In the 1962 John Ford Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the character Maxwell Scott was to utter what is a now immortal quote: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. Printing the legend was the intended aim of Smith (Sophie Aldred), in the first series of The Barren Author, an audio comic drama based loosely upon the tall tales of Baron Munchausen.
Smith was tasked with interviewing The Brigadier (Richard O’Brien), whose life stories veered into the territory of the wildly fantastical, exaggerated and seemingly improbable, yet all of them were imparted with absolute sincerity to his incredulous audience of one. Having ended on something of a cliffhanger, AUK Studios and Spiteful Puppet have luckily seen fit to pick up where the Brigadier and Smith’s story left off, and given us a second series.
Although it was only ever intended to be a one-off, everyone involved in the production of The Barren Author – especially Richard O’Brien – had such a splendid time in making it, they decided it was worth giving The Brigadier a last big, glorious hurrah, ably accompanied by Smith. All of the joy involved in putting The Barren Author together thankfully translated to the end product, which proved so wonderfully off-kilter that a return engagement was warranted.
Last time around, Smith was The Brigadier’s audience for his anecdotes, experiencing increasing levels of disbelief as she was taken on a tour of his illustrious life and career. Here, she gets to become more of an active participant, thanks to The Brigadier’s seemingly unlikely past starting to catch up with him at long last. Smith starts to find things getting a bit too close to home – quite literally, in fact – as she gets dragged into a larger-than-life escapade. But how much of what she was told can she actually rely on?
With the initial series having been a two-hander, its success lay in the chemistry of the two leads, as they had to carry all of the story between them, with O’Brien having to inhabit a range of characters who had cropped up during The Brigadier’s exploits. O’Brien’s versatility is in evidence once again, and you can tell the sheer relish he has in creating all of these different individuals, making them all come alive in the rendition of these seemingly shaggy-dog stories, and it makes for a wonderfully rich listening experience.
As Smith has become more of a focal part of events, Aldred is tasked with giving the character greater depth, as she starts questioning what she thinks she knows to be the actual truth of things. Smith’s loyalties and true motivations were also a subject of some suspicion before, so Aldred really does such an outstanding job of taking us along on Smith’s emotional journey, fleshing her out as we go, making her a much more sympathetic character in the process, as well as having it feel so credible and authentic.
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Two strong central performances such as these would easily lift even a poor script, but as writer Paul Birch’s work here is actually so strong, O’Brien and Aldred help take it to an even higher level. Beside the flights of fancy, the cutting satire is a real bonus, giving the story some extra piquancy, with such a deliciously acerbic send-up of a certain tech bro billionaire of some repute, who shall remain unnamed here. Also added to the mix is The Brigadier’s sworn rival and nemesis, St. John Lawrence-Mulcaster, voiced with such a devilishly delicious loucheness by Barnaby Eaton-Jones.
Being able to discuss the plot in any great detail is tricky, as it runs the risk of giving away too many twists or surprises, all of which are best left for the listener to discover. Suffice it to say that the saga of The Barren Author does come to a truly fitting and apposite conclusion. If that old adage of always leaving your audience wanting more is anything to go by as a measure of success, then job absolutely done. And that really is the truth.
The Barren Author (Series 2) is out now from AUK, and available on digital download from Spiteful Puppet, or from Audible.