There’s long been a correlation between the festive season and the telling of ghostly and unnerving tales. In a year in which it’s nigh on impossible to find much by way of “Xmas cheer”, stories that bring to the fore those unsettling and disquieting themes feel particularly apposite right now. Latest monthly Torchwood audio adventure The Crown will have been many months in the planning, but this new Big Finish audio is full of the signature elements of a classic cautionary Christmas tale.
When doctor Gideon Parr learns that a resident at a local, private mental sanitorium claims that she is the current queen of England, he feels duty bound to learn more about the case. Leaving his fragile young wife at home on Christmas Eve, he heads off to the hospital in the company of asylum envoy Maddox. There he is fascinated to discover a woman who does indeed claim to be the present monarch.
But as the physician and the patient learn more about each other it becomes clear that more is hiding in plain view than is first apparent. And it seems that the most regal of symbols and signifiers – ‘the crown’ – is at the heart of a troubling prophecy that has shocking implications for them both.
No longer recognised
The character of Queen Victoria has become a powerful figure in the world of audio Torchwood, dominating the stories she has appeared in with her imperious, regal presence. What helps make the premise of The Crown so intriguing is that Victoria has been stripped of all of the power and prestige that her authority provides. Incarcerated and alone, her claim to be the country’s true monarch is treated as a delusion requiring treatment.
This predicament allows Rowena Cooper to explore rarely-heard sides of the queen’s persona. Struggling to reassert her commanding nature, Victoria is left bewildered, belligerent and beginning to panic, as everyone she encounters doubts her identity.
Cooper is predictably fantastic as the sovereign in trouble, but the small ensemble cast are all on point. Derek Riddell finds texture and depth in a character who might otherwise become a cipher: the Victorian gentleman enthralled by the modern sciences of psychology and psychiatry. The interplay between monarch and man of medicine is wonderfully crafted and paced, as director Lisa Bowerman makes great play of the shifting power balance between two characters equally determined to dominate the other.
In the asylum
For the most part, this is an intense two-hander, unfolding in the claustrophobic setting of an asylum cell, as the clock ticks down towards midnight. It’s a story enriched by atmospheric music from Blair Mowat and edgy sound design by Joe Meiners. Both resist the natural temptation to Christmas over-indulgence, and shape an unsettling soundscape in which less is most definitely more.
Infused with an apprehensive sense of malevolence, Jonathan Barnes’ script hits the right beats for a Victorian Torchwood Xmas outing: the wintry fireside of a devoted young couple (complete with frail and recuperating wife); the unexpected night-time caller; the echoing corridors of a mental hospital; the alarming narrated flashbacks; and a mystery that blends a conspiracy with a cruel curse.
Ideal late-night listening, and in a Yultide with little to recommend it, The Crown delivers some comfortingly distracting mid-winter madness.