Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Paranormalists

The Paranormalists has been called "Britains First Podcast Drama" and is a comedy-adventure series from Crocanapple Productions about a group of paranormal investigators set in West Somerset in the western portion of England. The series so far is a collection of two mini-series "Minehead Elvis" and "Brown Willy". The series hasn't been updated in a few years now and many wonder if the Paranormalists have "Podfaded" from existence although there is a promise of a third series "The Holy Grail".

The Paranormalist web site is about as bare bones as you can get it. It looks like the last time it was properly updated was in 2006. The color scheme is "alien" green with some white pages to bring out the text. Along the left hand side are a smattering of X-File styled pictures that can be clicked to discover the paranormal elements. Scrolling at the top is a decent but short interview link with the creators and BBC4. I almost missed the other links as they were inside the white page with the other text. I had expected them to be outside in the green expanse.
The link to "Paranormalist Files" is a link to the history of how the show was created and not what I thought would actually be an "inside" conversation of what the show is about.
Which is a shame since the show could use some deeper explanation on the main page for those who do not know what it is. The Cast and Crew page is very detailed and it's awe inspiring to see the pedigree for the players on this show. While most everything is there, I find myself aching for more information and details about the upcoming shows than "Coming Soon". We'd like some tentative release dates and some more detailed background information on the rich backdrop of the characters and information on the West Country. Maps. Character details. Even some suggestive mythological creatures and their habits would do well here.
Rating 3/5

Audio Drama Theater Type- Modern
The Paranormalists utilize modern production techniques similar to that of the BBC. A strong theme song with introductory notes from the main characters to get the story started and sound effects. As opposed to many of the Old Time Radio series, the Paranormalists do not rely on voice overs beyond the introduction with the exception of the old sea captain who usually bookends every episode to draw people into the next, and instead chooses tend to tell a straight forward scene by scene story (sometimes operating with a secondary subplot as in the case of "Minehead Elvis" in bringing in Linda Fortune and her brother Pete to the team.

Acting Types- Mixed Amateur and Professional
The acting in the paranormalists is top notch. Even a cursory look at the impressive resumes of the actors involved shows that care has been taken in getting the right voices. There is a strong mix of voice variations which is needed to provide the listener with enough cues to understand who is talking. Both Neil Edmond (Hitchard Screening) and Rob Crouch (Murray Black) have fantastic comic timing. Good comedic lines have to be leveled with exceeding honesty and innocent miscommunication. Both have a way of on one hand of coming across as experts in the air of extra-phonemena and still portray themselves as bumbling fools and misfits. There is a kind of controlled chaos in their performances that draw the listeners in just waiting to see what will happen to them in the next scene.
Vanessa Morley (Linda Fortune) has a marvelous voice and a stunning delivery. Her portrayal of a smart and unappreciated talent in this field is compelling and each crisp consonent she rips off of the dialog sounds like one step further to her slapping someone upside the head. Ms. Morley has a rich voice that makes you want to sit down with a martini at a smoky bar and listen to her read the phone book to you.
Without going more deeply into the stable of actors and characters from Cyril to Professor Webb these folks are wonderful. One could easily cast the lot into entirely different circumstances and characters and watch them entertain and engage.
Rating: 5+/5

Production Type: Detailed
Joanne Churchman and Andrew Wilks are credited for production of these tales and their work could not be better. The recordings are all sharp and realistic. The cutting of the dialog is fast paced and thoughtful. The sound effects melt into the backdrop of the script as if the show were all recorded "on location" in one take.
The use of the adventurous theme while the characters introduce themselves at the beginning of each episode is a touch of genius. It sets the pace for the episode, and provides a series of reminders for the listeners exactly who is involved, what the stakes are for each show, and who are involved.
Later in the second series, these individual introductions are melded seamlessly to reintroduce the whole group. The series is layered and produced with respect to the podcasting community, and with the highest quality I've seen on any free show.
Rating: 5+/5

The writing is credited by Crocanapple which includes Rob Crouch, Mike Davis and Simon Whalley and lends creedance to the theory of "many hands make little work" with an addendum of "and much fun." Strong collaborations have been extremely productive in shows like Wormwood and The Paranormalists. The writing is tight and the characterizations are extremely well put together. Anyone coming from a small town anywhere knows these people. That being said, the writers do not make fun of rural life but rather poke gentle fun at the things they love about it.
There is a gentleness in characters as ridiculous as the "Minehead Elvis" and that creates a sympathy for the listeners to rally around.
Struggles of the characters in a fantasy need to be grounded in reality or the suspension of disbelief threatens to be lost. While dramas can have nearly outrageous motivations, fantastic shows need simpler desires. The need for acceptance being the most popular. That need for acceptance among their community and peers is what drives the Paranormalists as every episode sees them nearly falling apart as a group.
If there is one criticism it is that the larger plots sometimes get confusing and lost in the interaction of the characters. There is a sense that the writers aren't exactly certain where to take the plot, and how to drop good clues and red herrings until the final act is reached. Perhaps that is simply because many of the people involved have more experience with comedy than mystery.
I would like to see a little more focus placed upon keeping people in suspense with the twists and turns of the plot for future shows.
Rating: 4/5

Additional Notes
The British invasion of audio drama still stymies American audiences. Britain has embraced audio drama in a way that modern US audiences just don't understand. This is why so many of the Commonwealth have a keener understanding of how a good audio drama is put together. Even with accents removed, the structure and production level of a British audio drama always seems to raise to the top- amateur or professional. It can frustrate North Americans, but I prefer to see England as a beacon we can all guide our way by.

Over All Rating
The Paranormalists is as professional as an amateur audio drama production can get. They suffer the "minimal output" syndrome that so many British productions do, but that is a hold over from how they run their television series as well. The idea in Britain is to do six episodes well as opposed to doing 24 and be pleased with only three or four. It is hard to argue with that logic, except when we sit and wait for the "next installment" to arrive. Podcast listeners have a short-termed memory, and we're always looking for the next story to capture our imagination. That the Paranormalists is still on everyone's lips even after a few years absence speaks to the strength of the show and the strength of the performers and creators.
Rating: 5/5

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