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“I admit I was never a big one for The Bard, but I don’t remember his stuff being like this, do you?  It doesn’t scan, it doesn’t rhyme, it’s crap!”

While not quite up there on the level of Jago & Litefoot or its wholly unrelated in genre upstart competition Pathfinder Legends, one of my very favorite Big Finish lines* has always been The Scarifyers.

* through the auspices of the fine fellows at Bafflegab Productions.

Featuring Terry Molloy as doddering Professor of ancient history, dime store horror novelist and somewhat reluctant occult aficionado Edward Dunning and the late Brigadier Lethbridge-Stuart Nicholas Courtney as the crusty, fairly xenophobic Inspector Lionheart, the series was blessed with a more than superficial understanding of turn of the century culture and weird fiction –  H.P. Lovecraft, H. Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, the Ripper murders, and most amusingly, a particularly fey Aleister Crowley (whose surprisingly accurate mischievous self makes delightful if all too infrequent appearances as invoked by series regular David Benson – the “Mr. Crowley’s Christmas” bit is so dead on, it must be heard to be believed).

But while much of the action centered around the bookish, somewhat inept and self-satisfied Dunning, it was Courtney who grounded things, with his warm, authoritative baritone lending currency and weight to the often rather far fetched happenstance, and his particularly flawed straight man act providing a large part of the sardonic humor the series so excelled at.  So with Courtney’s passing in early 2011, it seemed this quirky yet delightful series was doomed to an early demise. 

But there was a caveat.  The Scarifyers did in fact see a further release during that same year, featuring none other than David Warner (Nightwing, Time After Time, The Island, Time Bandits, Concorde Airport ’79).  But as welcome as the veteran actor’s presence was, his tone was quite different from that of Courtney. 

While the humor was still present in Harry “Thumper” Crow’s apparent miserable failure to adjust to retirement and hopelessness at the barest rudiments of golf, his beat up jalopy that falls apart when pushed above 30 kmph and seemingly henpecked marital status, Warner’s approach seemed more gruff than Courtney’s syrupy if stiffnecked likeability.  Despite being introduced as an even tougher customer than his student partner and having taught the latter a few tricks in their younger days, Crow came off as less authoritative than Lionheart, appearing to be far less take charge and center stage.*

* though as listeners to the present adventure can tell, that was a short lived state of affairs subject to rather dramatic alteration…

Hearing nothing further for some time after the Magic Circle, I had assumed the series to be closed, with this final script marking one last cleaning of the closet and an attempt to salvage one final Scarifyers tale in Courtney’s absence, and in fact to both explain away Lionheart’s abrupt disappearance and offer some measure of mourining and tribute to the character (and by inference the performer himself) in one fell swoop.

Thus it is that much to my surprise, the series has in fact continued on the same yearly basis, with Molloy and Warner now firmly ensconced in their roles as Dunning and Crow, and the ‘secret’ government unit MI-13 still working its unusual and fairly particular corner of the nation’s defense.

And so, with series creators and cowriters Simon Barnard (of Jago & Litefoot’s Murder at Moorsey Manor and Jago, Litefoot & Patsy, who also directs) and Paul Morris (also cowriter of the aforementioned) remaining in situ, we return to the Scarifyers a few adventures on from where I last heard them.

“Why is he sitting in an armchair?”
“He’s stuck to it.  Stuck fast…by all accounts, it was a terrible palaver getting him out of his sitting room.  Then they couldn’t get him into the ambulance, so they had to strap him, chair and all, to the roof!”
“Not very dignified…”
“He was then paraded through the streets of south London… unfortunately, the driver took a wrong turn and ended up joining the annual carnival parade. People were throwing money.”
“He was nearly crowned Miss Croydon!”

Seemingly random victims are turning up frozen solid, in the midst of a balmy English summer.  It’s time to call on the intrepid forces of MI-13 (which include not only Dunning and Crow, but Harry’s partner in poker, Alexander Caulfield-Browne (David Benson).

But when the trio follows the trail of clues from the posh Tartarus Club to the quaint village of Thornton Gibbet, a deeper conspiracy comes to light…

Exactly how are the Exalted Order of Free and Accepted Masons involved?  What is the strange ritual of the “breaking of the bounds”?  Can Crow handle being mistaken for one of Father Christmas’ elves?  

For that matter, can Dunning survive not only a Wicker Manesque scenario, but worse, a game of blind man’s bluff that ends in an unsolicited homoerotic experience?  How does all this tie in to a plot against the crown?  And can Dunning’s untested stage acting skills save the day?

“Can we come in?”
“May you come in?”
“That’s what I said, can we come in?”
“…I think he’s correcting your grammar.”
“Is he?  Well if he carries on doing it, I’ll split his flaming infinitive!”

With more of a sheer volume of laughs than I recall having since the adventure of The Devil of Denge Marsh, this is certainly an excellent reintroduction to Messrs. Dunning and Crow. 

Leaning heavily on the comic end of things, the boys face an awkward and more than a little uncomfortable entree into high society, hobnobbing with the self styled “cream of the crop” (who in fact prove even more hopeless than our more middlebrow protagonists…)

“Are you an actor, then?  You do look very familiar.  I’m sure I’ve seen you in something…was it Run for Your Trousers at the Penge Colosseum?”
“Professor Dunning, do you really think it’s likely that you saw the Duke of Kent performing in Run for Your Trousers at the Penge Colosseum?”

With a note for note nod to Dunning’s first meeting with Crow, the hapless academician cum low end scribe manages to insult no less than two important personages in the course of one brief visit, with the professor once again blurting out gleefully about the horrible and sinister nature of a much venerated portrait.  Sure, it’s a reused gag…but it’s still a damn funny one, and his awkward assessment of the noble class proves all too apropos a scene or two later…

“Hold, sirrah!  Bear you these letters, tightly.  Sail like my penis to these golden shores…(pause)
Sail like my penis?  hmmm…sounds a bit lewd!”
“No, no!  Pinnace!  It’s a sort of rowing boat, pin-us, not…whatever you were saying.”

The wonderful David Benson (the aforementioned Caulfield-Browne and the saucy Vicar on the make, Reverend Spicer) continues to essay multiple one off roles as needed, and while none tickle my funny bone quite so well as his mincingly affectatious Aleister Crowley, he always provides a welcome touch of humor and poncey if not clueless preciousness to his characters, complementing and offsetting the self-satisfied smugness and socially challenged foot in mouth disease of Molloy’s Dunning (and the more brusque if equally misanthropic role filled by first Lionheart and later Crow). 

“He’s too old to play tennis anyway.”
“I’m not too old to put you over my knee, you little bastard!”

Similarly, Steven Critchlow (the absurdly amusing would-be actor Prince George, the anachronistically appellated “Grandmaster” Flash), David Bickerstaff (Lord Huntingdon, Roger Dillock) and Alex Lowe (King George VI, Hartley) offer a cadre of clownish (secret) society folks to play against.  

Yet another Big Finish standby joins the fray this time around, with Lisa Bowerman following Molloy and Warner into the 1930’s as both Dr. Crook and Miss Lewis Smith.  The lady certainly gets around…

There’s nothing I like better than a good atmospheric genre story – horror, sci-fi or fantasy in particular.  There’s also nothing I welcome more than a good hearty laugh, particularly when it arises from an all too rare display of intelligent, dry humor.  Both of these elements (and most if not all of those genres) are what The Scarifyers mark as their stock in trade.

Can the reader expect any less than an unreserved thumbs up therefore?