“What’s your game, Norton? Who are you really working for?”
Stripped of his loyal Cardiff police force, his somewhat morally superior time-zone and above all his dignity, Sergeant Andy Davidson has but one option: explore the seedy underbelly of 1950s Soho with contemporary Torchwood (con) agent Norton Folgate. Throw conniving gangsters, scandalous sexual encounters and even some unashamed H.G. Wells allusions into the mix and what could possibly go wrong? Well, anything and everything which fans of Big Finish’s more NSFW additions to the show’s canon could possibly expect; depending on whether or not listeners count themselves among that group, that’s either Goodbye Piccadilly’s biggest selling point or shortcoming.
As the range’s overarching producer, there’s no denying that James Goss – more than any other playwright involved – understands the elements that make Torchwood tick. Its notably adult humour, for one, remains alive and thriving here as Norton fully exposes himself to Andy on numerous levels; from the pair initially finding themselves handcuffed in their bedroom suits to their exchanges with Norton’s similarly garment-devoid courtiers at regular intervals, the time-hopping copper gets rather more than he could’ve bargained for here. Tom Price’s earnest portrayal, as ever, works a treat in conveying Andy’s sheer bemusement and constant disorientation on this whistle-stop historical tour to hilarious effect, though Goss also thankfully enables him to flex the more dramatic muscles in his skeleton by interrogating Mr. Folgate more intricately than in 2016 team-up Ghost Mission.
Indeed, considering how many appearances Norton has made since Torchwood’s resurrection at Big Finish, one couldn’t help but notice up until now just how little we knew about this undercover Committee operative. What sparked his initial yearning to play both sides of the secret agency equation, manipulating the Torchwood Institute to his true employer’s ominous ends? How did he survive long enough to bring about The Torchwood Archive’s destruction in that masterful 10th Anniversary Special? And with rumblings of further sinister Time Vortex hijinks in recent releases such as Visiting Hours, are Norton’s machinations coming to a head? Whatever the truth of the matter, Samuel Barnett gleefully subverts our expectations further this time around. We’re shown a far more vulnerable character than that glimpsed before, with Barnett delicately peeling layer upon emotional layer from Norton’s exterior such that we’re just as captivated by his oft-reopened romantic scars as by his shifting allegiances, the latter of which Dirk Gently’s lead star still naturally pulls off with charismatic aplomb.
But for every character development there’s a half-baked supporting construct, for every madcap setting which our heroes plunge into – brothels-turned-body art studios, corruption-laden police stations, UFOs, they’re all here – a disappointingly pedestrian plot twist that we’ve heard recorded countless times before in the Big Finish studios. Such is the whirlwind nature of a comedy caper of Piccadilly’s ilk that there’s barely any time to flesh out the motivations of the tantalisingly ruthless Vicar running Torchwood One at present or the typically greed-intoxicated mobster who’ll seize any opportunity to carve her name across the Soho property ladder. The third act, almost inevitably, struggles to carry much real weight as a result, with both factions so superficially depicted beforehand that the only noteworthy stakes concern two characters who – what with this release presumably preceding Aliens Among Us in the range’s timeline – we know will reach the credits unscathed.
Might Piccadilly exhibit the pitfalls of Big Finish’s monthly Torchwood releases only opting for restrictive runtimes in the region of 45-60 minutes, in that case? Quite possibly. Contrast the range’s twenty-second instalment with Invaders from Mars, the 2002 Eighth Doctor tale from Mark Gatiss which earned itself roughly two hours’ worth of airtime to indulge in War of the Worlds-esque, gang warfare-infused tomfoolery not dissimilar to that which we’ve been discussing here, and it’s hardly absurd to wonder whether Goss might’ve benefitted from another hour in which to further illustrate his intrigue-laden world, characters and events. Much as Price and Barnett jest about the prospect of full-fledged Andy-Norton boxsets come the behind-the-scenes coda, then, this reviewer would wholeheartedly endorse any such pitch made over one of Big Finish’s now-legendary lunches.
Let’s avoid finishing on a sour note, though, since despite this reviewer’s initial reservations with a follow-up to the tepid Ghost Mission, Piccadilly has far more elements working in its favour than its predecessor. Beyond the two exemplary lead performances, the sound design team’s authentic rendition of Soho’s constant hustled-and-bustled nightlife, the rambunctious score and dizzying array of sexually-charged setpieces almost never fail to capture the listener’s attention. And, credit where credit’s certainly due, the latter risqué moments also confidently incorporate LGBTQ+ participants in a way that perfectly befits this release’s close proximity to Pride Week – not that you’d expect any less of Torchwood by this point, in fairness! – to the point where it’s likely a must-listen for anyone walking the streets in celebration this month.
While hardly the range’s finest hour, then, Goodbye Piccadilly offers a little something for everyone – London-bound hysteria for fans of classic comedy capers, plenty of explosive Andy / Norton action for Ghost Mission’s proponents, impressive technical workings behind-the-scenes for those of us who appreciate such pivotal minutiae and a script laden with LGBTQ+ representation for those who so deeply crave it elsewhere. If only every TV / film / audio drama franchise’s off-days could remain as riotously satisfying as this one, then the internet masses would find themselves left with far fewer matters to complain about.
Just kidding, of course, but we can always dream…
Next Time on Torchwood – We’re due another double dose of Torchwood in the coming weeks; as if it wasn’t enough for Toshiko to find herself beset by seemingly super-powered ne’er do wells capable of psychological assassinations in Instant Karma, the pre-“Army of Ghosts” Yvonne Hartman has her hands just as full in Torchwood One: Machines. Before the Cybermen, before her timely rejuvenation to face down Ro-Jedda in Aliens Among Us, another indomitable force threatened to bring her reign to an untimely conclusion. Its name? Will Operating Thought Analogue – WOTAN for short.