Jeremiah Bourne in Time is another “Big Finish Original”, celebrating 20 years of Big Finish Productions with an original (i.e. non-tie-in) audio story. Jeremiah Bourne in Time comes from the pen of Nigel Planer, better known to me as an actor (in, for example, The First Men in the Moon), and is clearly the first instalment of a series that could run and run. The download is broken up into four separate audiobook files, but I’m not sure why except as a relic of Big Finish’s usual reliance on CDs: this is very much one long story that serves as a chunk of a much larger story.
The star of Jeremiah Bourne in Time is Jeremiah “Jem” Bourne, a 17-year-old orphan from contemporary London who suddenly finds himself in the middle of a 1910 séance on the run from a gaggle of old ladies. I will admit that even an hour into it, I was a bit uncertain about the whole thing. It mostly seemed to consist of strange people shouting at Jem, and women especially asking for favours. (For a bit I thought this was going to be like one of those picaresque novels, like Fielding’s Tom Jones, where women keep throwing themselves at the protagonist, “requiring” him to have lots of sex, but actually there’s no sex at all here, even if the story is picaresque in tone.) But partway through Episode Two, the whole thing started to settle down a bit and I started to get a grasp on what was actually going on.
The plot, though, to be honest, is somewhat incidental. The joy of Jeremiah Bourne is the world it conjures and the characters that inhabit it. Director Barnaby Edwards has, of course, cast immaculately, and there’s not a character in the thing who isn’t obviously completely suited for the role they play. Sophie Thompson leads the charge as the impressive Mrs Phyllis Stokes, head of the Society for Theosophical Research (Auxiliary Women’s Branch) a.k.a. STRAWB, who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to abuse Jem to get it — but is also willing to go along with his “cons” and is utterly captivated by his hints about the world of the future. Tim McInnerny is an utter delight as her brother, Rodger Alcott Standish, famous magistrate and infamous nudist, who can’t stand the hidebound ways of his own time. Phyllis and Rodger together make a tremendous double act, and the more time we spent with them, the more I enjoyed it.
Nigel Planer himself plays Henry Davenant Hythe, Rodger’s best friend, and early eugenicist. Christopher Ryan has a small role as Peter, Jem’s stepfather, but is highly enjoyable as his abstracted parent who’s more interesting in restoring his vintage Edwardian home in all its detail than in worrying about where his stepson keeps vanishing to. Ony Uhiara is charming as Daisy Wallace, refugee from a home for “fallen girls” who takes to a new world with surprising ease, and though I don’t think anyone would mistake Lauren McCrostie for an actual preteen as Jem’s stepsister Ruby, I still enjoyed her performance. But really, everyone is great here — there’s many I haven’t even mentioned! The characters are definitely larger than life, and perhaps more caricature than character at times, but everyone plays them with such enthusiasm and energy that it completely works.
Sebastian Armesto as Jem, then, is the kind of actor you might feel a little sorry for, a good actor surrounded by greats of the profession. But he carries the story (he appears in every scene) with a good mixture of bafflement and quick-thinking, and as you spend time with him, you come to empathise with his plight, especially the mystery of his mother, who just drove off in her taxi one day and never came back. In Episode Four, I was surprised to find myself touched a couple times. The story manages to move between the emotional and the comic with ease.
I have two complaints, though I don’t think they should hold anyone back from listening. The first is that the sound design is sometimes a little subpar for Big Finish; this might seem a trivial complaint, but I often found the way footsteps were laid into the production unconvincing! The other is that of structure. Like I said, it’s really one long story, but I don’t think the answer is one four-hour instalment. Rather, the way it bounces from predicament to predicament, it felt more like an ongoing serial narrative that would benefit from being broken up into shorter parts, such as eight episodes of 25 minutes.
This is the second Big Finish Original I’ve listened to. ATA Girl I enjoyed a lot, and though I would listen to a second series, the first set works completely well and is a strong achievement on its own. Jeremiah Bourne in Time, though, demands future sets. The story itself teases threads to come, but moreover it’s clear from Nigel Planer’s enthusiasm in the extras that he’s got ideas for loads more stories to come, and it’s the kind of story that you could see running and running, so hopefully Big Finish are able to do just that.
Jeremiah Bourne in Time (by Nigel Planer; starring Sebastian Armesto, Nigel Planer, Sophie Thompson, Celia Imrie, Tim McInnerny, Siobhan Redmond, Annette Badland, Christopher Ryan, Tim Bentinck) was released by Big Finish Productions in July 2018.