It has been said that we now live in a post-truth era, in which bigger and bolder lies are being told on a daily basis, and the term ‘fake news’ has become part of our everyday vernacular whether we like it or not. During such a braggadocious period of our culture, there seems to be no better time to revisit one of the best known self-aggrandising purveyors of tall tales of all: Baron Munchausen.
For many people, their main exposure to the Baron will be via Terry Gilliam’s 1988 feature film, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen; however, there have been many depictions of his exploits over the years, going all the way back to Georges Méliès’ 1911 short, Baron Munchausen‘s Dream – the Baron is said to have possibly inspired Méliès’ classic A Trip To The Moon, as Munchausen had recounted his own lunar voyages in accounts originally produced by the German writer Rudolf Erich Raspe, and later expanded upon by others.
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He had actually based the character upon a real-life member of German nobility, Hieronymus Karl Friedrich, Freiherr von Münchhausen, who was renowned within aristocratic circles for his hyperbolised recounting of his military deeds. Raspe first referred to his creation by the name of “M-h-s-n“ and kept his name off the tales for fear of attracting legal action from the real Baron von Münchhausen, particularly after the character name was subsequently altered to “Munchausen” (minus the Germanic umlaut); he was only identified as the author posthumously.
Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia was Raspe’s first book recounting the fictional Baron’s varied larger-than-life escapades in a first person narrative, and formed the basis of Gilliam’s film adaptation. A longtime admirer of the Munchausen stories, including the 1988 movie, is Barnaby Eaton-Jones, Creative Director of Spiteful Puppet, the company behind the audio revival of Robin Of Sherwood, as well as a 50th anniversary special of Up Pompeii!, and the recent adaptation of Jeepers Creepers, a play about Marty Feldman.
Eaton-Jones had the idea of doing something based around Baron Munchausen, but giving it a contemporary spin, while still preserving the satirical and comically absurd spirit of the original stories. After producing a treatment for the proposed series, Eaton-Jones asked writer Paul Birch to put together the six half-hour scripts for The Barren Author, centring around the character of The Brigadier, who is in the process of writing his autobiography; the tale takes place via a video chat between The Brigadier and Smith, representing the publishers interested in the memoirs.
Across the course of the six episodes, The Brigadier (Richard O’Brien) regales the progressively incredulous Smith (Sophie Aldred) with various chapters of his life, from running away from boarding school to his time doing his part to help fight the Cold War, with plenty of fisticuffs, derring-do, unlikely escapes, astonishing trousers, and Elton John. However, are Smith’s motives regarding The Brigadier wholly on the level? Is she actually involved with the publishing world after all, or something far more nefarious and sinister? When the legend becomes fact, print the legend…
Richard O’Brien manages to elevate anything with which he is associated, so managing to secure his talents for The Barren Author is a major coup for Eaton-Jones and the Spiteful Puppet team. Whether you happen to know O’Brien from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (or its overlooked and underrated sequel, Shock Treatment), The Crystal Maze, or even Phineas and Ferb, you just know for sure that he never brings anything less than his ‘A’ game, and it would be hard to envision anybody else better suited to the job of bringing to life the eccentric Brigadier.
Aldred is well-versed in recording audios, whether through all her work doing voiceovers and characters for animated series, or her extensive experience reprising the character of Ace from Doctor Who for Big Finish over the last 20 years or so. To know that the two actors actually recorded their parts separately (with O’Brien over in New Zealand, and Aldred in her airing cupboard) makes the quality of the final product even more impressive, as the performances mesh together beautifully, with no way of being able to detect that the duo were not playing off each other in real time.
The scripts by Birch are so layered and densely-packed with incident that a second (and possibly even third) listening of The Barren Author is a rewarding and essential experience, as you get the chance to dig deeper and pick up on the stuff which you may have missed out on first time round. With it being written as a two-hander, O’Brien has the task of not only bringing to life The Brigadier, but also everyone else he encounters along the way, while relating his anecdotes to an increasingly skeptical Smith (with a dry and deadpan Aldred proving the perfect foil throughout).
The Barren Author is a genuine joy to listen to, and is helped by its being largely unencumbered by any preconceptions of the material from the audience, all thanks to the substance of Baron Munchausen’s tall tales being an unknown quantity for many people, even though his name is synonymous with exaggeration and stretching the truth. As such, you are able to come to this production without first having to know any of the original stories, get swept up in The Brigadier’s flights of fancy, and come away at the end thoroughly entertained. And that really is the honest truth.
The Barren Author is out on 31st October from Spiteful Puppet. You can catch our interview with Richard O’Brien and Sophie Aldred, coming on Monday.