What do you mean you’ve never heard of cult sci-fi series Vixens from the Void - what about its star, the sultry Vanity Mycroft – no? Well, that’s understandable because they only exist in the imagination of Nev Fountain, serving as the background for his series of comic mysteries featuring Mervyn Stone, the erstwhile script editor and co-creator of said fictional TV show. After starring in three books, Stone has come to audio for a truly unique case that makes very clever use of the form and should appeal to all Agatha Christie fans too.
“This is me recounting my last case. It is also my confession”
Mervyn Stone recounts his own story, one that like Poirot’s Curtain, may be his last and which returns him to his beginnings – in this case, to radio writing. It’s been 25 years since Vixens was cancelled and Mervyn’s TV career ruined. But now the show is being revived on audio and he has been asked to write a script for it, much in the same way that the Big Finish company brought back Doctor Who on audio after the series was taken off the air. Big Finish of course also publish Nev Fountain’s Mervyn Stone books in real life – and if you think that’s a bit meta textual, you ‘aint heard nothing yet!
“Dear Mervyn. If you want to prevent a murder, then you must attend the recording at the Sounderama studios on Thursday. Signed: a friend.”
After receiving an anonymous message warning of a murder during the recording, he heads to the studios and discovers that Phyllis Trilby, the TV executive who cancelled his show and several others too during her brief tenure in senior management at the BBC, just happens to be sitting in the booth next door recording an audio book version of her autobiography – on top of that, the cast and crew of his radio play is packed with people who also suffered at her hands and remain very angry about it. (There’s a great piece of comedy business in which the star of a sitcom about working in the pits, The Hairy Canaries, equates the cancellation of the show to the miners’ strikes under Thatcher). Is she the target? Will Mervyn be able to solve the crime, or is he the next victim? And can Vanity Mycroft really light cigarettes just by glaring at them?
This is a delightfully funny whodunit, a love letter to the Golden Age of Agatha Christie but one that applies clever bits of misdirection that could really only work in the audio medium, which should come as no surprise to fans of Fountain’s previous work on audio. There is plenty of Pirandellian cleverness and humour on display here as writers and actors make up the bulk of the cast so artifice and role play reigns supreme. But this is also a very tightly plotted story so form, structure and any postmodern touches are all subordinated to the requirements of a well-thought out play that will keep even the most jaded of mystery fans rapt as they try to guess the unguessable, but scrupulously fair, ending. In addition Fountain has scattered his script with plenty of in-jokes (including reference to such classic movies as Double Indemnity and Night of the Demon), mainly relating to Doctor Who. Stone himself is based a little bit on Terrance Dicks, who was the famed script editor on the show in the 60s and 70s (mainly During Jon Pertwee’s reign), while the eccentric husband-and-wife team Dick and Dora Dudley are clearly based on Pip and Jane Baker, who also used to write for the show. There’s also a character named after James Allardice, who used to write the macabre intros for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and plenty more besides.
Voice artist extraordinaire John Banks (check out his website here: www.john-banks.com) plays Stone and Nicola Bryant (who played Perri on Doctor Who) is Vanity and they provide fantastic value as they also perform many of the other roles too and do a really smashing job. There is also a very special guest star in the game-changing finale to the play that is a wonderful surprise. This comic whodunit that manages the neat trick of creating a scenario that will appeal to Agatha Christie fans and has an environment that will be immediately recognised and appreciated by fans of Doctor Who. Fountain is a great conjuror and I loved his deft prestidigitation and endlessly amusing comic patter – this 75-minute entertainment is quite superb and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Availability: This release is available on CD and as an MP3 download from Big Finish – visit: www.bigfinish.com.
Fountain has worked on several Doctor Who audio productions for Big Finish over the years and has, in my view, written some of their very best. I previously reviewed his two-part Companion Chronicle, Peri and the Piscon Paradox as well as his masterful fifth doctor audio starring Peter Davison, Omega and the Shakespearean extravaganza, The Kingmaker. He has also written for their Dark Shadows range and the result was the excellent The Eternal Actress, which I reviewed here, and which has more than a few things in common with this work, not least its narrator breaking down the story into chapters (and yes, that’s a clue). I haven’t yet read Fountain’s three Mervyn Stone mystery novels published by Big Finish yet but just as soon as my belongings are back out of storage … but for detailed and enthusiastic reviews of these, see what the Puzzle Doctor has to say over at his blog In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel by clicking here. You can read Nev Fountain’s own blog here: http://nevfountain.wordpress.com. There you can read his Mervyn story mystery, The Pen is Mightier than the Nerd, which was originally published in Twitter in handy 140-character bytes.