Written By: Chris Chapman Directed By: John Ainsworth
Colin Baker (The Doctor), James MacCallum (Isambard Kingdom Brunel), Christopher Fairbank (Marc Brunel), Catherine Bailey (Tan), Imogen Church (Rispa / Lady Raffles), Becky Wright (Flo Hawkins / Alayna), Anthony Townsend (Richard Beamish / John Chubb), Sam Woodward (Charlie / Lord Raffles / Captain Sanderson), Richard Unwin (Tour Guide / Scientist). Other parts played by members of the cast.
We Big Finish listening Doctor Who fans, seem to continually be on the lookout for new audio adventures through which to introduce possible converts. Less so a perfect ‘Jumping on point’, more a short introduction that perfectly epitomises Big Finish, without much continuity to speak of. Well I’d like to add Iron Bright to that list. The second of the sixth doctors main range trilogy this year seems to harken back to the earlier days of Big Finish, being a completely stand-alone adventure with seemingly very little to connect it to last months; The Lure of the Nomad. Not only that but Chris Chapman has described his story as a ‘celebrity historical’ in the Russell T Davies vein and certainly it conjures images of The Unquiet Dead and The Shakespeare Code amongst others. Aside from just being a phenomenal showcase for what Big Finish can achieve, Iron Bright is an incredibly produced drama with a wonderful story, excellent cast and superb direction.
The story revolves around the building of the Thames Tunnel by both Marc Brunnel (Christopher Fairbank) and his son Isambard (James MacCallum), which is haunted by a mysterious blue lady. Of course much of the emphasis is placed on the young Isambard and James MacCallum is a wonderful choice for the role, indeed he steals much of the show and presents us with a multi-faciated and completely believable character. Not only that but he achieves all that with a historical figure who has been interpreted a million times before and still MacCallum manages to present a fresh and likeable figure. it’s a superb performance and I hope to see much more of him yet.
And what of the Doctor? Colin Baker is superb as ever and indeed I personally enjoy his doctor far more in a historical setting, finding that the writers seem to enjoy the sixth doctor attempting to ‘act with the times’. This paves the way for some wonderful comedic moments. However Colin really shines when working with MacCallum and the relationship between the Doctor and Isambard is one of the joys of the audio.
However it's unfair to concentrate on these two alone when the entire cast is wonderful. There’s some show stealing parts for Catherine Bailey, Imogen Church (who makes a formidable villain) and Becky Wright. Bailey and Wright in particular have a wonderful chemistry and provide two characters who are just as interesting as any of the historical figures. The sub-plot featuring these two is one of the highlights of the drama and Chapman was lucky to have two such wonderful actresses to portray it. this sub-plot also manages to provide a little historical context away from the Brunels, providing us with an original historical character whose arc is just important as anyone else's.
And what of Chapman’s script? Well it’s certainly something of a ‘block buster’. Starting with a creepy and slow building ghost story (something doctor who has always done well) the reveal is made around the half way mark and the story switches gears, emphasising the science fiction. Rather than harming the story in anyway by having a definite change of tone, this actually works wonders and in particular manages to show varying sides of Isambard. Indeed one of the wonders of Chapman’s script is that it’s so intently rooted in ideas of industry, progress, engineering and machinery that are so central to Isambard’s place in history. The fascinating moral dilemma posed in episode three presents us with incredibly sympathetic villains and indeed Imogen Church manages to gain listeners sympathy, between some incredible comic moments.
Of course it would be remiss of me to not mention the excellent sound design and musical score which seems to be a trademark of Big Finish's high quality. The blue lady herself is terrifying (and the general idea behind her is a genius one that’s incredibly haunting) whilst the various sounds within the tunnel provide a chilling setting, constantly reminding us we're under ground. The story is helped by a wonderful score that seems to fit it’s epic scope, getting gradually more bombastic towards the end.
All in all, Iron Bright is a truly wonderful example of just what Big Finish can achieve. Simply everything works and the result is one of the best the main range has put out in a long time. A magical, superb adventure.