Thursday, 26 May 2016

Main Range 090. Year of the Pig by Matthew Sweet (December 2006)

In 2004, the South African literary critic Derek Attridge wrote a Derrida-influenced work of literary theory entitled The Singularity of Literature, in which he suggests certain works of literature – which can be (but are not always) those which, in the “canon”, we hold in highest regard – possess this slippery, abstract notion of “singularity” (and no, it has nothing to do with either the Somnus Foundation or Omega). Essentially, Attridge’s concept can be divided into three elements: a) uniqueness, b) impact, and c) personal response. A work that is singular should do something new, widen readers’ horizons or experiment with the form, and essentially set itself apart from that which has gone before with sufficient vehemence to warrant the moniker “unique”; it should have a lasting echo, in that other works are influenced by it, and that it can be seen to be imitated and evoked as people try to replicate its success; and, most importantly of all, that it causes singularity to occur as an event in the reader – hitting that precise sweet spot which may only work for them in that particular way and for nobody else. We all know those moments when, for no readily explicable reason, art that we are experiencing has a tremendously powerful effect on us that we cannot reasonably expect it to have on everybody. In Alan Bennett’s words, “it is as if a hand has reached out and taken yours”; we say the work “speaks” to us specifically, directly. What has occurred then – as Attridge sees it – is an event of singularity.

The remarkable audio drama Year of the Pig, by acclaimed writer-broadcaster Matthew Sweet (a man with a string of interesting scribblings to his name, including a PhD on Victorian fiction, a variety of film and TV criticism, a history of silent cinema and, of all things, a history of WW2 London hotels), could be said to constitute an event of singularity. There is no doubt whatsoever that it is unique. I personally have no doubt that it hit my sweet spot. The only question remaining is whether or not it has had much of an impact on shaping the Doctor Who stories that follow it, and though this may be a stumbling-block (or it may not – as Chinese Communist Premier Zhou Enlai allegedly declared in the 1970s of the consequences of the French Revolution, “it is too early to say”), it does not hinder too much my impression that, like a new Shearman story, Year of the Pig is… what, exactly? It is tempting to simply say A Big Deal. Even the sodding blurb is majestic.

As one of his starting points Sweet takes the 18th and 19th century obsession with “learned hogs”, porcine mammals that were allegedly intelligent enough to perform various tricks such as spelling words or doing arithmetic (and there really was one called Toby the Sapient Pig – exhibited in 1817, and apparently he left an autobiography behind him). Doctor Who doesn’t do ‘talking animals’ all that often, really (nominally, anyway; they’re usually aliens that look like rhinos, or whatever) – but here there’s a preoccupation with taxidermy and animate beasts of all kinds, from Toby to the stuffed monkey to the Vengeance on Varos reference to Peri turning into a bird… as Miss Bultitude declares, “I do like a few animals larking about and causing mischief!” This reaches a staggering zenith in the “spontaneously combusting cows fall from the skies” incident, potentially one of the strangest concepts Doctor Who has ever served up (and the explanation for it is even better: the marvellously clever time-bomb set-piece). As the story develops, we learn more about the animal experiments that have been taking place in Vienna in recent years – personified in the form of Chardalot and the story’s rather darker moments. There’s an underlying absurdity to Sweet’s world (see also: “a rampaging horde of sea monkeys – something else that shouldn’t have existed but suddenly did”; he can throw away ideas like a fob-watch that’s really a parachute in a mere line of dialogue) which is perfectly in tune with Doctor Who.

As another starting point, Sweet takes an appropriately Proustian milieu – Ostend, Belgium, 1913 – and populates it with meandering, episodic baroqueness; madeleines aplenty; estranged families and forgotten childhoods; musings on the nature of involuntary memory as triggered by sights, sounds, smells, tastes (“the full bucolic caboodle”, Toby’s repeated reminiscences, details seeping into Peri’s dreams); Gamantis/Guermantes, the university of Combray; and a verbosity, a thirst for language, probably unmatched by any Doctor Who story anywhere save …ish (not coincidentally also a Six/Peri story – something about the duo seems to work perfectly with a love of language). The only thing missing is the homosexuality. A few names are taken from À la recherche du Temps Perdu, most notably Albertine, and the historical colour (nods to Leopold and his atrocities in the Congo; the turns of phrase; films of this particular decade) is not just appropriately detailed, but utterly unrivalled – and usually exquisitely funny. One thing I enjoyed particularly was the way historical figures dance around the edges without ever properly appearing – Marcel Proust himself (a hilarious encounter), the painter James Ensor… No celebrity historical this, but something far quirkier! There is a love of objects here which I can’t think of as being quite so prominent in any other Doctor Who story: sumptuous cuisine gone into in enormous detail, specifics of attire, period-piece items… this sepia-toned world is steeped in a deep love of its material remnants, remnants about which Sweet seems irrepressibly enthusiastic. The Hotel Palace Thermae and the beach it looks out over make for a wonderful locale, but I also enjoyed seeing the horizon broaden a little in the second part as Chardalot, Toby and Bultitude head off into the Belgian countryside and then on to Brussels; how can one possibly tell a fin-de-siècle Doctor Who story without an old-fashioned railway and motorcar chase?

Paul Brooke gives a stonkingly good performance as the eponymous porker, and the truth behind Toby the Sapient Pig gives the story a surprising dollop of heart; as he obsessively recounts his idyllic, bucolic childhood in England and it becomes increasingly clear that this is all a delusion (“full of nostalgia for something you suspect never really existed”), the story’s prime questions of what it is to be human, to belong to a family, and how exactly we can keep a handle on memory, coalesce beautifully on poor Toby. His relationships – that with Nurse Albertine, an intriguing and rather beguiling inversion of the Doctor and Peri; that with Miss Bultitude, a devoted fan and taxidermist enthusiast, the latter aspect being something of a cause of tension between them; that with Chardalot, as the quasi-Freudian father & son elements give way to the rather sweet truth – are all very well rendered. The stage is populated by Doctor Who alumni past and present, Michael Keating and Maureen O’Brien vying for space with the new series’ Adjoa Andoh, all of whom throw themselves into this surrealist world with great relish. Colin Baker, as I hint above, is utterly at home here, and it’s one of his finest performances and indeed stories for an age, as he gets to display his character’s verbosity and pomposity to its fullest extent. I’m glad we have more Six/Peri audios these days than we used to; Bryant is great here, and her rapport with the Doctor always lends the stories a different timbre to the Evelyn ones.

Like my favourite long novels (War and Peace, Les Misèrables, The Brothers Karamazov) and presumably rather like Proust, Year of the Pig is an extensive meal of several courses in which you can lose yourself, enjoying the journey and the breathing-space rather than worrying about plot mechanics. It’s a comedy of manners and wordplay with a plethora of sinister, surreal undertones; a lurid Frankenstein-type nightmare that’s also the funniest production of The Importance of Being Earnest you’ve ever heard. As one finds oneself further drawn into it, its meandering musing on the lies of memory grows more potent, the gorgeous accordion-soaked score gets under your skin, and the world it evokes becomes as real as any Doctor Who locale. I love language; I love this time period; I love the blends of different literary ideas Sweet mashes together. The extraordinarily singular Year of the Pig is, in short, the Grand Budapest Hotel of Doctor Who audio, and Matthew Sweet the franchise’s new Wes Anderson.

Other things:
St Cedd’s – the college from Shada – is the first of many tiny little gems. I also like the nice nod to Timelash’s Herbert.
“Internal haemorrhage at the altar rail, apparently.”/“Well, it’s what he would have wanted.”
“Terribly important to eat well, when you’re the last human being on earth.”
The Sixth Doctor is “a man in a deckchair with a huge pile of books all wrapped in brown paper. He’s not exactly dressed for the beach. Spats the colour of a poison bottle. Yellow trousers, striped, like a humbug. And he’s eating a piece of cake. Battenburg. It matches the pattern of his waistcoat.” Later: “he looks like a big blonde cormorant”.
“My first incarnation, he was the real Francophile. He – I – ordered it from Foyle’s, but I never seemed to get past page 20, what with all those Myre Beasts and Moroks and whatnot. And after that, my last few incarnations weren’t very interested in bibliomania. The third one – he was more interested in axle grease and looking in the mirror than French classics. And as for my immediate predecessor, he preferred cricket and fizzy lemonade to reading, unless of course it was a boy’s own yarn about some ya-ya aristocrat yomping through the Brazilian rainforest, depriving the natives of their orchids…I think I’m lucky to have finally found myself a persona with sufficient sensitivity to appreciate Proust, and the patience to understand that it pays to take a holiday in order to read him.”
“There’s a character who drops dead in the middle of the second volume, and then turns up again in the third!”/“Happens to the best of us.”/“That sort of thing’s OK in real life, but it shouldn’t happen in fiction!”
“Do you know a place called Varos?”/“Of course, it’s one of the Andaman Islands.”
“I knew a girl who kissed like you…Marie Lefevre, the trunk murderess of St Germain, strangled her victims with the cord of her silk dressing gown. But they all went happily to the grave…or I should say, to the left luggage department of the Gare du Nord.”
“If the human race is to end tonight, at least its last member can die beautiful.”
“A brush with death should always be followed with a taste of Havana.”
“They’re all here – plausible bigamists, the more successful type of poisoner, unspeakables of the Oscar Wilde sort…”
“Men like that are all very well as a kind of sport for spectators, like shot-putting or ratting or bareknuckle-boxing…but never say yes to a man in an astrakhan collar.”
“Not a person, exactly… an individual.”
“Now, Nurse Albertine, we have another problem. Do we keep them prisoner, or do we eat the evidence…?”
“I’ve followed you across half of Europe – but not in a sinister way.”
Toby’s prediction: “I see death. I see blood, razors, barbed wire, cruelty, torture, rats, poison gas, boys dead in the mud with photographs of their mothers and sweethearts stowed next to their silent hearts. I see the blasted earth, I see the carcasses of horses half-submerged in the slimy feculence…I see women weeping over fields of whitewashed graves. I see war! War and revolution!”
“Oh, what a marvellous telescope; the people down there look like ants!”/“You’re pointing it at the balustrade, Miss Bultitude. They are ants.”
“My mother was a fine 700 pound fancy Devonshire. She had the most elegant lop ears and was devoted to me. My father was a portly Essex half-black with a permanent expression of quiet optimism and a pipe he never put down.”
“It is your pulchritude that separates you from the multitude, Miss Bultitude…”
“I don’t trust that man any further than I could carry him with my teeth.”
“Have you ever wondered how a ham feels just before the gong goes for Sunday lunch?” – one of the best cliff-hanger lines yet.
“All the finest minds in the world were there – Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Strindberg… and they were all pigs!”
“I’m going to have to do something inelegant with a fire extinguisher!”
“Shakespeare was a pig, Milton was a pig, Ibsen was a pig, Little Tich was a pig… what was George Eliot?”/“A pig, obviously.”/“Well, she was no beauty, I grant you.”
“THERE WAS NEVER A WORLD OF PIGS!”
“What shall we do to amuse ourselves? We can’t look through the window at the rolling scenery, can we? – It’s Belgium.”
“It takes more than a spasm in the fabric of existence to put a French galley chef off his job.”
“He might as well have attempted to suck his biography out of this madeleine!” (Ha)
“Am I the only one here who knows his own life story?”
“You have a gash in your neck that is releasing a little trickle of Campari…”
Proust’s final volume, Time Regained, is “not bad…but it might taste better with a little vinaigrette.”

Next: Bonus Releases V – Return of the Daleks by Nicholas Briggs, returning us to the world of Dalek Empire, followed by 091 Circular Time by Paul Cornell & Mike Maddox.

4 comments:

  1. I had been looking forward to this since I started listening to BF audios about 18 months and it finally came up in my schedule the other day. It is an absolute delight, warm, witty and even a bit frightening. It's not perhaps as profound as "The Chimes of Midnight", but is easily one of the best BF audios I have heard, so far removed from BF sausage factory stuff like "Frozen Time" that I just been listening to (I always groan when I see Briggs's name on the byline). I eagerly anticipate further Sweet plays.

    In an ideal world, Chibnall would commission Shearman and Sweet to write episodes of "Who". I doubt it'll happen. Davies was influenced by BF. An adaptation of TCoM would make a great Christmas episode, but the days of bringing audios or novels to the screen have probably gone. Sweet has no TV drama writing credits that I am aware of, which probably rules him out. Would be great to see Shearman get another gig from Chibnall though.

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    1. I quite agree. It probably isn't *quite* as excellent as Midnight, but it is an absolute tour de force - brave, bold, languorous, and delighting in language, taste and memory.

      I can't see Chibnall commissioning Sweet, but hopefully Shearman will get another gig one day. I gather he is returning to BF before too long!

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  2. Brilliant news about Shearman. I believe that Sweet had a "Jago and lightfoot"' this year. It's sad that we live in a world in which the technoeconomic modes of production of television mean that it is not possible for someone like Sweet to be commissioned to write a DW TV story. Given that Moffat was the Moffat Era as well as of the RTD one, I fear that we will made to put up with more scripts from Gatiss and Whithouse.

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  3. The one thing that gives me heart is that Chibnall is inheriting a roster of late-Moffat-era writers (Harness, Mathieson, Dollard, Cottrell-Boyce, Mike Bartlett) who have surprising, unusual, interesting things to say. If he keeps some of those around, I'll be happy.

    I don't think Gatiss and Whithouse will keep getting promotions. Chibnall has never worked with Gatiss to the best of my knowledge, and he only got one Torchwood script out of Whithouse. I can definitely see him bringing in Catherine Tregenna (she did four Torchwoods for him as well as her first Who in 2015), and maybe Louise Fox, who worked with him on Broadchurch. He's also collaborated with Sarah Phelps - EastEnders, And Then There Were None, Dickensian - who I think would write a good episode. I suspect we'll just see more of his own contacts than people Moffat hired, but who knows.

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