Audio - The Springheel Saga Series 1 and 2

Susan Omand settled in to enjoy tales of adventure and intrigue in Victorian London as she reviewed series 1 and 2 of The Springheel Saga from the Wireless Theatre Company...

Series 1 - The Strange Case of Spring Heel’d Jack

Episode 1 - The Ghost of Clapham Common

"London, 1837. A terrifying apparition stalks the night! Constable Jonah Smith must avoid a pair of vicious killers in his hunt for the mysterious figure who will come to be known as… Springheel Jack!"

The opener sets the scene well, from the cult raising the devil at the start to the fight in the cemetery, introducing most of the main characters and laying the back story for Smith's obsession with Springheel Jack. There is also plenty of action though with an attack or three by the "Ghost" in the title to keep "the Peelers", that's Smith and Hooks, busy. The scene at the start with the fussy landlady stuck me as a bit Sherlock Holmes (and not in a good way) but for the rest of it, if you enjoyed Ripper Street, you'll like this episode.

Episode 2 - The Crypt of Evil

"Smith’s desperate race to capture the mysterious Springheel Jack before he strikes again sends him on a dangerous hunt through London’s darkest shadows … and into the crypt of evil! "

We discover more about the villains of the piece and get a few good clues to the mystery of "Springheel Jack," including the importance of a certain location. The other main character, Charlotte, and her reason for being there, as well as The Burning Truth - the main mystery of the series, is introduced in this episode too and it's the attack on the carriage that Charlotte is travelling in, that leads everyone to the most haunted area in London. This was very much an Indiana Jones episode with the way they find and open the Crypt of Evil of the title and the sacrificial scene being very much reminiscent of the Temple of Doom.

Episode 3 - The Face of the Fiend

"As the forces of darkness threaten to frame an innocent man for the monstrous attacks, Smith and Charlotte must escape the villainous Lord Wayland and solve the mystery of Springheel Jack – or die in the attempt!"

All the protagonists gather in this final episode - the obsessed Lord Wayland, his paid heavies and Springheel Jack all after Smith, Hooks and Charlotte. This is an episode of explanation of the importance of The Burning Truth and tying up old loose ends. Charlotte lives up to the "feisty redhead" stereotype as she discovers the truth about her father. The climax of the story was not quite as tense as it maybe should have been and, despite a quite good twist, this episode wasn't quite as good as the previous ones for me, probably because the explanations were a bit too straight forward.

Series 2

Series 2 - The Legend of Spring Heel'd Jack

Set seven years after the first series and Jonah Smith is now a Detective Inspector. Although it wasn't strictly necessary for the second series, I'm really glad I listened to series one first so that I was familiar with some of the characters and their back stories.

Episode 1 - The Terror of London

"Folly Ditch, 1845. When a fire-breathing maniac kills 13-year-old Maria Davis, Springheel Jack is blamed. Detective Inspector Jonah Smith is hot on the trail but soon finds himself accused of an equally terrible crime…"

The addition of the character James Rhymer, a journalist and author, as the narrator made me think of the Ripperologist Edward Buchan in the TV series Whitechapel - an overly keen but still knowledgeable amateur ready to help the police but also wanting to further his own career. A narrator gave this series an extra dimension that was missing from the last - not overly intrusive but a good way of linking scenes and "breaking the fourth wall". I also enjoyed the diversity of characters introduced in the Harlequin Players and looked forward to seeing who of these would be involved in the story because you don't introduce a travelling theatre show not to use it. The introduction of the main mystery and the way the story was moved on from last series was very cleverly done.

Episode 2 - The Carnival of Horrors

"Hunted by the police and stalked by a sinister new enemy, Jonah Smith risks all to clear his name by going behind the scenes at Bartholomew Fair… in search of Springheel Jack! "

After the shocking scenes at the end of the last episode I wondered where this one was going to go from there. I needn't have worried. The narrator was again useful as a "catch up" as the episode began and to describe the scene. The carnival atmosphere worked well as a backdrop to the events. The introduction of the new female main character was well done, although being called "Dreadful Penny" even as a byname, was a bit too corny. I also felt the Scratch Row link to Mr Hopcraft, the Punch and Judy man, was unnecessary as Hopcraft's character was easily built without it. The "Box of Emmet" however was very intriguing and the end of this episode was sublime.

Episode 3 - The Engine of Doom

"With Jonah Smith dead and the murder of Maria Davis still a mystery, there is little hope that the forces of good will triumph as a runaway train speeds towards it’s explosive destination. All aboard - The Engine of Doom!"

A catch up from the narrator leads us into the final straight for this story. Having killed off a main character in the previous series, and another in the first episode of this series, I really did wonder if they had killed off our hero at the end of the last episode. As with all good heroes though, he lives to fight another day and his appearance, along with an anonymous tip to the police, gathers everyone on a train for the final episode. When you remember that this series was set in 1845, the choice of a train was inspired as emerging technology. I also liked the use of the troupe painting to tie all the clues to the "other" Springheel Jack together. The most unsettling part was what the Box of Emmet told Ethel, the mind reader - this lays the foundations for a whole new story more so than the "after the credits" continuation. Enough loose ends were tied up though and the finale had enough adventure to make a satisfying conclusion to the story - even though part of it was a direct Raiders of the Lost Ark take-off.

I listened to both series, one episode a night, over a week and found myself looking forward to each next episode, especially with the second series. There was a real sense of adventure that is missing in a lot of stories these days and the Victorian setting really added to the "Boy's Own" feel of it. The writers, Robert Valentine and Jack Bowman, really excelled in their story-telling abilities and the words and characters were brought to life very well by the whole cast. I had not heard of the legend of Springheel Jack so was unaware of the folk tale aspect of it when I started to listen to these. I have since done some research and I liked the way some true events surrounding Springheel Jack were cleverly woven into the story by the use of names and places.

The theme tune was very "Sherlock" and put me off a bit as I don't think it suited the stories although I understand the effect they were going for, but the incidental music, especially in series two episode 2 with the carnival, was very well done and really added to the atmosphere.

I can see these radio plays translating very well to the small screen as there is plenty of action and adventure. Highly recommended for an enjoyable caper.

Images - Wireless Theatre Co.

Both series are available to download from their website, here
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