Torchwood: Madam, I’m – Starring Samuel Barnett, Dirvla Kirwan & Bryan Dick, Written by: James Goss & Directed by Scott Handcock (Big Finish)
Torchwood has had only a few villains that have recurred in audio. Captain John Hart was a given from the moment James Marsters was picked to play him. Tracy-Ann Oberman’s Yvonne Hartman was a must-have as Torchwood’s most efficient ultra-patriot. Murray Melvin’s Billis Manger gave a new Moriarty-style villain to the show and has subsequently been responsible for some of its creepiest audio stories.
Now, some 13 years after his TV appearance in Catherine Tregenna’s Series 2 episode, Adam, comes the return of Adam Smith, the lifeform who exists and thrives by creating false memories of himself in other people’s lives, and essentially editing their memories for his own purposes.
Written by James Goss as a direct prequel to the TV episode, we’re back in the territory of Norton Folgate (Samuel Barnett) and Lizbeth Hayhoe (Dervla Kirwan) for a mind-melting, memory-shifting episode in the life of Torchwood Soho.
With Hayhoe and Folgate starting off in a waspishly funny, familiar tone here, it’s life more or less as usual, until Norton brings one of his fancy men into the heart of a top secret agency. This, he explains, is Adam (Bryan Dick, reprising his TV role in audio).
Adam is nice.
Hayhoe agrees that he is, and quickly, the fact that he’s an outsider is forgotten – literally. What follows is a story for which you need to keep your wits and your wossnames about you, as Adam, entirely separate from his Norton connection, begins working at Torchwood Soho in the post room, then as a member of the team, and then, without too much ado, becomes the leader of Torchwood. So much better than that Rigsby fellow who ran the organisation before.
That Rigsby fellow who they’ve just hired as the janitor, and has quite a way with a mop in the gents’ bathroom.
Simultaneous to his rise to the head of Torchwood, Adam is ALSO Norton’s boyfriend, sometimes, and Lizbeth’s nephew, some other times, and this begins to re-introduce listeners to the pervasive, intimate, and eventually INvasive influence that Adam has over the people who come into literal contact with him – his ability to alter their memories is established by touch, and so his memory-editing ability can be deployed day by day if necessary, making him harder than herpes to shake.
Where in the TV episode, his influence was harmful and horrifying, there was a sense of a predatory creature just doing what predatory creatures do in order to survive in the world. Here, at first that sense pervades the audio, but once Adam gets control of Torchwood, he puts in motion a sequence of events that could, if left unchecked, lead the Earth, all unknowing, into its first interplanetary war.
A species of which little is known, but that has seemed relatively quiet and unthreatening, begins to grow in belligerence and threat, putting Torchwood itself – irrespective of such concerns as Earth’s national governments – at war with them. Adam declares a war footing and demands the building of a fleet of missiles that can at the very least “defend” Torchwood and the Earth from the alien menace.
But at the same time, people in Torchwood stop knowing what time it is. From room to room, people think it’s a different time. Meetings that were supposed to happen… may have done, or may have not, depending on… something that people can’t remember. Folgate and Hayhoe are no slouches – they know what must be done. They must take their suspicions to Adam, the leader of Torchwood.
And so the threat escalates in Madam, I’m, in loops that run more or less both backwards and forwards at the same moment. That makes sense of the title – for those who don’t know, it’s a truncated version of the popular palindrome, Madam, I’m Adam, a line that reads the same from back to front as it does from front to back. There’s a distinct degree to which that feels appropriate here – this is not a story to listen to while doing the ironing or tinkering with the car. Try and do that and you’ll be lost in minutes.
But as Torchwood prepares for war, and less and less makes sense or adds up, Folgate and Hayhoe try and crawl towards knowledge and progress – at one point it sounds like they’re going to get there, only for Adam to reach out and put his hand on Norton’s shoulder, eradicating the memories of all that’s going wrong – much to Hayhoe’s annoyance and frustration, however brief, before Adam literally pats her on the back for her good work, and the loop begins again.
On TV, there’s every chance that this story, focusing as it does on a smaller number of players than TV Torchwood, would get quickly repetitive and even annoying. On audio, the script is so tightly written it could squeak, and the three main players, Barnett, Kirwan and Dick (now that’s a threesome that sounds like it should solve crimes!) play it beautifully, the lightness darkening over time as the effect of Adam becomes more pervasive in their lives, like ink in water.
Particularly for Lizbeth, the effect is extreme, because while for Norton, the effect of a lover or a boss holds only a degree of damage (though manifesting himself as ALL of Norton’s lovers in his memory, to infect his whole sense of past self, is pretty high up there on the cruelty spectrum), Adam gets to know Lizbeth on a whole different level, playing into her family dynamic of love, loss and strained relationships, and then using that dynamic mercilessly against her, to the point of endangering her life, only to stroll back up to her as a total stranger seconds later, toying with her like a cat with a mouse. You’re going to want to listen to Dervla Kirwan in these scenes, because she’s superb, and not to spoiler anything for you, she has a mean way with an “Oh, BUGGER OFF!”
As the ending approaches, Folgate and Hayhoe find daily ways to remind themselves of what the hell is actually going on (You’d be amazed what can be done with a Fifties knitwear catalogue!), and face off against their leader as he prepares to decimate the aliens. The aliens who – as it turns out – want a word or two with Adam, regarding the carnage he left behind him on their planet. The complete conclusion of the piece sees him left where he was when we first encountered him in TV Torchwood, thirteen years ago for us, and nigh on fifty years in the future from the point of view of Madam, I’m.
This is a gorgeous, mind-scrambling story, with the chemistry between Samuel Barnett and Dervla Kirwan in particular acting as jolly Fifties sit-com banter to ease you through its more confusing, what-the-hell moments. There’s real emotional punch and consequence to the way Adam uses his pawns for his own purposes, and ultimately, whether or not you’ve seen – or remember – the TV episode, Adam stands up as a deeply devious, unpleasant villain that you’re glad to hear get his comeuppance. And yes, because this is a Norton Folgate story, it has a twist in the very tip of its tale, for which you have to keep listening.
Madam, I’m is a fabulous, camp, complicated tale that both delivers on its Torchwood villain potential, but also serves as a warning against emotional vampires in your real life, too. It’s funny, and fast, and you need to have your head screwed on to follow it, but it also lands quite enough emotional punches to make it memorable for quite some time to come. Tony Fyler