Big Finish: Torchwood THE GREY MARE Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Big Finish: Torchwood THE GREY MARE Review

Tony’s going grey.

It’s an odd tradition at the best of times, but usually a fun one – you sing, you drink, you wish or invoke good things for the year, the season, or the harvest ahead. Everyone goes home with a slightly fuzzy head and an earworm, and if there’s anything at all in the business of spirits, they feel themselves appeased and appealed to, and will see what they can do to help you out.

It’s the same tradition that gives rise to carol singers – they come, they sing in celebration of the season of significance, you give them things, they naff off and leave you in peace.

It’s probably by no means ONLY the Welsh who turn the idea of wassailing into a gothic opera, but it is, shall we say, entirely understandable if you know the Welsh even a little. Drink, singing, drama, a dead horse – we’ll have some of that, thank you. Which is why the Christmas wassailing tradition in South Wales is the Mari Lwyd (Good luck, English pronunciation-fans! Start with Lloyd and then go significantly off piste).

The Mari Lwyd is a tradition where groups of usually-men go from door to door, some dressed in folk costume, and one looking like a cross between a Ku Klux Klansman and a pantomime horse. Sackcloth or bedsheets for a horse-body, and traditionally an actual horse’s skull on a stick for the head (we mentioned the gothic thing, right?).

The point at which most sensible nations would go “Look, come in if you’re coming, and if you’re not, naff off!” is that Mari Lwyd (who could double as the Death of Horses) and her acolytes sing to get invited in, but then it’s EXPECTED that householders sing back to them that they can sling their horse-headed hooks, and bar the door. Mari and the gang then have to sing to be admitted AGAIN, and then and only then does the householder usually let them in – and if they do, then the wassailers have the right to expect to be offered food and drink.

Honestly, it’s a whole freakin’ opera.

If you already knew all this, apologies for wasting your precious seconds. If you didn’t, that’s the primer you need before going in to Torchwood’s new year folk horror, The Grey Mare.

Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) is determined to get away from it all. Like all great fictional detectives throughout time, wherever he goes, something related to his day job seems to turn up and mess with him. So this Christmas, he’s booked into a remote B&B run by the chattily eccentric Mrs Watkins (Rhian Morgan), and intends to do nothing and see no-one. Just Ianto, some quality alcohol, a bit of fuss-free grub, and above all, no people. No forceful merriment, no family. He just needs a break.

Which is a shame.

Because this Christmas, the Mari Lwyd is coming for Ianto Jones. In fact, she’s coming for everyone in the remote village where Mrs Watkins makes her living – and she’s not taking “naff off” for an answer.

Folk horror lives or dies on its creation of atmosphere, because it’s more or less guaranteed to give up any pretence at logic at some point along the way, and it needs to have gotten you into a state of heightened emotion, irrationality and panic before it does that, so you’re swept along and don’t notice the point at which the realism of the world went all to hell.

In The Grey Mare, by Lauren Mooney and Stewart Pringle, there’s a healthy dose of atmosphere-building. Mrs Watkins is a nosy older Welsh woman, of the kind that mean MI6 is really missing a trick, because they’ll have your life story, your love story, your future plans and your inside leg measurement out of you within half an hour of meeting you. Never underestimate the international spy potential of nosy little old Welsh ladies.

There’s a little mystification and judgment about the way she questions Ianto, a young man, spending Christmas away from friends, loved ones, and even his family. And she also gives him a handy primer in the Mari Lwyd tradition that he might encounter as the night goes on. Just in case his time in London has made him forget.

The joy about the relatively isolated surroundings of the story is that they serve the story on several levels at once. On the one hand, they’re a physical rendering of the theme that runs through the story – loneliness and isolation. On the other, they’re a neat way of getting just a handful of other people into the story, and corralling them away from the usual trappings of the outside world, so the folk horror can effectively play out in this little bubble-universe of the unexpected. That’s efficient scriptwriting, for all it feels a little like it shows its working too openly as the story unfolds.

Oh – loneliness and isolation?

Yep – this is, fairly naturally, the Ianto of the first two series of Torchwood, struggling for recognition in the team, dealing with the reality of what happened to Lisa, not yet ready to let anyone else into his life and heart. He seeks out the isolation at what is ‘supposed’ to be a time of friends and family because he feels no-one will miss him.

And Mrs Annie Watkins too is lonely and isolated in her life, having lost her husband, a degree of financial independence, and for the most part, the will to engage with a broader life. They’re both people to whom the idea of solitary decline feels both inevitable and anaesthetically acceptable.

It’s worth thinking about that in relation to the Mari Lwyd tradition. A spectral death’s-head horse seeking warmth and company, seeking comfort and nourishment in joining with others and stepping out of the cold.

There’s some excellent audio direction in evidence here from Lisa Bowerman when Mari Lwyd comes calling. Rendering folk horror in audio depends on precision timing and precise choices of the sounds that make up – in this case – the outside-thing trying to get in. And quite enough is done here to give you the absolute willies.

There’s a little touch of PJ Hammond’s Sapphire and Steel about the story too, with rhymes and responses needing to be spoken aloud to form a loop of consequences and get the Mari Lwyd to go away – because here, the tradition gets a whole other level of significance when the grey mare stops being a bunch of local blokes with a sheet over their heads and becomes the thing it’s supposed to be – the horse in need of warmth and sustenance, trying to get in.

And what does that tradition of its needs mean in a folk horror context? Mooney and Pringle tap into some classic vampire tropes to give their pale horse some punch. If you invite it in, it takes food, and it takes warmth.

All the warmth.

Including all the heat the human body needs to survive.

Annny questions?

And why would you invite it in?

Well, initially, because that’s part of the ritual. It’s what you’re supposed to do, and there’s a neat little moment of heavily camouflaged social satire in the idea that because it’s the expected thing, people will do it, irrespective of the sense of the action.

But also, this is – again, like many classic vampires – a Mari with an interesting way of persuasion about it. Provoking the necessary emotions to get the job done, whether they’re compassion, or guilt, or fear, or anything else, the Mari works its way into your head just as effectively as it then works its way into your home. And then, unless you’re very lucky, you’re done for.

We discover this truth about the ‘real’ Mari Lwyd in the evidence of a young local couple, who are discovered dead. And a local lad with a family tradition of being part of the Mari’s band, Daniel (Sion Daniel Young), finds himself caught up in Annie Watkins’ and Ianto Jones’ Christmas struggle against loneliness, grief, and the intrusions of the Mari.

While his character is universally described as a bit of an idiot, Sion Daniel Young in fact delivers the real, living, emotional cornerstone of the episode. While Ianto is at least somewhat accustomed to stuff going weird and deadly around him, and Annie is all about the mythology of the Mari, Daniel is very much our central reactive anchor, the one who reacts as most of us would, with a “What the hell is going on?!” and a strong desire to run away or clout the thing that’s trying to get in.

We mentioned that the Mari provokes emotions, yes?

That’s key when it comes to explaining Daniel’s destiny in the story, and for all he feels like he’s introduced methodically to prod our care buttons, Sion Daniel Young sells the reality of his character with a light touch and some depth of feeling, allowing the script to punch above the weight a lesser actor could wring from it.

What we ultimately get here is a well-put-together folk horror tale with all the elements of a proper Christmas ghost story – loneliness, pain, learning, connection, unlikely friendships, and a ghost horse trying to get itself invited in so it can kill people. And of course a turkey dinner at the end.

The acting is restrained enough to give us genuine emotional connection to the characters, and there’s a discovery of inner reserves of strength that makes for an uptick of positivity at the end, despite a small but meaningful body-count.

If there’s one point of detraction in The Grey Mare, it’s that it feels a little like a writing brief fulfilled, rather than ‘just another day’ in Ianto’s life that goes weird. The drama is delivered, absolutely, but it’s a touch neat around the edges.

Most of the time, that would be absolutely no issue – we love a neat solution when it’s cleverly arrived at (as it is here) under normal Torchwood circumstances. But given that The Grey Mare is so distinctively a folk horror story, it feels like it needs a little roughing up, a few more frayed edges and a little more chaos to really leave our nerve endings traumatised.

But that’s a very small niggle – especially for writers who are new to the world of audio Torchwood. If you were going to use The Grey Mare as a calling card, you’d be much more than happy with the result that’s achieved here.

The Grey Mare delivers a satisfying Torchwood twist on an already pretty creepy Welsh wassailing tradition, while touching on loneliness and social isolation (in a world before the UK was collectively traumatised by pandemic plague). It shows a Ianto who undergoes significant change, and ends the story at least ready to believe that there are people who want him around. And if it’s never going to be one you turn to for a relisten in spring and summer, as a dose of festive darkness, cold, and jump-scare terror, it’s very much what you’re looking for. Let it in… we dare you.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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