A lonely night-time stakeout by PC Andy Davidson takes an unexpected turn when he’s joined by Torchwood operative Owen Harper, who seems to know more about the police case than he’s willing to let on. But it’s not just Owen’s reluctance to disclose that’s irritating Andy; it’s the fact that he’s been given this thankless task in the first place, all to reassure a wealthy and connected Cardiff resident who Andy knows is far from being a model citizen.
Latest monthly Torchwood audio release The Three Monkeys reveals the intricacies of a clever plot as the reluctant duo embark on a short-lived road-trip around the dark back streets of this corner of Wales. As they join the dots of the backstory that had led them to this rainy and dispiriting mission, they gradually share the separate fragments of a sordid and sorry tale. They are soon joined by a third ‘passenger’, or more accurately an inanimate collectible: the classic wind-up ‘cymbal banging monkey’.
It’s a toy that’s turned up in numerous fantasy, sci-fi and genre movies and shows: from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Toy Story 3 and The Grinch to The Simpsons and even Doctor Who (Eccleston’s Doctor picks one up in The Empty Child). The curio is even the subject of the 1980 Stephen King short story The Monkey. This attention with the genre has all honed in on the same unnerving aspects of the toy’s appearance, its crude clockwork animation, and its unsettling cymbal-clattering ambience. As things turn out, it’s a monkey McGuffin that works far better on audio than it ought to.
Writer James Goss’ sharp script gets its plot beats not from a series of turns and twists, but from the pass-the-parcel revelation of each hidden layer of the mystery. That process is brought to life through the sparky interactions between Owen and Andy, one of the most entertaining pairings of the extended Cardiff Torchwood crew. The duo’s default communication style is to bicker, whilst each shares a sense of exasperation with the other. What adds to the niggling tension between the two of them is being stuck on stakeout in Andy’s car.
That confined and claustrophobic setting is given a palpable quality by Iain Meadows’ intuitive sound design. It brings an up-close intimacy to proceedings that has the listener feeling that they’re also aboard Andy’s cop car. There are a couple of great set-pieces too, when the pair are separated and only in communication by walkie-talkie; something that provides the catalyst for the script’s most witty exchanges.
On the more serious side, the story makes reference to a recent real-world scandal that’s impacted on the lives of hundreds of post masters and mistresses. Over many years, revenue tracking devices installed at Post Offices failed to record transactions correctly, leading to spurious fraud and theft charges being levelled at hundreds of innocent individuals. The experience has been traumatic and life-changing for many of those wrongly accused. It’s an idea that’s stitched into the narrative well enough, but there is a question mark as to whether it’s an appropriate fit for what is otherwise a quite light-hearted supernatural tale.
It’s arguable too that Owen and Andy might take umbrage at the suggestion that they are two of the monkeys in this tale, even if – according to the maxim – all three of them are supposed to be wise. That said, there’s fun to be had spotting Goss’ quiet nods to the that trio’s proverbial principle (‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’) threaded throughout the story.