The character of Baron Munchausen has a long and illustrious history (he first appeared in 1785) but is probably best known in this country via Terry Gilliam’s 1988 film. Some of the spirit of that adaptation is to be found in Spiteful Puppet’s six part audio drama The Barren Author. Paul Birch’s script still features the central character’s fantastical adventures which stretch credulity to breaking point and then some. However, the stories have been reimagined for the 21st century and include references to topical issues such as terrorism in the Middle East and concerns over the environment. Indeed, this latter is a constant feature of the six parts if only because one of Munchausen’s best friends turns out to be David Attenborough.
The conceit holding everything together is that Munchausen is set to publish an account of his adventures and is having a series of video conference calls with his publisher known as Smith. To the wide world he is known simply as The Brigadier (that’s THE Brigadier not a brigadier – Munchie, as he’s affectionately known, is most insistent). Although he seems to be connected to the military it’s all a bit tenuous for equally he is an author, an explorer, a spy, a master of most sports and all languages, an unparalleled raconteur and, of course an award winning scientist. In this latter capacity he has invented the elixir of everlasting life and this formula is the basis of why several villainous figures are trying to get hold of him (in case you’re interested the elixir derives from his work on jellyfish of which he is the acknowledged supreme expert).
Aside from this thread that runs through the series there are a host of other stories as The Brigadier gets caught up in encounters with animals (specifically whales, wolves, snakes and bison), the art world, international politics – he may just have been responsible for the fall of Communism – an expedition ship and survives any number of attempts on his life. Until one succeeds, that is, and he finds himself in the Afterlife; he of course survives that too. In what was my favourite episode he finds himself impersonating Elton John in order to carry out an espionage operation – there’s a delightful parody of “Crocodile Rock” by Darrell Maclaine. The writer Paul Birch (inspired by the original stories of Rudolf Erich Raspe) has let his imagination run wild and come up with a literally unbelievable set of adventures which have more than a hint of Douglas Adams crossed with the aforementioned Gilliam about them – and that is, indeed, a very good thing.
In a rare (these days) acting role The Brigadier is voiced by Richard O’Brien and his interlocutor Smith by Sophie Aldred. To be honest there is not a great deal for the latter to do other than occasionally prompt The Brigadier and act as the audience’s point of contact. However, in the later episodes questions arise to exactly who she is and why she is so interested in The Brigadier. By and large, though, this is O’Brien’s show and all the better for being so. His characterisation is spot on and as he tells tales which are ever more fantastical they have a pleasing dry wit about them enhanced by the obvious relish of the words he has been given to say; for the text is rife with pleasingly orotund phraseology and some very clever images which make listening a pleasure. A whole gallery of other characters is also portrayed by O’Brien and his range is impressive from a Swedish seductress to a 7 foot Glaswegian heavy, from his initial guide in the afterlife called Steeve (sic) to a villainous smoothie – a direct homage to the Goon Show’s Grytpype-Thynne. One or two accents are a bit on the dodgy side but it’s all such fun that it’s forgivable.
Masterminded by Barnaby Eaton-Jones these complex audio dramas would probably benefit from repeated listening if only to fully appreciate the intricate word play of the script and the outstanding sound design of Joseph Fox. It is a richly resonant set of stories and the doorway has been well and truly propped open for a second series. In these post truth, fake news days what could be more enjoyable than these fantastical tales? While we can’t travel, we might as well enjoy those of The Brigadier by proxy.
The Barren Author can be accessed via the Spiteful Puppet website – click here
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