It has taken something like five years for The Wireless Theatre Company to tell their version of the story of Spring-heeled Jack, the diabolical superhuman of Victorian folklore. Tying real-life events into an otherwise fictionalised plot, Robert Valentine and Gareth Parker’s story reaches its penultimate instalment with this, the middle episode of the third Springheel’d Jack trilogy. With one eye on the resolution – like many modern variations on factually based Victorian era characters- Valentine and Parker are promising a “reveal” in the final episode, albeit one that has more in common with Child of the Vodyanoi than it does The Real Mary Kelly – and the other on tying up the lead character’s narrative arc- The Tunnels of Death might have felt like a placeholder episode, treading water before the big finale. In fact, in many ways it’s the best and most entertaining instalment of the series so far.
Christopher Finney is an older Josiah Smith here, a disaffected echo of the young officer whose life became inextricably linked with the legend of Jack back in the first series. In The Secret of Springheel’d Jack, his disinterest in the politics through which his life will ultimately end up elapsing back to the way it began, is born out of the imminence of that departure, but here in episode two it is his reacquaintance with Andrew Shepherd’s Hopcraft – a character whose origins reflect Smith’s own in opposing and conflicting ways – that reignites Josiah’s fascination with the demon that orphaned them both. After a hair-raising escape from the climax of the previous instalment, there’s an amusing if insubstantial stopover at a German submarine, before Smith out-espionages the spies and leads Hopcraft back to the very beginning, Scratch Row and the subterranean lair of the creature, ready for a final reunion in the concluding episode.
The Springheel saga has been four hours of good old-fashioned Victorian melodrama, but in this eighth of the nine episodes the humour is brought to the forefront, thanks to the conflicting characters of the two leads. But more than that, by having Hopcraft and Smith paired up for the entire duration, Valentine and Parker finally tease out the forces that drive the pair in opposite directions. Hopcraft’s response to a line of conversation dealing with the pair’s mothers says everything you need to know about both him and Smith, and the promises they both make with regards to the events still to come leave us tantalised as to how all this will end. Suddenly the reveal of Springheel’d Jack’s provenance takes on far less importance than the question of Josiah Smith’s destination.
The Secret of Springheel’d Jack uses the rise of the German war machine as an interesting backdrop to a story that begins in Aldershot Barracks (a real event that has been absorbed into the fiction), but the politicking of Disraeli and others is little more than texture in a story that has been far more about Smith than it really has Jack or anything else.
The acting, as you would expect from The Wireless Theatre Company, is – but for some rather fishy German accents (one of which deliberately so) – uniformly excellent, and if you’re minded to enjoy Victoriana, audio drama and the supernatural, it is well worth seeking out the Wireless website to partake of the story so far ahead of its final instalment, due on a pair of headphones near you later this year.
THE SECRET OF SPRINGHEEL’D JACK SERIES 3, EPISODE TWO: THE TUNNELS OF DEATH / DIRECTOR: ROBERT VALENTINE / WRITTEN BY: GARETH PARKER & ROBERT VALENTINE / STARRING: CHRISTOPHER FINNEY, ANDREW SHEPHERD, JENNY RUNACRE, DAVID BENSON, MATTHEW KELLY / PUBLISHER: THE WIRELESS THATRE COMPANY / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW