Tony adjudicates the war of the waxworks.
There’s been a distinct Season 17 vibe to this series of Fourth Doctor audio stories so far, meaning that, like Season 17 itself, it may well divide audiences into ‘those who like a laugh’ and ‘those who take life and Who too seriously.’ Gallery of Ghouls is likely to continue the trend, with an almost Life of Brian take on the life of Madame Tussaud, she of the famous waxworks. We say a Life of Brian version because it’s not about Tussaud, but about someone of the same period, doing the same job, with a distinctly similar name… oh, and it has some fairly pointless aliens in it.
As it turns out, according to Who and writer Alan Barnes, as well as a Madame Tussaud, there was a Madame Tissot (we wonder if she eventually went into watchmaking at some later date), with a waxworks of her own, albeit a significantly less successful one. What’s more, Tissot, played by the universally excellent Celia Imrie, has an aspiring competitor, eager to steal the thunder from her new launch and the potential of her royal patronage. That would be Mr Goole, of Goole’s Gallery of Ghouls (oh, the wonder of wordplay!), who starts off the story by trying to steal Tissot’s prime exhibit – the waxwork head of Marie-Antoinette, allegedly cast from life, or at least from fairly recent death.
This war of the waxworks is where the Doctor and Romana find themselves in 1833, naturally being accused of the head-theft, and then chasing after the real thief, who appears to escape in a distinctly non-human way.
The honest to goodness truth is there’s not a lot to Alan Barnes’ script – there’s toing and froing between the two waxworks, there’s the reveal of some secrets, and there’s some alien shenanigans. What one never especially feels is consequence or peril alongside the comedy in this story, and while the comedy is there (it’s Tom Baker, you’re not really doing your job if there’s no comedy for him), it too is for the most part fairly inconsequential.
One to skip over, then?
Not by any means. Just go into Gallery of Ghouls knowing where to pitch your expectations, which is low on scares and peril, higher on comedy and the sheer enjoyment of listening to a Tom Baker-Lalla ward story again. That said, if you’re looking for the ‘kind’ of story this is, it’d be hard to find a Season 17 equivalent. In essence, this is more of a Ribos Operation than a City of Death, but nevertheless, there will always be worse things to watch than The Ribos Operation, and likewise, you could listen to Gallery of Ghouls for years to come and your ears would always thank you – there’s a good deal of wit involved (which is unsurprising from Alan Barnes), a certain joie de vivre, and, despite what we’ve said about the lack of peril, there are a couple of good cliff-hanger moments to keep you gasping. If you want to see it this way, there’s also a dissertation on art and artistic appreciation too, humans and non-humans vying for some notion of artistry that will bring them success in their endeavours. So if you want to take life seriously, you can delve into debates about Gallery of Ghouls’ sub-strata and the human perspective on art – a particularly thorny debate to have when dealing with death masks on humanoid waxworks, but whatever gets you through the night. That’s the point, really – you can take Gallery of Ghouls seriously if you like. But if you try and do so, you’ll enjoy both the audio, and arguably your life, rather less than you will if you just let Gallery of Ghouls be fun.
Helping the fun along is Celia Imrie, who of course brings a degree of joyful madness to her portrayal of Tissot, growing pathetic (in the true sense of the word) towards the end when Tissot’s secrets are revealed. Keep an ear out for Helen Goldwyn too (not credited on the Big Finish website because, to be fair, it’s difficult to say too much about her character without, in fact, saying too much about her character). She brings life to a part that could in other hands have been fairly ordinary and even leaden, but never is in this hour of audio. In a sense, she’s the other side of the artistic debate to Imrie’s Tissot. Again, feel free to have this debate if you like – or just revel in Goldwyn’s stylish and nail-hitting performance as… ahem… what she is.
Nickolas Grace too brings a mark of established audio quality to proceedings as Goole, a role that would seem ideal for over-the-top weirdness and moustache-twirling, but which Grace roots in an internal consistency that underlines the point. If you really want to, you can certainly take Goole seriously; Grace gives him enough unpleasantness to let you do that. But again, quite why you’d want to take too much too seriously about Gallery of Ghouls is something of a mystery – it has what Tom Baker accurately describes as the mixture of lightness and sudden sincerity that gives it an accessibility that makes it ideal for drive-along or chore-along listening.
Don’t go into Gallery of Ghouls expecting high-level villainy or an apocalypse of the week. None of us live our lives on that level, and occasionally it’s refreshing to hear the Doctor and Romana not living on that level either. That said, there’s plenty of involvement, and despite the small scale, there are guns fired, threats made, secrets revealed, deceptions enacted and villains eventually despatched in a manner that’s somewhere between Patrick Troughton and David Tennant, landing squarely in gruesome territory. Also, there are jokes about how entirely miserable a place Slough is. So – bonus.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk