Brighton, Sussex; 1936
“Ere, listen listen, I’ve got one for you. There once was this bloke, you see. Good-looking sort of chap. Lovely, brightly coloured coat. No rubbish. Quality gear. Never bought a drink neither… or so they say. But his name wasn’t Miller. Oh no, there’ll never be another Cheeky Chappie, lady, there’ll never be another. They broke the mould when they made me you know.
No, this bloke called himself the Doctor. Doctor who you ask? And may well you. Don’t know me self. No one ever knew. Funny that. He was a real strange one. Odd things happened when he arrived.
Mind you, them were dark days. No one was laughing. And these were my people. My public. It was like playing first house at the Glasgow Empire. Just like the entire town was cursed it was. Cursed by something not of this world…”
Colin Baker is the Doctor in Pier Pressure
X X X X X
Colin Baker (The Doctor)
Maggie Stables (Evelyn Smythe)
Roy Hudd (Max Miller)
Doug Bradley (Professor Talbot)
Chris Simmons (Albert Potter)
Sally Ann Curran(Emily Bung)
Martin Parsons (Billy)
Written By: Robert Ross
Directed By: Gary Russell
X X X X X
Doctor Who has always relied on history to help tell its stories, both with classical settings and prominent figures. The new series has seen Winston Churchill, Richard Nixon, Adolf Hitler, and Queen Victoria alongside the Doctor. Big Finish has also portrayed important men and women from the past in their audios, including Mary the First (The Marian Conspiracy), Charles Darwin (Bloodtide), and Richard III (The Kingmaker). So when a prominent comedian from the mid-20th century is a character in your production, what else is there to do but to not only seek out an expert on that comedian’s history, but actually hire him to play the part?
I really wanted to like Pier Pressure. Pun intended title aside, this story is a throwback to the era of British music hall entertainment, with quick one-liners and cheeky dialogue mixed in with an alien plot to first take over an English resort town and then the world! With a reunion of the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn Smythe along with the rapid-fore wit of Max Miller, what should have been a fast-paced plot and a dash against time turns out to instead be a confusing series of events that takes way too long to come together.
After the events of Medicinal Purposes and letting Daft Jamie go to his death, a certain Time Lord is in a sullen mood. Evelyn tries to cheer him up even as the Doctor insists on having a good sulk about the futility of it all. But after some friendly-but-firm needling from Evelyn, the Doctor decides that a holiday just might be in order. Not Blackpool, though. Instead, the TARDIS ends up in Brighton, circa 1936, just as tourist season is getting underway. As famed British comedian Max Miller bemoans a small and unfriendly crowd at his latest music hall performance, young lovers Emily and Albert are more concerned with the screams that echo across the Brighton pier late at night, possibly coming from the lighthouse of stage magician Professor Talbot. Only one slight problem, however. Professor Talbot has been dead for nearly fifteen years…
This is the second of three Big Finish audios that Robert Ross would pen for Big Finish. The third one is another Six/Evelyn story, Assassin in the Limelight. The first one was Medicinal Purposes. Ross is well known for his work in the history of British entertainment, specifically for being one of the most renowned experts regarding the Carry On series of films. With Pier Pressure, Ross dives head-first into a well-known era; the “music hall revue,” a British counterpart to American “vaudeville.” Music halls focused on the British working-class, with boisterous songs and bawdy jokes performed for an audience enjoying food and drink. Brighton, a resort town south of London on the Channel shore, was a prominent home for the music hall revue, from its early 20th century heyday until its quiet fading away after the Second World War. As someone who grew up watching the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, and Jack Benny, who all got their start in vaudeville, hearing about the British cousin to that form of entertainment was an instant story hook for me. Ross knows how to write his history; for the many flaws of Medicinal Purposes, Ross nailed the historical setting of 19th century Edinburgh during the Burke and Hare murders. He does much the same for 1930’s Brighton in terms of tourists, boardwalks and the ocean. The “music hall” aspect, though, barely comes into play aside from the presence of Max Miller. I guess I was expecting something along the lines of The Shakespeare Code from the play’s synopsis. The fact that Ross ties the fate of the Brighton pier, falling into disrepair before falling into the ocean in the 1990’s, into the story’s denouement is a nice historical tie-in.
It was such a joy to hear Maggie Stables once again. Thicker Than Water is among Evelyn’s final stories with the Doctor (and her last one with Six), but that’s only speaking chronologically. In reality, there’s eight or nine stories left featuring the history professor. And it’s ALWAYS a joy to hear Colin Baker. Their first scene inside the TARDIS, with Six being his sullen, prickly self (a throwback to his time with Peri?) and Evelyn trying to cut through it all and cheer him up whether he likes it or not, was the moment that I thought Pier Pressure would be an enjoyable story. Arrangements for War and Thicker Than Water both focused on the more serious, dramatic aspect of the friendship between the Doctor and Evelyn. Pier Pressure tried to focus on the friendship itself, a welcome return to form after two good but emotionally hard hitting stories. The banter between Baker and Stables is just as good and quick as it’s always been, with Evelyn not afraid to call the Doctor out when he’s being mean, jerkish, or overly melodramatic. It’s the kind of friendship where Evelyn will do as the Doctor asks/tells her to do until it’s time for her NOT to listen to him, and Stables does a great job being tough and firm, but also lovable and kind. On the flip side, we get a Sixth Doctor that’s just a bit more like his “younger” self. The events of Medicinal Purposes have left him a bit frustrated, a Time Lord who constantly does his best but always seems to experience defeat even in victory, which causes him to be jaded, on edge, and a bit of a dick. He grudgingly agrees to a nice quiet holiday…but as soon as the Doctor sniffs a mystery, the Sixie we all know and love is back with full force. Baker is grand, putting on his standard quality performance as a Time Lord who will save the day (and lets everyone know it) with his superior knowledge (letting everyone else know, gently, that they’re wrong) and dismissing the villain’s boasting by pointing out all the clichés contained within. The problem comes not from Baker’s performance, but from the material he’s given. Much like Medicinal Purposes, the performance of Baker doesn’t quite match up with the story’s characterization of the Doctor. He proclaims about a threat that will wipe out all humanity and stresses the urgency of the matter…but the actual threat barely materializes and is easily dismissed during the story’s climax. And when the Doctor says a young lady is better off dead (as a corpse vs. a zombie), the way the words are written make the Doctor comes off as incredibly hollow and flippant.
Albert, played by longtime The Bill cast member Chris Simmons, and Emily, played by Sally Ann Curran, are the young lovers who bring the problems along Brighton breach to the Doctor’s attention. Emily is fine for the time she’s alive, and fine for her short time as a zombie, and I will give credit to Simmons for making Albert a bit more than a young man in over his head, especially how he goes into shock once he realizes Sally Ann’s true fate. Martin Parsons has a small role as Billy, an actor who’s come to Brighton to learn at the knee of his friend Max Miller. Apparently, Billy was supposed to be a young William Hartnell as he mentions small parts in several movies that Hartnell himself starred in while starting out as an actor. His presence is a nice shout-out that doesn’t subtract or distract from the story. I appreciated how Billy realizes how insane the Doctor sounds and throws up his hands, walking away in the middle of the second episode and disappearing from the story in a way that makes perfect sense.
Another reason I was excited to give Pier Pressure a try was the presence of Doug Bradley as the villain of the piece. Doug Bradley is a well-known actor, musician, voice artist, make-up technician, author, and is perhaps most recognized for being the Lead Cebonite from the Hellraiser movies. Or, to put it another way, he’s mother[BLEEP]in’ Pinhead. Sadly, the joy I felt at hearing Bradley’s voice quickly evaporated. As the villain of the piece, former stage magician Professor Talbot, Bradley gives a solid performance – a faded star of the stage whose grief at losing his wife made him the perfect host for an alien being looking for a new home that his species could inhabit. Bradley channels the evil pride of the alien, the confused but ambitious side of Talbot, and the slickness of a man playing all sides for his own benefit. Sadly, while Bradley pulls these quick switches in character off off, the script doesn’t even come close. We see all these sides of Talbot, but they come so fast, so quickly, and so out of time with the scene he’s in that the listener soon becomes confused. Is Talbot a good man who made a poor decision? A evil man who made a deal with the devil? A man who simply craves what he’s lost and will do anything to get it back? It’s impossible to get a grip on Talbot’s character because the script jumps back and forth so much. Instead of a man trying to comes to terms with him, we get a man who has no true identity, and therefore the listener can’t get a true handle on the character…which is a problem when that character is your lead villain!
The highlight of the story might be a lowlight for others. If you’re not a fan of cheeky dialogue, a character who can’t shut up, and a man so in love with himself that everyone else loves him, then Max Miller is not for you. On the other hand…if you’re like me, he’s the best part of the story. Max Miller, aka the Cheeky Chappie, is often considered to be the greatest stand-up comic of his generation, a man who always did his best to get around the censors with his risqué material and packed them in during variety’s golden age. Roy Hudd is well known in Britain as not only as a historian of the entertainment industry (much like Robert Ross), but also as a dead ringer when it comes to impersonating Miller. From what I found online for Mr. Miller, Hudd NAILS the part as we see Miller early in his career, when he star was beginning to ascend but he was still barely scraping by and having his off-nights on stage. Hudd dominates when he’s in a scene, for good or for ill (good for me, possibly ill for others) and his repartee with Evelyn, who knows his fame but still won’t put up with his cheeky nature, is a sight to behold. There’s also a great scene where Max asked the Doctor if he’s from the BBC and the Doctor replies that the BBC doesn’t know that they have a good thing until it’s gone! How close Max Miller is to one’s style of humor will affect how they perceive Hudd’s turn, but there’s no denying that Hudd IS Max Miller in this story.
The sound work on this one is a mixed bag for me. While the background noises are once again well done, putting the listener right in the resort village during a quiet weekend with seagulls and crashing waves, the musical score…well, there are several times where the music clashes very hard with the scene it’s playing over. Oh, it’s good, it’s light and fluffy, it fits the era, but when the Doctor is talking about the gravest of threats, is that REALLY the time to have jaunty calliope music as your “ominous” theme?
There are two major problems with Pier Pressure – an inconsistent story and the fact that said story is INCREDIBLY. FREAKING. SLOW. To put it in Elcor, “Firm statement: This serial is too languid for my taste.” Gary Russell really needed to take more control over this story. A firm directorial hand might have eliminated some padding, tightened up the rambling and contradictory nature of some of the dialogue, and focused the solid performances into something coherent. The Doctor rants about how this alien threat under the seas of Brighton is one that threatens the entire human race, but aside from turning one girl into a zombie and mind controlling Max and Evelyn at one point, there’s no sense of tension when it comes to these aliens, which is especially noticeable by the “blink and you might miss it” climax, a climax whose set-up takes much longer than the actual heroic sacrifice. And actually GETTING to that climax involves a long slog through a lot of padding. Never mind some of the weakest cliffhangers Doctor Who has ever seen, there is entirely too much “I don’t believe you” going on, mixed with Talbot arguing with himself for what seems like ages in a very dull manner as the listener “wonders” who is really in control of the magician’s body, and a HUGE scene transition that never takes place, as the third act cliffhanger resolves itself off-screen with everyone back in the TARDIS! If there ever was a story that cries out like a seagull for a halfway decent script editor, it’s Pier Pressure, as what could have been a neat little story with a fun historical figure instead serves as a low water mark for Six’s Big Finish run.
Synopsis – Pier Pressure fails to live up to half its name by neglecting to provide any pressure or tension to its characters or their actions, instead choosing to just sit by the dock of the bay wasting the listener’s time. 2/5
Next up – A remote Scottish mansion. Five bickering academics are haunted by ghosts from their past. Reluctantly they offer shelter to the Doctor and his companions Ace and Hex…
Sylvester McCoy is the Doctor in…Night Thoughts