It’s Norton Folgate vs Mandeville Walk in an atmospheric and satisfyingly mysterious battle for London
Torchwood Soho are back to stalk the back streets of London, with Norton getting them into trouble as only he can. But can he get them out again this time? We join our sort-of heroes already in place in Mandeville Walk, the bombed out wreck of a street that will be their home for the six episodes of The Unbegotten. Time displaced 21st century police sergeant Andy Davidson is temporarily downgraded to constable to be the new local bobby on the beat. The resurrected Lisbeth Hayhoe is ensconced in the local pub gently flirting with the landlady over a quest to find ‘her’ drink. Gideon Lyme is working at the local soup kitchen, dishing up swede soup and picking up whispers of an epidemic of missing people among the homeless.
And Norton Folgate… well, he’s floating around the fringes, as ever not telling his friends half of what he knows.
Mandeville Walk is supposedly the most haunted street in England. Never repaired after the devastation of the Blitz, there are government forces keen for a bit of regeneration and gentrification. There’s only one slight problem, the ghost sightings. Okay, two slight problems, the ghost sightings and the bomb crater demons dragging people to hell. Actually, make that three problems, the ghost sightings, the crater demons, and the Something Nasty building itself a body, Hellraiser style, in the attic of the local brothel. Basically, Mandeville Walk: it has problems.
The six episode duration gives every element room to breath, creating a layered portrait of the community Torchwood is trying to save
It’s this jigsaw of subplots that makes The Unbegotten such an intriguing story. At this stage there have been hundreds of hours of Torchwood on television and audio, and tens of thousands of hours of story set in the Doctor Who universe. At times when listening to a new entry it feels like a matter of wondering which of the three or four possible endings you’re going to get. And The Unbegotten even plays with that, and the pattern of previous Torchwood Soho releases.
Throughout, Andy and Lisbeth openly ponder how it will turn out to have been somehow Norton’s fault, and what his secret plan he has to save his own skin (and incidentally the world). But all the different moving parts make it almost impossible to guess how it will all fit together. Instead you’re free to lose yourself in the the wonderful atmosphere of mystery and menace.
The six episode structure allows the different elements to breath, while emphasising the pure oddness of Mandeville Walk. Whether the couple drinking cold tea out of broken cups in a bomb site in a surreal pretence of normality, with shades of The Bed Sitting Room, or the local vicar with the much younger, unhappy wife and a wall of ancient rune, every scene helps make the street as much a character in The Unbegotten as anyone else.
Thanks to a strong guest cast and superb sound design, the stones and bricks of Mandeville Walk feels like a character in their own right
That sense of location which is so essential to The Unbegotten is massively helped by Naomi Clarke’s sound design. Even by the best Big Finish standards, this release really goes above and beyond. With so many locations in play, from disused Tube tunnels, crypts, army tents, bustling pubs, and bomb sites, the soundscape is an essential part of how smoothly we move from one location to another, and one set of characters to another. Certainly every time the focus moves back to the pay-by-the-hour establishment where the team have rented a room, there’s no mistaking the constant murmur of groans and bed springs in the background.
There’s a great guest cast adding to this sense of Mandeville as a real, if distinctly unsettling and dysfunctional, community. Norah Lopez Holden as Tilly and Richard Clifford as her mysterious friend are particular stand-outs, along with Saffron Coomber as Lisbeth’s new love interest Mia. Aligned with the consistently amazing regular team of Price, Barnett, Kirwan and Shire, it makes for a really strong ensemble. While the answers to all our mysteries, once they come, are deeply satisfying.
The Unbegotten isn’t quite perfect. Though the Torchwood team make much of how the vicar’s wife seems to openly despise him, that never seems to quite come through in her scenes themselves. Any while government mystery man Armitage (Class’s Greg Austin) and his torture happy underling Goringe are worthy foils for Norton, his public schoolboy persona and catchphrases (“Classic!”) start to grate a little by the end of the three hours. While at times Gideon seems a strange mix of cynical and naive as he criticizes Norton for being concerned about the apparently supernatural menace than the missing people, when one is clearly the cause of the other.
A new era approaches for both Torchwood Soho director Scott Handcock and the series
But those are quibbles in a boxset that’s a very worthy finale for Scott Handcock’s time as resident director of Torchwood Soho. There’s a celebratory feel to the accompanying interviews too, as Price and Barnett take the opportunity to salute his work on the series, and how it won’t be the same now he’s moving on to bigger and better things. Though, as they cheekily point out, given that that bigger and better thing is being script editor for Doctor Who Series 14, they’re very much open to working with him again soon.
There’s probably no greater recommendation for Big Finish’s Torchwood than Russell T Davies seeing Handcock’s energy as skill as something he wanted to bring to Doctor Who on television. In fact, Handcock’s involvement is one of the things about Series 14 that most excites Blogtor Who. (And if he can smuggle in Unbegotten writer James Goss under his jumper for an episode or two that would be excellent as well, please and thank you.)
He may be leaving the dirty streets of Soho behind. But as the dawn of a new era approaches, we can be sure of one thing. Torchwood is ready.
Torchwood: The Unbegotten
The dead walk the Earth! The air and ground are poisoned!
Mandeville Walk is the most haunted street in 1950s Soho. Norton Folgate has come to confront ghosts of his own, but finds himself caught up in a government cover-up. Andy Davidson is being hunted by demons. What really happened on Mandeville Walk?
Torchwood Soho: The Unbegotten by James Goss, is now available to own for just £19.99 (collector’s edition CD box set + download) £16.99 (download only).