Torchwood: Deadbeat Escape – Starring Murray Melvin, Gareth Pierce & Cara Chase. Written by James Goss & Directed by Scott Handcock – CD / Download (Big Finish)
Billis Manger is an unusual Torchwood villain. He’s not big and stompy and apocalyptic by any means whatsoever – to all intents and purposes he looks and sounds like a harmless, rather sweet old man. But Billis Manger is a turner of screws, an opener of portals to ultimate chaos, a steel-spined streak of self-interest dipped in poison and chocolate.
And now he’s back.
This, in case you’re getting the wrong idea, is very very good news for Torchwood fans. Billis has started appearing here and there in the audio Torchwood stories from Big Finish, perhaps most effectively in A Kill To A View from Torchwood: Aliens Among Us, Part 2. Deadbeat Escape from James Goss though feels like it knocks all previous Billis stories aside and claims the top spot, because it’s both focused and layered, delivering the horror of a kind of Hell – with Billis as its maitre d’.
The script is teeming with what seem like influences – imagine Hotel California, just outside of Cardiff – ‘my head grew heavy and my sight grew dim, I had to stop for the night…’
When you stop at this particular bed and breakfast though, you really, truly stop. Not for nothing is it called the Traveller’s Halt. Not Rest – Halt. Strangely depressed people fill the dining room eating Soup of the Day, whatever day that is. A dripping tap in the room next door keeps you permanently awake, and the person in whose room you hear the tap is asleep like an ageing Sleeping Beauty, as though time didn’t stop when she fell asleep.
And then there’s the rain. Torrential, aggressive rain that stops you leaving. Ever.
Billis is there for reasons of his own, which it would churlish to spoil for you, but suffice it to say the story takes the form of a kind of grand tour of the guest house, Billis showing newbie Gareth Pierce, played with a brusque aplomb by Hywel Roberts, around the physical space, the oddities it encompasses, the hopes, the opportunities – and the ungovernable, inescapable dangers, as though welcoming a fellow prisoner in this hotel of the damned.
It’s never that simple with Billis Manger. There’s lots of talk about time, about a broken clock and a piece of the regulating clockwork, the Deadbeat Escape of the title. The thing that puts all deviations right. That’s how Billis claims to see himself in this story – a mender of clocks, a person sensitive to the needs of time. His lectures on time and timekeeping bring a chill of Sapphire and Steel to the audio, with time as the enemy, time as the trap from which there seems to be no escape, while Gareth frets about reaching his father in hospital, who doesn’t have long left. There’s a poignancy in Gareth’s rush to reach his father – like many of us, he has a need for closure with a parent with whom he’s had a complex relationship. But Billis and the guesthouse of doom have other ideas.
The story has a deeply satisfying sense of pace – it’s confined, tense, almost Hammer horror stuff, but it feeds you, one clue, one revelation, one shock at a time, making you hungrier and hungrier to reach some sort of conclusion.
‘You can check out any time you like – but you can never leave.’ That’s the darkest line of Hotel California, the final shock, and it’s a line with relevance to Deadbeat Escape too – the notion of autonomy in a house that’s pitted its wits and its time against you is a cruel one, and we hear Gareth come to this startling realisation in a thoroughly vivid way. The ending of the story is perfect and chilling and a testament to the strength of Billis Manger as a character, and to Murray Melvin’s performance as the man who does whatever is necessary. It will punch you when you finally realise what’s been going on and why – and Goss, directed by the hardcore vision of Scott Handcock, spares not a single nerve in making that punch hurt. Billis Manger is by no means a serial killer, but his words and his attitude at the end of this story show the patience and the dedication to his own interests that you’d expect of one, as he reveals the trick behind the trap, the fix that exists for the clockwork of the house. It’s horrifying. It’s utterly, utterly horrifying…but in a way you’ll rush to listen to time and time and time again. Although, to be fair, perhaps you won’t re-listen that much – when time is so much the enemy in this story, looping your listening might feel too much like tempting fate.
Deadbeat Escape is a staggering, steel comb down the spine of a listen, that will make you gasp, make you sniff, and make you revel in the darkness of Billis Manger. It’s a Torchwood story with only one real mention of any of the Torchwood regulars, but it works sublimely in their absence, free from the pressure of any particular goodie. Take a walk on the dark side with Billis Manger, and dare to check in to the Traveller’s Halt – then see if you can fathom out the Deadbeat Escape. Tony Fyler