Aah, it’s nice to pay another visit to our old friends Jago & Litefoot, aka Watson & Holmes…or more precisely, the Nigel Bruce Watson & the Arthur Conan Doyle Watson.
Originally introduced as a pair of entertaining but relatively minor one off characters in the superlative Robert Holmes Victorian gothic Talons of Weng-Chiang, somewhat lowbrow (but bearing more than his share of airs) theatrical impresario Henry Gordon Jago (Christopher Benjamin) and proper if somewhat retiring physician George Litefoot (Trevor Baxter) found themselves drawn into the Tom Baker Doctor and Leela’s axis in a tale that deftly combined Pygmalion by way of My Fair Lady, Sax Rohmer and a dash of Sherlock Holmes. With good justification, this has long been considered among the greatest of all televised Doctor Who serials (and indeed for many Whovians, the qualifier “among” can be summarily dismissed).
What made the serial special, beyond the atmosphere and knowing literary referentiality, was the warm and easy chemistry between the series leads and these two unlikeliest of adventurers, thrust somewhat against their will into an amusingly reluctant heroic role (the image of a terrified Jago bravely drawing the attention of the recklessly firing Peking Homonculus from his compatriots by standing up shakily intoning a fussy “I say, I say, I say!” will always define the character for me). It’s no surprise that series fans were quite vocal in demanding a return, if not spinoff, featuring the two (not something that could be said of any other serial’s non-core personnel, over the entire 50 year history of Who!)
More years on than any of us care to count, enter Big Finish. Much to the surprise of many, the two stars (who at least appeared to be in the prime of middle age way back in 1974!) are indeed still with us, and sounding much the same as ever.
Debuting in a one-off Companion Chronicles episode (which I haven’t had the opportunity to hear as of yet), they quickly were spun off into their own line of Big Finish serials, albeit one with a twist. Rather than the more standard monthly format, this would be a yearly box set of four closely interrelated serials, each being a standalone adventure but telling one long tale. There tends to be a bit of a cliffhanger to create anticipation for the next year’s release.
And so it is that we come to the sixth year of Jago & Litefoot. While very probably my favorite of the Big Finish Doctor Who side lines, the last time I personally joined the lads, they were investigating time anomalies with Louise Jameson’s Leela.
After a harrowing year where they ran afoul of a particularly nasty vampire and found their beloved barmaid and friend Ellie Higson at least partially vampirized and livelihoods taken from them by concerns both financial and scandal-based (Series Two), the former savage (seemingly straight out of her time with Lalla Ward’s Romana in Big Finish’s Gallifrey series) reunites with the two in an attempt to right certain time anomalies, including such menaces as predatory dockside “wet men”, theater haunting ghosts and sinister fairybook gremlins (Series Three).
Jump up two years (during which time the fellows even managed to make two stories alongside the Colin Baker Doctor (!), and we find our friends back in similar territory to the second season, with Geoffrey Whitehead’s Colonel working much the same role as David Collings’ Gabriel Sanders (and even bearing similar enough inflections to lead one to believe it was a return of the same character under yet another pseudonym). The boys are as gullible as ever, taking the mysterious Colonel at his word that the Queen Mum herself has enlisted them by proxy into service. Naturally, they prove to be quite mistaken…
“after all…you’d hardly be the first woman to find employment at the docks!”
The first of this year’s adventures, The Skeleton Quay, sends them to a windy, rocky coastal shoreline to investigate the appearance of some skeletal visitors haunting a long-deserted ruin of a drowned village. Along the way, they befriend a fellow traveler, Camilla Teveylan and old Isaac Pawley, the longshoreman they hire as guide who may in fact be rather more than he would at first seem to be.
Without giving too much away, suffice to point out that they learn a bit about the sordid history of the tidally beset remains and the mysterious menace of a quickly moving fog that legend tells hearkens the approach of supernatural forces…
Suffused in seaside atmosphere, the crunching of dirt and pebbles underfoot, howling winds, oceanic breakers crashing against the shore and suchlike, this is the most evocative of the four interrelated stories of this year’s visit with the likeable pair, and by far my favorite. All works out in the end, the guilty get their just comeuppance, and it ends on a suitably eerie coda of sorts…
“in my dreams, you are…hairier.”
Next, we join Henry as he patronizes none other than the father of psychoanalysis himself, the great Sigmund Freud (here played for comedic effect by Adrian Lukis, of Davison stories Cobwebs and Children of Seth) in Return of the Repressed. Much tomfoolery ensues, with escaped baboons, mother fixations and dreams that result in widespread atavism…it’s patently ridiculous.
Not as amusing as it strives to be, while it has some elements thereof, this is less a supernatural cum science fiction mystery than yet another contemporary cultural knock at Freudian psychology, a strange trend of late which is in the end little more than a case of throwing out the baby with the metaphorical bathwater. Perhaps exploration of one’s own underlying unconscious and/or preconscious motivations is too bitter a pill for postmodern millenials to swallow?
Regardless, there’s not a lot to recommend about this particular installment – suffice to say it all starts and ends with an Ivor Biggunesque music hall number, so it’s all for a cheap laugh in the end.
“questions can be very dangerous things indeed.”
Then we pick up where Skeleton Quay left off in Military Intelligence, the first of this year’s adventures to feature series regulars Ellie Higson (Jago & Litefoot recurring director Lisa Bowerman, better known as Big Finish’s Bernice Summerfield) and Sgt. Quick (Conrad Asquith, also essaying the character he originated all the way back in Talons of Weng Chiang (!)
This time, the Colonel (who was oddly absent from the prior adventure in the set) returns to inform the gents that the Queen now wants them to relate all the details of their earlier adventures with Doctor Tulp and the Mahogany Men. While Jago’s sense of pride and flattery kicks into high gear, Litefoot’s suspicions are finally raised, leading to a simultaneous investigation of character and involvement in the mystery of all those shredded corpses littering the streets of London…
Notable this time around is the piratess-like counterintelligence Agatha Worthing (Nancy Carroll), whose decidedly unladylike (for a Victorian lass) forceful demeanor all but upends Jago’s sense of gallantry. Worthing proves both quite imposing and charismatic, and could under the proper circumstances have easily spun off as a recurring character in her own right – kudos to writer George Mann and Ms. Carroll for their formidable efforts hereto*.
* it should be noted that the Jago & Litefoot series per se appears to feature a running subtext of stronger than usual female roles, which may betray the influence of recurring director Lisa Bowerman as well.
There’s even a dash of politicosocial commentary going on, with the Colonel proving to be something of an unchecked imperialist with strongly right leaning if not fascistic tendencies – something that would hardly be touched by a production here in the states (if not retrofitted to make him some sort of ersatz ‘hero’ figure, ala The Iron Lady or Atlas Shrugged!)
Kudos are therefore due to Big Finish for continuing to keep their stories intelligent, thought provoking, and ultimately sane in what is sadly becoming an increasingly insane world.
“I am perfectly prepared to pontificate with the perfidious prisoner without permit to police pultroonery”
Finally, we dive headlong into Series Two territory with The Trial of George Litefoot, where the now openly malevolent Colonel railroads the hapless physician into a hanging jury situation where both prosecutor and justice are hellbent to misread the facts and string up Litefoot for the (apparent) murder of his erstwhile compatriot. There’s a last minute twist, but garbled jurisprudence renders even an obvious proof of innocence in a sinister light, leaving our heroes on the run (and their friends implicated as accessories) by series end…
For two Victorian gents of vastly different background and societal standing, these two really do manage to get around, don’t they? Despite ostensibly travelling in two very different worlds and circles, their affection (as always) is palpable, making each trip in their company among the most satisfying and comfortable of all the Big Finish audios. What is most fascinating is that apparently, Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter aren’t lifelong friends and socially involved – in fact, we’re given to understand that their sole relations are those we have on record (whether televised or audio drama based in nature)!
Between the loquacious Jago’s theatrical and oft blustery Shakespeareanisms and penchant for amusingly drawn out strings of alliteration and the fussily proper Litefoot, the series is something of a philologist’s fever dream, putting even the Colin Baker Big Finish tales to shame in conveyance of the sheer tactile joy of language. In short, there is more use of proper if playfully used English on display than any ten more ostensibly “highbrow” BBC stage performances and costume dramas – no mean feat, I assure you.
The bottom line is this. If you have any taste whatsoever for Holmesian Victoriana, a bit less reliant on the puzzle solving driness of the mystery genre than on its general atmospherics and milieu (see also the Sax Rohmer influence present at the characters’ inception) and with more than a dash of metaphysical and/or science fiction bits of business stirred in, then quite frankly you’d be a fool not to look into this wonderful series and its occasional guest bits and offshoots.
With no less than three of the original players (four, if you count the seasons involving Louise Jameson’s Leela) rejoining the fray at nearly four decades’ remove, this is no distant fanfic relation to the celebrated template, but a direct continuation of the story we never got to experience.
And as with the numerous Who related lines and spinoffs also featuring a veritable army of former Doctors and companions Big Finish provides, this in itself sets the Jago & Litefoot series apart from any all but nonexistent competition. Quite recommended.