Big Finish takes on Beatlemania, Who style.
Those of you long enough in the tooth to catch the above pun should be quite happy with this month’s adventure in the main Doctor Who monthly audio drama range, which features likeable 5th Doctor Peter Davison and his long stated favorite companion of Nyssa (Sarah Sutton, of course) taking a trip back to the year it all happened, 1963.
Now, I wasn’t around for that halcyon date in the annals of Western Civilization, but just about anyone with a passing acquaintance of historical happenstance should recognize it as the last gasp of the old (Governor George Wallace, anyone?) and the dawn of a more enlightened era notable primarily for the final implementation of national integration and the dawn of the civil rights movement as marked by the related march on Birmingham, as well as the publication of the first salvo of modern feminism, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.
But most apropos to the current discussion and to the readers at large were two debuts in the realm of popular culture: the first two records from The Beatles (in March and November, respectively – several months before their US debut and the official kickoff of the British Invasion that changed both music and culture for decades to come) and the appearance of a tatty old police box in Totter’s Lane on November 23.
So what better way to kick off the 50th anniversary of the debut of Doctor Who than an adventure where the titular character (sort of) Meet(s) The Beatles?
So as not to give away the enjoyment of unraveling the clever plot, I’ll leave such details to a bare minimum – so keep in mind that whatever I seem to be letting on is only part of the picture here. Suffice to say that National Service did not end at the end of 1960, thereby putting John, Paul and George into the military rather than having the leisure time to put together a band (or at least, as the tale posits, at the proper time and place).
While for most musical acts this would have little meaning on the big picture (after all, what’s one band more or less?), the Beatles and what they brought in their wake, from direct effects like the British Invasion, the singer songwriter movement and massive improvements and innovations in studiocraft to “softer” but much wider ranging ones such as interest in Eastern religions, the birth of the hippie movement, and progressive politics (particularly with respect to John and, to a lesser extent, George) were a tremendous impetus and overriding influence over culture at large and moreover, on a truly global scale both over the course of their career and well beyond. If some deluded archconservative type with access to alter history didn’t want the 60’s and 70’s to happen, removing the Beatles would very likely be the linchpin to pull…
While the songs of the Common Men themselves (eventually described by The Doctor himself as “a soulless cover version of the original”) seem to lean more towards contemporaneous British Invasion acts such as the Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits, Gerry and the Pacemakers and the like (not to mention their US copycats – I definitely heard more than a dash of Roger McGuinn and the Byrds in there) than the Beatles themselves, there’s certainly enough Beatlesqueness to the compositions to show them as more than appropriate (and in fact, Big Finish was kind enough to isolate them to a bonus track hereon – a very welcome addition, that).
Inside jokes for those familiar with the period and personalities in question abound – I personally spent the better part of the first episode snickering at all the (quite accurate) nods of the head and winks of the eye towards various press conferences and events in the early history of the band.
It’s perfectly clear to all that The Common Men are for all intents and purposes The Beatles minus George. The quirky humor and fast paced internecine banter of the members, combined with occasionally spot on impressions of their respective accents and patented delivery styles make all scenes involving the band a knowing giggle to fans of all ages, but particularly among those immersed in their Hard Day’s Night era and earlier.
Mitch Benn’s take on John Lennon (“Mark”), in particular, is worthy of note, though Andrew Knott (“James”) delivers a mean Paul, and David Dobson’s Ringo (“Korky”) isn’t exactly outside the ballpark either. In fact, the overall experience is so dead on that I feel justified in saying that this is about as close as we’re likely to get, short of pulling out the old tapes and DVDs, and thus becomes all the more welcome for it.
It’s no surprise that Benn actually does an ersatz Beatles tribute cum comedy show (where he is the “37th Beatle”) outside of his work herein, though this is actually a repeat engagement for Benn and Big Finish (he previously appeared in the excellent McGann/Mary Shelley serial Army of Death two years prior).
Dobson has been something of a regular, making stops at the Colin Baker stories I.D. and Urgent Calls, the McGann/Lucie Miller Eighth Doctor Adventures episode Immortal Beloved, and the McCoy/Klein Architects of History prior to this.
Sleazy would be manager Lenny Kruger (presumably an Allen Klein analogue) is essayed by Ryan Sampson, notable from one of the best Eighth Doctor Adventures, The Book of Kells, among others. There’s even a Maharishi Mahesh Yogi style guru playing an important part in the proceedings fairly early on…
Eddie Robson, who gave us some of Charley Pollard’s finest moments (alongside Colin Baker in both The Condemned and The Raincloud Man) and the enjoyable Eighth Doctor Adventures story Grand Theft Cosmos, has truly surpassed himself here, with a script that manages to capture light comedy, historical and nostalgic accuracy, and proper drama, pulling it all together into one quite palatable melange of mind’s eye confection.
The sheer attention to detail and irrepressible flow of witty banter and clever scripting bring to mind such nonstop barrages of subverted referentiality as the amusing McCoy/Mel Bang Bang A Boom, while still managing to retain an appropriate sense of gravity over the proceedings (where the aforementioned was pure farce).
A further, more obscure tie in to the very first televised Doctor Who episode back in 1963 comes in the band themselves, as we first encounter original companion/Doctor’s niece Susan boogieing in an empty classroom to the accompaniment of her handheld transistor radio, playing…wait for it…”The Common Men!” Verity Lambert would be proud.
Circling back to the opening of this very article, Davison even slips in a likeminded gag early in the serial: “…the Common Men.” “Who?” asks Nyssa. “No,” replies The Doctor. “They won’t get together until next year.”
If that zinger brings a smirk to your face like it did mine, hop on the Tardis and snag yourself a trip to 1963, to the tune of a Fanfare for the Common Men.