rather than 90) means that we get a play that's as long as the story is, rather than an over inflated 'feature length' travelogue. The whole enterprise benefits as a result.
Also much improved is the characterisation. These 'feel' far more like the characters we know and, er, watch, and the 'regulars' rise to the better material, all bar one giving spot-on performances. Darrow really turns it on as Avon, he plays up the comedy when the script demands (his scene with Madam Gaskia is very funny) and becomes a hard bastard when the need arises.
Still, there is one line in particular which has proved controversial, and this is something I'd like to address. When threatening Dr Rossum, Avon says, "You say that you know all about me. Then you'll know that I enjoy hurting people". Okay, Mr Letts' character research has led him to the correct conclusion, there is a violent, almost sadistic aspect to Avon's personality, especially at this point in his life. (And before anyone starts going on about, "how this reflects Darrow's opinion, and that Darrow doesn't really understand Avon," I'd just like to point out that Darrow's view of the character is very much in accord with Chris Boucher's.) However, Avon himself doesn't recognise this, so whilst the essence of the line is true, Avon does "enjoy hurting people," it is wrong for it to be Avon himself who verbalises this fact.
As for the rest of the cast, Michael Keating is again fantastic, the 'something' about the expressive cadences of his voice, suits radio very well indeed. Vila is rightly portrayed as a drunk rather than a glutton, as Mr Letts cunningly retcons Vila's previous out-of-character lizard burger binges as his reaction to the Star Drive. Quite clever that. The scenes with Dr Rossum, in which Vila effectively functions as the voice of sanity (and the audience) is a brilliantly ludicrous situation and work very well indeed.
Angela Bruce, actually gets something to do this time, and Dayna is in character. Smarter, harder, more vicious than the silly girlie we got in T7FC, she gets to swear, shout and indulge in acts of violence. Sexy, and very in tune with out post-Tomb Raider times.
What this scripts makes of Servalan I've no idea. She shimmers through the play, shagging her junior officers and serving them smoked delicacies whilst seemingly doing the washing up. This certainly bears no resemblance to the character I recall. It is however, very funny, and Pearce camps it outrageously, coming across as a housewife who indulges in universe conquering plans between seducing milkmen. Her actual plotting (to get the Scorpio crew to do her dangerous and dirty work for her) is pretty clever actually, and Pearce knows when to climb down from her Bette Davis impersonation and do it properly. (She's particularly good in the last scene, confronting Avon before...well....that would be telling.)
Her combined impersonation of the Queen Metabelis Spider/Tomb Cyberman is pretty good too.
As you might have guessed, comedy is one of this script's fortes. Tarrant & Soolin indulge in a pure slapstick scene which can only be described using Alexei Sayle's term "The Panzer Commander & The Milk Maid" (watch The Young Ones episode Bambi for reference, it'll do you good).
Unlike T7FC, which had a "guest star" who nobody has ever heard of (amusing as he was) here we have two solid classical actors turning in good performances. Judy Cornwall (a fine career in theatre sadly eclipsed in the minds of the proles, by a role in a long running sitcom and a guest slot in the fifth worst Doctor Who story ever, Paradise Towers) is excellent, successfully playing against type, as the common, shrieking Madame Gaskia. Peter Jeffrey is equally good. An actor whose credits include the top notch Doctor Who story The Androids of Tara, Dennis Potter's serial Lipstick On Your Collar and IF... (Arguably the best British film of the '60s). He plays it largely for laughs, but knows when to rein back, rather like Roy Kinnear did in Brian Lighthill's first B7 adventure.
My only real problem with this adventure (and it is an 'adventure' rather than a 'story') is that there's some rather obvious doubling up of actors. Peter Tuddenham, Angela Bruce and Michael Keating all play characters other than their 'normal' ones. I'm no stranger to suspending disbelief, but at times this is genuinely confusing. Surely it can't cost that much to hire two extra bit-parts actors to cover the few 'spare' lines for an afternoon. One wouldn't have thought so.
Another problem (perhaps more of an irritant) is the number of character names that appear to have been created by pulling letters at random out of the scrabble bag. Gaskia and Rossum are okay as is Vledka (just!), but Mobnit, Wempin, Rodall and Vadgebanger? Please.
Creating these sorts of names is difficult, Terry Nation usually resorted to using variations on his own (Tarrant, Darrant, Tel, Del Grant, Del Varon etc.). Obviously you can't call a third century second calendar space-warlord Bernard, but you can't call him Triphopmegathunk either. Perhaps next time Barry should try and hit the middle ground (Blake is a painter/poet, Avon a county and Vila a football team) with names that sound unusual, but reasonably real.
Anyway, these grumbles aside, TSE is frantic, funny, nasty and very entertaining. Barry Letts has really produced something. Though what, I'm not entirely sure.
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