The so-called ‘Nest Cottage’ stories are a peculiar cul-de-sac in the world of Doctor Who. Before Tom Baker discovered Big Finish, these adventures, written by Paul Magrs and produced by the BBC, represented probably the only way in which fans would get more Fourth Doctor action, and it was Doctor Who, but not quite as we knew it. The Doctor having a place in the country, with a housekeeper, Mrs Wibbsey, and eventually teaming up with Mike Yates of UNIT for adventures that had a surreal, somewhat Hammer quality to them that mixed Magrs’ famously off-the-wall inventiveness with Baker’s own particular taste for grand guignol, for finding the something-creepy behind the eyes of the neighbours. Magrs and Baker together could be said to have extended this notion even further in Bafflegab’s Baker’s End series, which sees Tom Baker playing…Tom Baker, and again teaming up with Susan Jameson as his housekeeper.
If you’re brand spanking new to the Nest Cottage series…there’s every chance The Winged Coven’s going to make precisely buggerall sense as a cold listen. Fortunately in the universe of space-timing, the complete Nest Cottage collection has just been released on CD and download, so you can get your head around this particular, unusual era in the Fourth Doctor’s career.
And then crack on with The Winged Coven.
The Winged Coven itself is an amalgam of everything that fans of a certain age love about a particular era of televised Fourth Doctoring. Dark forces are stirring in a quiet English village, and the Doctor’s friends and companions, in particular Mrs Wibbsey, are being drawn inexorably into the web of sacrifice, ritual and exceedingly good cakes. When the Doctor returns home from another spate of transtemporal meanderings, he finds old ladies nearly dead in fields, mini-mart staff with laser guns and something horrible hooting in the night. What’s more, Mrs Wibbsey’s been at his super-duper secret stash of alien gubbins, to the probable ruination of space, time and coffee mornings.
Paul Magrs’ storyline is essentially fairly straightforward here. It’s just that he hangs such delicious baubles of oddness off it along the way, you can’t help but open your mouth, unfocus your eyes, think ‘Well, why not?’ and go with it. Mysterious and misbegotten mysticism in the heart of the English countryside – classic Tom Baker, a la Image of the Fendahl, The Stones of Blood etc. Weird claustrophobic villages of unusual space hardware – classic Tom Baker, a la The Android Invasion. And yet, because it’s a ‘Nest Cottage’ adventure, it also has that sense of slight dislocation from televised Tom Baker stories that takes you down a country lane and roughs up your expectations of what might and might not happen when surrounded by ‘ordinary folk.’ It’s the kind of story you’d end up with if Dennis Wheatley met Neil Gaiman in a country pub and got stuck into the real ale; a story of seemingly mystic mysteries with probably trans-dimensional explanations
Susan Jameson’s Mrs Wibbsey has always been an unusual companion, a kind of Mrs Hudson to the Doctor’s Holmes, and her use of the first person in this narration allows for an intimate, chatty and occasionally opinionated style. You almost get the sense of Mrs Wibbsey as the kind of companion Alan Bennett or Victoria Wood would write – literally companionable, come along with Wibbs and you’ll learn all the gossip of the village, without, it goes without saying, her ever being a gossip, because she doesn’t do that kind of thing, and the kettle will always be on should you fancy a nice cup of tea. But she’s also got the instincts of a solid companion, calling the Doctor in when things start to feel creepy in the village, and more than able to hold her own, thank you very much, when he berates her about touching his stash of super-duper alien stuff.
There’s a wicked grin in the writing of the lead baddie here, which any reader of summer beach-fiction will recognise. The ‘monster,’ such as it is, is especially and pleasingly odd too, more for the mundanity of its form in our universe than for the concept it embodies, which is your fairly standard pan-dimensional beastie surfing the dimensions for a midnight snack.
Overall, The Winged Coven ticks a lot of solid nostalgia boxes in terms of Doctor Who of a very particular vintage, but also turbo-charges the oddness to ensure you get a solid Nest Cottage listen, and an adventure that’s pure Fourth Doctor, and absolutely undiluted Paul Magrs. Grab your cowl – it’s time you checked out the shenanigans of The Winged Coven Tony Fyler