Big Finish: TORCHWOOD - DEAD PLATES Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony’ll have the chicken.
Things to know up front before you spend money on Torchwood: Dead Plates.

Number 1 – it’s a Bilis Manger story, so it’s going to inevitably be one of the highlights of your Torchwood year.

Number 2 – that means it inevitably stars Murray Melvin in the lead role. This is an excellent thing, because Murray Melvin pitches Bilis Manger, always, on the icy, shivering razor-blade line between charm and malevolence, and an hour of that in your ears lets you know you’re in properly dramatic territory.

Number 3 – it’s written by David Llewellyn, who understands the world of Torchwood in his bones, and always turns out interesting, character-rich, involving scripts, so you’re in extremely good hands here.

And number 4 – you get all this and the sensitive, light-touch direction of Lisa Bowerman, which is particularly necessary in this story so as not to overplay its glorious, creepy oddness.

Oh, and then there’s that.

The glorious, creepy oddness.

The glorious, creepy oddness in this story is rich in both its atmosphere – late-Seventies Soho – and in its central premise.

The premise is that four people are convened in The Merry Cossack, one of Soho’s more salubrious restaurants.

Gerald Spencer (Tony Turner) – a sleazy, tabloid journalist with a history of sparking political scandal.

Oliver Barleycorn (Hugh Ross) – a painter of young men with huge… attributes, who has a talent for inebriation.

Mrs Beryl Finch (Cleo Sylvestre) – owner of The Merry Cossack (at least, nowadays).

And Felicity Templeton (Rosa Escoda) – a young actress on the rise, having stepped into the lead in St Joan at the Garrick when the former lead took a nasty turn down a flight of stairs.

The four have known each other for a while, getting together regularly for banter, gossip, stroganoff and drink.

Except tonight, one of them will murder Bilis Manger.

Bilis Manger, who none of them are supposed to know. Bilis Manger, who intrudes on their celebration of Flick’s success and positive reviews.

Bilis Manger who then turns up to investigate his own murder.

Strap in, folks, it’s Torchwood time…

Except joyously, it really isn’t. The setting is before the standard Torchwood we know, and no tooled-up void-wrangler is about to break in on the action. This is pure Bilis Manger, which – apologies, Torchwood regulars – makes it so much better.

Dead Plates evolves into a Torchwood version of An Inspector Calls set in late-Seventies Soho. And frankly, if you can imagine anything you want to listen to more, we may not be able to be friends.

Bilis Manger turns up to investigate the murder of the Bilis Manger who’s gently cooling on the horrid Seventies carpet at the Merry Cossack.

Nobody understands how this is possible, except for Bilis himself, and bless his scheming little soul, he’s not about to reveal his secrets. But it turns out the gang of four all know more about Bilis Manger than they at first admit. Because Bilis Manger also knows their darkest secrets, and has revealed his knowledge to them on previous occasions.

It soon turns out that murdering Bilis Manger is another thing the four have in common, but where, in An Inspector Calls, the investigating officer does what he can to make the carefree members of a single well-to-do family recognise and atone for their respective parts in the horrible death of a young woman, Bilis has no such qualms or moral indignation. In fact, he’s quite happy to have a bunch of dead Bilis Mangers around the place, for reasons entirely of his own.

There is a good deal of self-justification in the story, as each of the assembled regulars at the Merry Cossack try to explain that their murdering of him was nothing personal. That it was a moment of madness. That they had to do it, to keep their secrets or save their careers.

Bilis, like a reality TV show judge or a mildly amused avenging angel, lets them go, one by one, until things get down to what it pleases us to think of as the pointy end. We won’t ruin the upshift in drama for you, but there’s a certain amount of horror before a deliciously twisted ending – a year on from the night when the four Merry Cossacks met Bilis Manger. That’s an ending that is pure cyanide icing on a cake of deliciously Bilis waspishness and amorality, and in a sense it pulls a rapid audio retreat to deliver a lurching sense of inevitable horror, revealing that Bilis is entirely in control of where, when, and how you encounter him.

The performances are exquisitely pitched all the way down the admittedly short cast list, with Hugh Ross (familiar to Big Finish fans as Sir Toby Kinsella from Counter-Measures, and with a very distinctive voice) shining particularly as Oliver Barleycorn, and Rosa Escoda bringing a standout vocal freshness to Felicity Templeton among the long-term Soho crowd.

But really, the joy of this release lies in two core elements.

First, the script from David Llewellyn, which takes a classic play, a very specific moment in time (the impending election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister and the end of so many eras), and a handful of Soho archetypes, then gives the whole thing a twist that, if it’s lacking in Torchwood personnel, is full of Torchwood eeriness.

And secondly, Murray Melvin (who might well have an anecdote or two of this time and place). He skips through this story with unabashed relish, adding to the perpetual and evolving oddness and mystery that is Bilis Manger. It’s delicious that, like some of his other recent Torchwood audio appearances, this is a Bilis (at least from our point of view) from before he runs into the Cardiff Torchwood gang (and indeed, while some of them will still have been babies).

As such, he feels like a freer agent here, but has still managed to get himself into trouble – which is why there are dead Bilis Mangers littering not only late Seventies London, but other times and places too. The demand we make is that this be explicable, but both Bilis, and to some extent Murray Melvin and David Llewellyn too, chuckle mischievously at this demand. No, they say. We have no obligation to have it make sense for you. Accept it on its own terms, or not at all.

And if you buy into it, if you do the deal and accept Dead Plates on its own terms, it will deliver you the highlight of your Torchwood year so far, because a lot of Big Finish stars come into alignment here to give you an excellent, creepy, whimsical, murderous time. And that’s a hell of a good way to spend an hour of your life. While you have it.

Torchwood: Dead Plates is exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 31 August 2022, and on general sale after this date.

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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