The Empire Man

Posted in Audio by - December 23, 2022
The Empire Man

Released December 2022


At one hour to midnight on Christmas Eve, Queen Victoria has invited her new prime minister to a secret library underneath Buckingham Palace to share in the telling of ghost stories in Jonathan Barnes’s ‘The Empire Man.’ This is no mere continuing of a private tradition, however, as she tries to tease out memories of the past to bring forth a hidden truth.

Naturally, this is a very intimate story, and Queen Victoria, the Prime Minister, and Castringham huddled within the library sharing stories and spirits showcases the individual thought processes as the Prime Minister desperately tries to understand why he has been asked here and how the stories he is being told can be assumed to be factual when so much contained within could be chalked up to coincidence and heightened emotions. Indeed, the style of ‘The Empire Man’ would not be out of place within The Companion Chronicles as these three discussing the stories’ events and the emotions evoked at the time as well as the reactions provoked in the present are interspersed with narrated recountings accentuated by Patience Tomlinson who plays a vital role as a distinct character in each. While this format does lend itself well to the inevitable intermingling of the three disparate tales, it does also mean that each of the stories is by necessity extremely short with little time to fully develop as much as Queen Victoria might hope in order to deliver the maximum impact. Unfortunately, given the brevity of the accounts rather than this being one cohesive tale being broken up by the Christmas Eve discussions, it is quite easy to understand why the Prime Minister is so reluctant to accept at face value what is being told no matter how engaging the Queen and Castringham may be and regardless of his own related tale he has not yet revealed.

Inevitably, all three stories do not achieve the same level of engagement as the links to the same mysterious wooded region become known. Castringham’s is by far the most interesting as he recounts the strange goings-on in and around a hotel housing a most strange antique cabinet, the visuals and emotions certainly the most visceral and vividly punctuated by the strong aristocratic stylings of Hugh Fraser. Victoria’s tale about two separate times in the region and a mysterious creature within as she learns of the emperor’s man looking for her likewise carries with it an intrinsic air of uncertainty and tension, but the wonderfully regal and controlled intonations of Rowena Cooper that have made this iteration of the Queen so successful don’t quite manage to capture the terror that her younger self assuredly would have felt, creating something of a flatter experience that doesn’t quite match the strong mystery of the subject matter. Somewhat less successful as a whole, however, is the Prime Minister’s story centring around an ancient coin that became an obsession and the source of incredible anxiety at an important time in his career. Richard David-Caine is perfectly suitable as this authoritative figure even if his interpretation doesn’t instill the most confidence in elected officials, but there is hardly any palpable emotion associated with this story, a fact that doesn’t markedly improve even when his tale is directly called into question and Queen Victoria reveals the far darker truth she has long suspected. Sadly, like the three stories being told, this twist has no time to truly unfold and resonate before the concluding theme and credits begin, leaving something of an incomplete and hollow feeling in its wake.

Despite no relevance to Torchwood as an organization, going as far as to have Queen Victoria explicitly tell Castringham not to mention anything to its members about these affairs, ‘The Empire Man’ at times is evocative and atmospheric, but far too often it is rushed and imbalanced with even suitably strong performances and direction failing to elevate it into becoming the far more profound package it tries to be.

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