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Audio Drama Review
Lost in the smog of the Industrial Revolution, the TARDIS crashes four miles south of Manchester, in the grounds of Hurley Hall – a grand mansion belonging to a local factory owner, a proudly self-made man. But while Hurley dreams of growing richer still, his servants hope only for a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. His young maid Cathy, for instance, whom Nyssa learns is looking forward to joining the working people’s march to St Peter’s Field, in the heart of the city. There’ll be speeches and banners and music. It’ll be like one big jamboree… Or so she thinks. For the city’s establishment have called in their own private militia, to control the crowd. One of the darkest days in Manchester’s history is about to unfold – and the Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan are right in the thick of it…
The Peterloo Massacre is an example of that rare beast among Doctor Who stories, the ‘pure historical’, an adventure that contains no science-fiction elements apart from the TARDIS and its passengers. Back in the William Hartnell era, this subgenre used to be a recurring feature of the show’s format, but it was all but abandoned after 1966’s The Highlanders, in favour of stories involving monsters, and the television series has not returned to it since Black Orchid in 1982. It’s something the revived show should have a go at, if you ask me.
I suppose the closest television equivalent to this audio drama would be 1966’s The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve (the clue’s in the title), with the Doctor and his companions caught up in a tragedy that they are powerless to prevent. It’s an event that I knew nothing about until I heard this story, and I have learned a great deal in the process of doing so – such as the existence of the Yeomanry, volunteer regiments drawn from the nobility and the landed gentry, who had a vested interest in putting down the demonstrators at St Peter’s Field.
The first two episodes of this four-part tale are hindered by some rather unsubtle characterisation. There’s the self-made industrialist, Hurley (played by Robbie Stevens), who cares more for his profits than the rights or safety of this workforce; his snooty wife (Liz Morgan), who seems to have forgotten that she once lived in a slum herself; their outspoken maid, Cathy Roberts (Hayley Jayne Standing); and her forelock-tugging father (Wayne Forester).
Part Three is traditionally the weakest instalment of a four-part Doctor Who, in which the plot runs out of steam and marks time until the climactic fourth episode. The Peterloo Massacre bucks that trend in spades. Here, Part Three is where it all kicks off. This is where the massacre actually takes place, and it is utterly compelling to hear. There is dread in Nigel Fairs’s music, heart-pounding terror in the thunderous horses’ hooves, and horror and anger in the performances of the actors. The most gut-wrenching moment in the entire production occurs here, and it revolves around the fate of an utterly innocent bystander. It is carried by the sensitive portrayals of Hayley Jayne Standing and Sarah Sutton (as Nyssa) and it packs such a punch for being so understated. At first Cathy seems unaware of what has happened, though the listener knows full well. “He’s so quiet,” she marvels, “Always such a good boy, even in all this noise.” Unfortunately, writer Paul Magrs then feels the need to ladle on the moral outrage with Nyssa confronting Hurley over what he is responsible for.
The episode endings are a problem in this story. The first two cliffhangers are basically the same cliffhanger, with the Doctor (Peter Davison) issuing a dire warning about the events to come, while the third one tells us nothing that we didn’t already know.
Part Four is all about the aftermath and recriminations following the massacre. That sounds like an anticlimax, and to an extent it is, though it is bolstered towards the end by a race to prevent another, smaller tragedy.
I feel that the drama would have been stronger if, as in The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve and other historicals, there had been more of a sense of the Doctor and his companions being in real jeopardy. To be fair, Nyssa is placed in the thick of the tumult, but Tegan (Janet Fielding) largely remains on the sidelines of it, and the Doctor never seems to be in any danger at all. He rises above the situation, and suffers more from his fears about what might befall his friends (but doesn’t) and anger about the suffering of others, which he cannot prevent. Though the blurb for this release claims that, “Hurley dreams of growing richer still on the wealth of secret knowledge locked up in the Doctor’s time and space machine,” little is made of this Marco Polo style threat to the TARDIS within the story itself.
There are terrific performances, though, from the regulars and the guest actors alike. All three of the leads express potent anger. Tegan’s umbrage regarding the exploitation of workers is to be expected, having been established as a character trait in her very first story, Logopolis, but Nyssa’s anger is more shocking. The guest cast put on convincing Mancunian accents where necessary, even those who aren’t natives. And thanks to a combination of their doubling up to take on multiple roles and Nigel Fairs’s sound design during the crowd scenes, the cast seems a heck of a lot larger than it actually is.
The Peterloo Massacre is a stirring story, and everyone involved in the recording of it clearly gives it their all, but it could have been more subtly scripted.
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