Can you believe that Big Finish’s First Lady has turned twenty this year?
Lisa Bowerman’s fantastic performance as Bernice Summerfield paved the way for the Big Finish to become the audio powerhouse we know today. Without her, there’d be no Classic Doctor Who adventures; no returning Doctors, companions or monsters. In fact, we might not even have Bernice herself. To celebrate Benny’s second decade in audio, Big Finish have treated her to two big lovely box-sets of new stories.
Ever After Happy by James Goss
James Goss’s opening story takes us back to Benny’s roots as a reluctant cadet. Shying away from war, offering advice to her fellow classmates on love, happiness and homework.
For some listeners, the adventures of Bernice Summerfield might seem a little daunting. But Goss crafts this story in such a way that no real knowledge of her past is required. You can easily follow this story if you’re a newcomer. Yet, at the same time, it appeals to old listeners with the presence of Lisa Bowerman herself alongside the younger Bernice played by Emily Laing. In particular, Laing effortlessly captures the qualities that make Bernice such a lovable character while making the role her own. Given she was working alongside the Woman Herself, that’s no easy feat. She has a great chemistry with everyone, including Che Francis as Bernice’s childhood sweetheart, Simon. There another great performance from Robbie Stevens as the Academy Headmaster, a man with a few skeletons in his closet.
But things aren’t all fun and games and James Goss gives us some truly heart-breaking moments. Bernice sees friends die, her camp is raided and the conclusion leaves us on tenterhooks. A follow-up adventure is practically demanded. Hopefully Big Finish will bring back Emily Laing at some point in the future.
The Grel Invasion of Earth by Jacqueline Rayner
Continuing on the set, Jaqueline Rayner returns to writing with her story, ‘The Grel Invasion of Earth’. As you might have guessed it is a parody of the 1964 story but you’ll have to listen to the story to find out what is happening. The story opens and closes with some brilliant musical numbers from Lisa Bowerman which are rather amusing. But these are far from the only humorous moments that litter this story.
Thanks to Rayner’s witty writing style, the story rattles along at a pace, not only working as an homage to ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ but also in dealing with the sudden appearance of Bernice’s ex-husband, Jason Kane, played brilliantly by Stephen Fewell. Hearing Fewell and Bowerman re-united is a treat despite spending a large chunk of the story alone. Bernice is solving the problems while Jason is trying to get to her to prove his devotion to her. And like the previous story, this one also delivers a knife to the heart in their parting.
Rayner has such a great handle on Bernice’s character, which is little surprise as it was her who worked on Bernice’s adventures for a long time during the range. She gives Lisa Bowerman some hysterical one liners, especially when she paired up with some of the least threatening monsters in the Doctor Who mythology: the Grel!
Braxiatel in Love by Simon Guerrier
The third and final tale for this opening set is ‘Braxiatel in Love’, written by Simon Guerrier. Again, this is another enjoyable piece, if a little slower in pace because it makes the bold choice to not really put the focus on Benny but her shady partner, Braxiatel.
As the title suggests, Braxiatel finds himself in love with someone whom Bernice doesn’t like or trust. At first this leads to some rather amusing little moments but things quickly escalate and Bernice finds herself on the receiving end of Braxiatel’s wrath.
Miles Richardson steps up brilliantly to the tasks this role demands in this story, moving from love, to rage to grief in fairly short succession. He and Lisa Bowerman have a tremendous chemistry together and, in keeping with the apparent theme for this release, Guerrier gives us another sad ending for one of the characters.
Likewise, Guerrier has a good handle on Bernice’s characterisation and delivers a third and final tale for this set which is thoroughly enjoyable.
Volume One – Overall
‘Bernice Summerfield: The Story So Far’ is a tremendous set, featuring the return of old writers, stars, characters and concepts that will thrill both old and new listeners. The guest and main cast are both excellent and the writing makes for a good variety of tales. And the direction from Scott Handcock is just divine: maintaining a nicely rattling pace along long and complicated scripts.
Every Dark Thought by Eddie Robson
Eddie Robson kicks Volume Two off with a story that knows the villain’s identity has been given away by the first line the actor says so doesn’t waste time with false suspense. But Robson does a very good job of making us think that the Valeyard has the upper hand this time around.
Intentional or not, Robson makes the story feel like a ‘Virgin New Adventures’ book. Which is fitting since that’s where Benny originates. The NAs grew increasingly dark and morbid and that is exactly the vibe you get from ‘Every Dark Thought’. There’s some disturbing moments involving the monsters and the sound design alone is enough to make you uneasy!
Lisa Bowerman is predictably excellent as Benny and the rapport she shares with Michael Jayston’s Valeyard is a surprise. Of course, Benny is initially willing to believe this man is the Doctor but it is fun to hear her finally working out the truth, something Robson gives to us in a gloriously twisted way. A brilliant start to the second set.
Empress of the Drahvins by David Llewellyn
While ‘Every Dark Thought’ is a particularly dark story, ‘Empress of the Drahvins’ couldn’t be more different. The story from David Llewelyn sees the return of the First Doctor villains, the Drahvins and is gloriously amusing.
Llewelyn starts things slow before launching full-pelt into a very charged and relevant script. We know how ruthless and shifty the Drahvin’s are from their appearance in ‘Galaxy 4’ but this story depicts them at their most cold-hearted. Their actions throughout this story is shocking and their blasé attitude shows how cold and calculating they really are.
It was nice to hear Ayesha Antoine as Ruth – a long-running main character in Bernice’s series – take centre stage. She doesn’t upstage the birthday girl, but it’s nice to hear a story where she gets the spotlight. Antoine rises to the challenge brilliantly, proving how funny she is, especially with her exasperation with Gorath played by Luke MacGregor. She is a definite highlight of this release.
The Angel of History by Una McCormack
Una McCormack’s closing story in the set takes place in the latest timeline for Benny. Some time during (or after) her travels in the Unbound Universe with its own Doctor played by David Warner. McCormack does a brilliant job with this story benefiting from there being no over-arching storyline. Each writer gets free reign and McCormack’s story makes possibly the best use of that freedom.
‘The Angel of History’ puts Benny right under the microscope. The story is shocking and surprising, made all the better because it does mirror some real-world events both in the past and currently happening. But McCormack does a good job of not shoving that in our faces and just letting the story run its course. It has a tremendous twist at the end but to say anything more about the plot would ruin it completely.
With a very Benny-centric script, it falls to Lisa Bowerman to carry the bulk of the dialogue which she does with absolute aplomb. This bolsters and already heartbreaking conclusion that asks a lot of questions for the listener to ponder over the credits.
Volume Two – Overall
Volume Two is a heavier set than the previous one. Whereas the first set decided to tell some fun, lighter stories, this one goes for dark and thought-provoking. Again, Scott Handcock has risen to the challenge wonderfully as director and deserves a lot of credit for delivering a worth anniversary for Benny.
With a wealth of guest stars making reappearances, it would have been easy for the lead to get lost in the muddle. So let’s talk about Lisa Bowerman as Benny in more detail…
It goes without saying that Lisa Bowerman is a tremendous actor and a delight to listen to as Bernice Summerfield. As well as playing the character for twenty years, she has starred in a plethora of other Big Finish audio adventures and acted as director for plenty too. Not to mention she’s a tried and tested director for Big Finish as well in ranges like the Short Trips, Jago & Litefoot, Graceless, Torchwood and many others. We genuinely don’t know how she does it all!
It’s a testament to her talent and dedication that Bernice is still sounding strong twenty years down the line. Enthralling new and old fans alike to her corner of the Big Finish world. Here’s to another twenty years and more!