Who is the grey giant that haunts the mountain of Ben MacDui? What exactly has the Brigadier come to investigate? And will Ace, ever, get to the Edinburgh Hogmany street party she so desperately craves?
Big Finish’s Grey Man of the Mountain, by Lisbeth Myles, is, it has to be said, a bit of a curate’s egg. On the one hand, Ms Myles’s writing is accomplished and natural. Characters are expertly made real through their actions and exchanges rather than cumbersome exposition, and the narrative proceeds at a satisfying pace. Sound design is, as ever, fantastic: the mountain atmospherics are beautifully evoked, creating a real sense of place. And the background music is, pretty much, spot on for the period of the TV series it tries to fit into.
Performances, too, are (on the whole) excellent. Sophie Aldred and Sylvester McCoy as Ace and the Doctor inhabit characters they are intimately familiar with, and yet obviously nowhere near bored of playing: there’s a real joy from both that is easily passed from actor to audient. (Singular of audience. It’s a word. Honest.)
And mention must be made of John Culshaw’s performance as the Brigadier. In many, many cases – Tim Treloar as the Third Doctor, for example – the fact that the actor plays an interpretation of a character rather than an impression of someone else’s performance is a real plus. Here, though, Culshaw’s expert rendition of Nicholas Courtney’s Brig is exemplary, and would be a lesser thing were it not so close to the original. It is very hard to hear without seeing the TV Brig in the mind’s eye, and that’s no mean feat. It’s an absolutely glorious thing to have him back for an entire story.
So, why a curate’s egg then? Well, there’s no one thing that is majorly wrong, but a number of small things that add up.
The script is very funny in places, and played for comedy, especially in the first episode. However, occasionally that comedy is hammered home with incidental music that completely overplays it, in one instance very nearly going the full shave-and-a-haircut. To my mind, this does the comedy of the moment a disservice. Thankfully, this isn’t the case for the majority of the story.
The music is also part of another problem for me: the Christmas motif. There is nothing essentially festive about the story, but being released in December there was obviously opportunity for a bit of yuletide reference, and that we get in spades. The Brigadier’s entrance is heavy-handedly Yuled-up by its incidental music, for example; and later in the story, an impromptu bit of Christmas singing feels artificially inserted in a somewhat laboured manner. I’m all for a Christmas story – but please, let’s have Christmas as a main character rather than a bystander.
My third issue was with the story itself. While beautifully written, it very much tells what happens rather than why it happens. There’s a bit of supposition later on regarding what might be going on, but to a great extent it is a series of events that occur rather than a mystery being solved or a larger picture emerging. As such – and despite one character’s story definitely going through an arc of sorts – there doesn’t feel like much of a satisfying third act to be had.
And lastly – and it really pains me to say this – one performance is just execrably poor. Not throughout, but enough bad acting that the fourth wall is repeatedly broken and the story undermined.
All in all, I am sad to say that I found this a disappointing listen. A lot of good things, and much that I look forward to hearing in the future (Culshaw and Myles to name but two); but enough small annoyances to make the whole thing less than the magic carpet ride it could have been.