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.
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.