The Mystery of the Missing Hour

Lidster-S&S-2.6-Missing-Hour Agatha Christie meets Pirandello in this rather splendid audio mystery by Joseph Lidster starring Susannah Harker and David Warner as ‘time detectives’ Sapphire and Steel. It’s Cairo in 1926 and an expedition arrives from England to uncover the secrets of a long-lost Pharaoh’s tomb. But someone on the expedition isn’t what they appear to be. It’s lucky therefore that when an impossible murder takes place at the Cairo Hilton, two of the residents turn out to be husband-and-wife amateur sleuths, Shuffle and Sixpence …

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked AV Media meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.

“Not in front of the suspects, dear …”

Archetypes and stereotypes abound and are neatly subverted in this three-part drama split across two CDs that clocks in at nearly two-and-a-half hours and is a classic example of a game of two halves:  once its major twist has been sprung at the beginning of the second disc (which is actually part three of the story) it completely overturns the narrative, revealing that a number of clues (some more subtle than others) have been laid out in plain sight along the way – and then embarks on an exciting new trajectory. The main characters are straight from the Golden Age mystery roster of stock characters: there is the stuffy Major and his wife Lady Marjorie, the naughty-but-nice secretary Jane, the ultra ‘Oirish’ maid Betty, Ranjit the mute local guide, a camp MC at the Hilton Hotel, a long-lost brother with sinister intent and Arthur Travers, the orphan brought up by the Major, his father’s former business partner, who narrates the story, looking back at his naive younger self (and played in his older incarnation by the ever-excellent Colin Baker). Right from the beginning Arthur tells us that he has a vague sense of déjà vu, which is both an ironic comment on the ultra-traditional detective story set-up and the first clue that exploring the sense of ritual that we associate with this kind of material, with suspects introduced, a murder committed and a sleuth to explain it all at the end, is going to be a major theme.

“Wherever we go death seems to follow us …”

There is a decidedly end of term feeling about this ‘case’, which is perhaps not so surprising given that it was thought at the time that it would in fact be the eleventh and last in the Sapphire & Steel series of audio adventures (though as it turned out there would be a further, albeit rather short, third season) and author Joseph Lidster plays this to the hilt. So, along with many references to the team’s previous cases (most notable The Passenger and Lidster’s own Daisy Chain from the first season and Water Like a Stone from the second) this is also a send-off that plays up what this series has always striven to do well – be surprising and be unconventional. For starters, where are our heroes? David Warner and Susannah Harker do star but here appear as the amateur detectives Shuffle and Sixpence, two jolly but decidedly strange characters that come across as an ultra-libidinous version of Agatha Christie’s crime-fighting duo Tommy and Tuppence.

Egypt 1926 (image: Ancient Faces: http://www.ancientfaces.com/)

We start with the a fairly comprehensive summary of conventions of the traditional murder mystery set-up that, as we shall see, draws attention to some weak characterisation and often implausible situations. In addition to the usual tale of rich upper class Brits caught up in a murder in foreign locales before the War, there is also a disturbing undercurrent of perverse sexuality which even affects the two detectives who seem to have very wandering eyes. The first murder victim, found clutching pages from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, turns out to have been a surprisingly randy young lady (there is a fairly funny sex scene heard during an audio montage that works very well) so that while apparently everyone liked her, nobody seems to really mourn her violent passing very much. Then there is another murder and things become very illogical, with characters seemingly able to appear in two places at once (hence the eponymous ‘missing hour’) and clues that seem to lead nowhere – on top of which all the main characters are noticeably lacking in any sense of empathy – why is the atmosphere so unreal? This is then capped with an attempted drowning in the hotel swimming pool involving Arthur himself, at which point he, or anyway his older narrating self, seems to start to have his doubts about the tall tale he is recollecting – is it all true and if not, then just how reliable is our narrator?

“God, I’m bored – can I kill someone?”

If this sounds like I am about to slam this as a silly and derivative Christie pastiche, well, I’m not. For this (ultimately) turns out to be a work that truly makes the most of the audio format, and which indeed could not work any other way. It in fact challenges the listener to stick through the pretty silly ‘am dram’ whodunit charade and then see how it all gets broken apart with skill and a high degree of feeling. Along with the two stars and Baker, all old pros at this sort of thing, this production is helped along by a standout performance from Sarah Douglas (she was ‘Ursa’ in the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films, which I mention for a reason that will become very clear when you listen to this playful drama), who as the very weird Lady Marjorie comes into her own as the more novel aspects of the story take over on disc 2. And really that’s all one can say without ruining what it a surprising and clever post-modern audio production that draws together such disparate elements as ancient curses, dusty whodunits, the sinking of the Titanic, Faustian pacts and much more besides for what ultimately turns out to be a very poignant and affecting tale.

As always with this series of radio plays the sound design and music by producer Nigel Fairs is ambitious and executed with great flair and ingenuity – in addition the original TV theme music by Cyril Ornadel has been run through a demented blender and crossed with Ron Goodwin’s jaunty motif for the Miss Marple film series from the 1960s to produce a bizarre but amusing new signature tune for this highly original audio play.

Writer: Joseph Lidster
Director: Nigel Fairs
Music: Nigel Fairs
Sound Design: Nigel Fairs
Running time: 138 minutes
Release date: June 2007

Main cast: David Warner (Steel); Susannah Harker (Sapphire); Colin Baker (Narrator); Sarah Douglas (Lady Marjorie); Ian Hallard (Arthur); Cate Debenham Taylor (Jane); Ian Brooker (Cornelius); Nigel Fairs (MC)

Availability: This release is available on CD and as an MP3 download from Big Finish – visit: www.bigfinish.com.

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in Agatha Christie, Audio Review, Big Finish, Egypt, Joseph Lidster, Miss Marple, Nigel Fairs, Poirot, Sapphire & Steel, Scene of the crime. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to The Mystery of the Missing Hour

  1. Sergio – You know, I typically have my doubts about ‘_____meets____’ reviews, but I think you’ve nailed this one perfectly. And I like the fact that the subject also involves Ancient Egypt, which was, if I may use the term, quite fashionable at the time. A nice touch and I do like a good ‘impossible crime,’ Especially the part where I mentally kick myself for not noticing the clues earlier *sigh*…

    • Thanks Margot – this is very much a post-modern critique-cum-pastiche that tries to shake up the genre DNA of the conventional whodunit and create something new – I think it does a great job but not for everyone (and it does depend on what your tolerance threshold is for absurdist theatre).

  2. Wow. I thought I was the only one who enjoyed this audio – it tends to get rather slammed on the sci-fi sites, I think. It’s as mad as a box of frogs and the final episode is… somewhat meta, shall we say. But it’s been too long since I heard it, so thanks for the reminder, Sergio.

    • Cheers Steve – glad you liked it too. I am a bit ‘meta’ fan, when it’s done well, thoguh of course this is a classic example where you and I are the only ones in the room who probably know what we’re referring to – let’s hope it’s a long playing CD …

      • I can visualise so many people enjoying episodes 1-3 and then being either baffled, annoyed or both at the final instalment…

        As I said though, I loved it. Still haven’t summoned the courage to listen to the actual finale, Wall of Darkness, though, as everyone seems to hate that one.

        • Once again I am exactly the same position as you – I’ve had the CDs for season 3 on my shelf for literally years, pretty much ever since they first came out but have been putting it off, scared at what I might find – we should start a club!

          • Haven’t got Second Sight but Remember Me and Zero are probably the two best plays in the entire series. Just wary of Wall of Darkness…

          • Well, in that case, I think the ‘time’ has come for me to get on board the season 3 train and see what class of jpurneys I am offered … Shall report back!

  3. Colin says:

    Sounds interesting. You know, I’ve never done audiobooks! I’m a shocking technophobe, but there you go. Also, I have only the haziest of memories of Sapphire and Steel on TV, and have never seen it since those original broadcasts.

    • Ah, well, Sapphire and Steel is one of my favourite ever TV shows (or did I mention that already?) – part of its appeal though is in its theatricality – it’s all shot in the studio on video and you have mentioned that this is not something you normally would go for. In case it makes a difference, this is a radio production rather than audiobook – that is to say there is a full cast, music, sound effects etc. Unusually there is a narrator in this one, but it’s for a plot-related reason (I’ll leave it at that). The productions from Big Finish are in a sense designed to feel like a TV show you can enjoy with your eyes closed, with really impressive sound design and music scores – and David Warner is just superb! If you are remotely interested I’m sure I could lend you one …

  4. Patti Abbott says:

    Although I listen to many audiobooks, I doubt I have ever listened to a radio play. Thanks!

    • Hiya Patti – well, I really recommend these from Big Finish, especially if you do have an interest in SF. Because the BBC still broadcasts a lot of audio drama and comedy in the UK there is a lot fo great stuff being made available, both originals and adaptations.

  5. Jeff Flugel says:

    This one sounds interesting, Sergio! Sometimes Big Finish’s stuff can be a little too meta and weird for my tastes…but then, the SAPPHIRE AND STEEL TV show was pretty damn weird as well. I’m a late convert to the TV program, but have been enjoying it despite its very esoteric nature. Pretty spooky stuff. (And count me as one who doesn’t mind the “stagey” video-taped look of 70s Brit telly…that’s actually part of its appeal for me.

    I do really enjoy some BF plays. The JAGO & LITEFOOT audios are really something special. Harker and Warner are good choices for the audio Sapphire and Steel. I’ve heard a few podcast reviews with snippets of the BF S & S audio plays and they do sound suitably atmospheric. Hopefully I’ll get around to them someday. Great review as always, mate!

    • Thanks very much Jeff – and so glad to hear you’re a fan of Jago & Litefoot too – I’ll be reviewing the new series very shortly as the latest season, number five, comes out today (click here for details). Missing Hour is definitely right on the edge of what the Sapphire & Steel audios tried to get away with from a postmodern standpoint. Not exactly experimental like some of the early Big Finish productions (I’m thinking of The Natural History of Fear for instance, rather than the turgid and impenetrable Zagreus). If you like the TV show then I think this would appeal – if you approach it as a combination of stories 5 and 6 from the show, then you’ll get an idea of what it will be like.

  6. Ela says:

    I did not know that there were modern audio versions of Sapphire and Steel! I used to love that programme when I was a kid, though I suspect I had no idea what was really going on. This sounds really good – I approve of audio productions which fully utilise the medium.

    • Really hope you get a chance to sample these Ela – I thoight there were a lot more hits than misses and given the nature of the series a degree of tolerance for the bizarre and inexplicable is required anyway – they certainly don;t want for ambition and the casts are excellent. Would love to know what you make of them.

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