It’s 1941, London during the Blitz, and Quentin Collins is trapped in the rubble of a bombed out building, with an old friend, Rosie Faye. But she can’t remember ever seeing him before, and to pass the time while they wait for rescue, Quentin unfolds the story of their first meeting, in 1906. Rosie Fay was a young singer, more charming than talented, and as ever, Quentin found himself drawn to a beautiful woman. But after the two of them discovered a dead “lady of the night” lying in the street, Quentin and Rosie were caught between an angry madame, a suspicious theatre manager, and a supernatural force burning for revenge…
After a number of audios that were competent at best and had little ambition beyond po-faced melodrama, the Dark Shadows line gets a real boost in this funny, charming, surprisingly moving release that’s enjoyable without reinventing the wheel or meddling with the basic formula of the series. From its tongue-in-cheek dialogue to its eerier moments to the brilliant performance of Louise Jameson, there’s a lot to admire in London’s Burning.
Considering that the appeal of Dark Shadows is as much camp (in the imprecise, general sense in which that word is typically used) as it is dramatic, it’s surprising that Big Finish’s audios have tended to play everything straight, with hardly any humour apart from the mockery that characters threw at each other during arguments. Fortunately, writer Joe Lidster recognises that jokes don’t detract from a spooky atmosphere, and that you can make gentle fun of Dark Shadows without devaluing it. The laughs in London’s Burning aren’t side-splitting or anything, but they don’t need to be; a few lightly comic lines like “He ain’t no creature of the night; he’s an American!”, or a speech that punctures Quentin’s endless brooding, can add to a listener’s enjoyment without feeling intrusive.
The thing about good horror, from nineteenth century ghost stories to 1960s Gothic soap opera, is that it mixes overt bursts of terror with smaller flashes of the strange and inexplicable. Lose sight of this, and you produce something too over-the-top to be frightening, like the last Quentin-centric audio, Blood Dance. This one balances its elements better, and as a result I found it genuinely unsettling in one or two places. Another feature of good horror is that it can use even the most innocuous elements to make the skin crawl. Here a boisterous song from the music halls of London becomes a source of fear. Lately the most atmospheric part of a Dark Shadows audio has been the theme music, but London’s Burning provides a welcome exception to the rule.
And later on, at a pivotal moment in the story, that same music hall song is used in an emotional moment that is, for Dark Shadows, surprisingly touching. Recent releases in the range have centred on questions of good and evil and how the characters can live with themselves, which would make for potent thematic material in a different context, but in a show where people switched from dark to light at a moment’s notice on the whims of the writers it just doesn’t fit. London’s Burning uses Quentin’s long, tortured life to greater effect, by creating a period of happiness in which he is able, all too briefly, to overcome the past, and showing how that time comes to a sudden end.
Described in such flat terms, this doubtless sounds as ponderous as anything else in Dark Shadows. The reason it works is that the source of the drama is the character of Rosie, wonderfully portrayed by Doctor Who alum Louise Jameson. It’s all too easy to imagine a lesser actress making Rosie a caricature, a sprightly Cockney type, which would have rendered her story meaningless and overblown; in Jameson’s capable hands Rosie is mature, clever, and brave, and so the climax of the play is understated, almost haunting. In addition to Rosie, Jameson also voices other female characters, and handles them every bit as well. You can always tell that it’s her, but the script is structured in a way that sidesteps this problem, and her delivery captures differences of social class and life experience without exaggerating them unnecessarily. David Selby does solid work as Quentin, avoiding the excesses that sometimes make his performance impossible to take seriously.
After having my expectations gradually lowered by the last few Dark Shadows releases, I found London’s Burning a major and a pleasant surprise. I hope that future projects, whether dramatic readings or full-cast audios, will follow in its footsteps. In its own way, Dark Shadows has a potential as limitless as that of Big Finish’s major franchise, Doctor Who, and London’s Burning only begins to tap that potential. This small gem should be a turning point for the range, not a high point.
London’s Burning (by Joseph Lidster; starring David Selby) was released by Big Finish Productions in June 2010.