Be warned, SPOILERS FOLLOW!
Having listened to the initial auditory escapade of those peerless premier investigators of infernal incidents, courtesy of the marvellous The Mahogany Murderers, I moved swiftly on to enjoying the entirety of the first series in a single day, my enjoyment tempered only by the knowledge that I had another seven series to catch up on! In the end I listened to the first four series in quick succession, taking me up to Jago & Litefoot’s two trips in the TARDIS with Sixie.
Since we last met them in The Mahogany Murderers, Henry Gordon Jago has lost control of The Palace Theatre and is being chased by his debtors. He and Litefoot continue to meet up at The Red Tavern, where we are introduced to barmaid Ellie Higson, the comedy cockney barmaid. If Jago & Litefoot are a riff on Holmes & Watson, then Ellie is the Mrs Hudson figure. Although Litefoot has a housekeeper called Mrs Hudson, she’s a silent “Mrs Wolowitz” who we never see or hear.
Series 1 starts with a bog standard werewolf story, The Bloodless Soldier, enlivened by the presence of Dr Tulp, and Ellie’s brother gets bitten and shot dead in quick order. The next, The Bellova Devil, has Jago on the run from his creditors’ debt collector, The Manchester Mangler, and Litefoot ending up in a Suicide Club whose members fake their own deaths. It’s not really fair to say it’s the weakest of the four, let’s just say it’s the least strong but still has some wonderful performances and comedy East European accents, and a star turn from Stephen Thorne.
Come the third story, The Spirit Trap, Ellie is trying to get in touch with the other side and her dead brother only to get possessed by some Gelth-type spook or other. Finally we get The Similarity Engine, a direct sequel to the pilot and J&L’s equivalent of Return of The Cybernauts. Yes, Dr Tulp is back and the play’s only fault, in my ears at any rate, is that they kill him off at the end! Trap and Engine are probably a better two plays, overall, than the first two, making S1 the best series of these first four in my opinion.
Series Two has David Collings, the best Doctor we never had, as Sanders the vampire, the replacement criminal mastermind for the dead Dr Tulp. In the first story, Litefoot And Sanders, George tries to keep Henry in the dark and plays a dangerous game by hunting the vampire on his own, which results in – Spoilers! – Ellie getting done in by the vampire Sanders! Blimey. Come the second story, The Necropolis Express, J&L follow a mysterious train carrying Ellie’s corpse to a rendezvous with a mad scientist.
The third story is the first one I didn’t really enjoy. The Theatre of Dreams has an intriguing Amicus Horror Movie idea at its heart – a theatre that traps you and makes your dreams real – but not really enough incident to hold your attention. Things don’t get much better with the final play, The Ruthven Inheritance, seeing the return of Sanders the vampire in a muddled story about selective breeding for a pretty weak reason dramatically. Like Dr Tulp before him, Sanders snuffs it, and that’s after he has transformed himself into an Abaddon-type demonic figure. So that’s another Evil Genius dispatched and the search of a recurring villain and enemy of the Empire goes on. But the worst thing is that, with Sanders dead, they then cop out completely on Ellie being a vampire by having it wear off when Sanders dies. Why have her become a vampire only to hit The Reset Button just three plays later? S2 is a bit of a letdown overall and it’s a pity the plays aren’t available individually as it’s a series of two halves, with the Ellie plotline fizzling out to a disappointing conclusion. Bleh.
The cliffhanger ending to S2 has the shock arrival of Leela to liven things up, sent on a mission by President Romana from Gallifrey, armed with a “time compass” so she can team up with J&L as a BF version of Sapphire & Steel in various engaging escapades. There’s an arc to S3 to do with time breaks and stuff, starting with Dead Men’s Tales which has Leela going undercover as a barmaid in a spit-and-sawdust dockside pub where the ghosts of drowned sailors – The Wet Men – are haunting the place. Next is The Man At The Bottom Of The Garden by Matthew Sweet, which was a real let-down, an obscure and convoluted fairy story that’s a riff on Rumpelstiltskin. Quite how it all works is never really explained, or maybe it was all so clever I missed it. Either way this feels like a play that uses “the unexplained” as an excuse for not explaining things. Meh.
Swan Song is a dull tale of the similarity between a girl in a wheelchair, from the far future, who never danced Swan Lake following a car accident and the spirit of Jago’s old theatre, which has absorbed the memories of everyone who ever went there, Stone-Tape style, and gets bombed in 1940. Or will get bombed in 1940. Yawn. Finally we have Chronoclasm, where the criminal mastermind of this series is intent on destroying Time Itself to save his dying wife who’s trapped on the edge of a black hole. Or something like that. On the plus side it does have two versions of Jago so its not all bad. And then, just when you think it couldn’t get any less interesting, bloody Colin Baker turns up right at the end of the last play, calling himself Professor Claudius Dark…
S4 continues the downward trend of each series being less satisfying than the one before. The box set lists Colin Baker alongside the others but he’s only got a cameo in the first three before revealing himself as The Doctor in time for the last one. That to me is misleading and meant I was left disappointed when I listened to the plays themselves. I don’t appreciate this series being promoted as if the trio of S3 is now a quartet in S4 when it isn’t. It’s a swizz, Guv’nor and I ain’t `appy abaht it… When it comes to the stories themselves Jago In Love has the trio bugger off to Brighton where HGJ meets a music hall artiste who isn’t all she seems, surprise surprise. There’s a load of old bollocks to do with getting trapped in mirrors and we get the very subtle suggestion that George Litefoot is a homosexual. There’s also a very Neverwhere-ish double act who are the baddies this time round, a posh version of Mr Croup and Mr Valdemar. Next is Beautiful Things, the best play for a long time, featuring Oscar Wilde and a trap set in a library in a conceptual space, which isn’t a real place, the highlight of which has to be Wilde’s amusingly alliterative trumping of Jago’s individual idiosyncracies of verbal virtuosity, all very V For Vendetta.
Third up is The Lonely Clock, which sees J&L trapped on a train on the Underground, reminding you either of S&S again or maybe that Colin Baker Stranger video with Nick Briggs in a bowler hat… Finally we get The Hourglass Killers, marginally the best of the four I think, which sees Sixie facing off against The Sandmen or The Temperon or whoever the deadly double act are that have been stalking our heroes since Brighton. There’s a wonderful scene where a toff is discovered trapped inside a giant hourglass, which couldn’t help but remind me of Clara stuck in Mrs Gillyflower’s Bell Jar in The Crimson ‘Orror…
And then it’s cheerio Leela and Sixie offering Henry and George a quick trip in the TARDIS and I’m left pondering series 1-4 of Jago & Litefoot and wondering why it is that I’m not looking forward to series 5-8 nearly as much. If my AI score for these plays was a graph, like the ones we have here on Whopix for the parent show’s viewing figures, then you’d see the line heading ever southwards.
So what’s wrong with Jago & Litefoot that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I hoped I would? Based on the brilliance of The Mahogany Murderers, I really thought these plays would be a lot more fun to listen to than they ultimately were. Well, lets start by saying that the two leads are absolutely brilliant and are always fun to listen to, but the same cannot be said of the stories and situations their alter egos have been put into. Stonking stars in stinking stories may be alliteratively pleasing but the truth is that as a description of these first four series, it would be far too harsh. Maybe I was hoping for something a bit more Steampunk, with a bit more of a Sherlock Holmes versus The Martians vibe to it. I think part of the problem goes right back to the beginning, when they killed off Dr Tulp at the end of S1. If we’re riffing on Holmes & Watson here then killing off the J&L version of Moriarty right up front seems like a bad idea. I was hoping for a version of Adam Adamant‘s The Face, a villain who might not be responsible for this week’s threat but is behind it somewhere, pulling the strings. Jago & Litefoot isn’t a Victorian Sapphire And Steel and there are too many plays in this initial batch that rely on weak ideas that can’t sustain the drama built on their foundations and can’t be saved by the wonderful performances of Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter.