Review by Cavan Gilbey
Billis Manger seems to be something of a fan favourite character in the Torchwood community;
appearing in a grand total of two episodes of the television series. For many the character made an
immediate impression as Murray Melvin brings a slimy charm and eeriness to the villain, but that
wasn’t enough for me to want to see him return. However Big Finish, if they are to be known for
anything, are known for their resurrection in interest for characters who might not have gotten fair
innings on the television. That brings us to the latest monthly range offering; Dead Plates. Manger
has previously appeared in four other audio entries but this is my first experience with the character
in this format. And based on what I’ve heard here, I may just go and listen to more.
Dead Plates is a whodunnit, a classic tale of murder and revenge with suspects gathered in swanky
rooms to deliver alibis and testimonies. It’s something which we’re all familiar with, and seemingly a
format Big Finish have used before for Bilis with the release Dead Man’s Switch. Part of me wants to
say that the format suits the character’s duplicitous nature perfectly, allowing him to take command
of those beneath him and manipulate them for his bidding; and trust me there is plenty of that as
Llewellyn’s script fixates itself on the theme of blackmail and desperation. On the other hand, the
format doesn’t quite come alive as vividly as I hoped. Whodunnits rarely have the most interesting
settings let’s be honest, usually manor houses and lavish tourist vessels. So when translating that to
audio you lose something when it comes to the soundscape. Audio dramas don’t really flourish
when they are constrained to mostly empty rooms in mostly empty buildings; horror stories get
away with this because of atmosphere but Dead Plates fails this somewhat. The atmosphere doesn’t
have the intensity it needs at point, often coming across flat and lifeless in some scenes. It doesn’t
help that this one is very exposition heavy either.
Where Dead Plates shines is writer David Llewellyn’s characterisation of the central cast. He covers a broad spectrum of horrid, crafting a realistic world built on selfishness and self-preservation at all costs
even when it might lead to objectively worse situations. We’ve got a hack journalist who will sell any
one out for a good story and a chance at notoriety, Tony Turner brings a suitably high level of slime
and sleaze to his role as Gerald, usually scheming away with equally awful pub owner Beryl. There
are moments of these two characters just having conversations about outing a character who is
homosexual, reflecting that older ideology with a chilling accuracy as they essentially justify it by
saying he’s rich and married and probably deserves it. Bilis’ reaction is genuinely a highlight of the
story as he seems simultaneously amused and disgusted as he’s come from a place where something
like this doesn’t matter, as well as laughing away the assumptions that his aged appearance might
signify his sympathies with the backwards ideology the pair act on.
The other two, and markedly more likeable, characters end being the ones with slightly less
development overall; mostly due to the fact they are side-lined quite close to the conclusion. Rosa
Escoda’s Felicity does a good job at being a representation of the struggling actor, highlighting a
great capacity for Rosa to portray jealousy with excellent passion and pomp and the character’s
relationship with Hugh Ross’s Oliver makes for an excellently sardonic comedic streak in the script
that does help maintain a decent enough pace.
Dead Plates’ ending has the feeling of being slightly rushed, with only an hour long run time and four
whole character vignettes to tell and intertwine Llewellyn has a lot on his plate. There is something
sudden and rather matter of fact about Bilis’ final manipulation of Beryl and Gerald, it feels
deserving but also like a bit of a cop-out. Bilis leaves the pair to decide their own fate but what could
have been a grim conversation about the path of greed corrupting ends up turning into a fairly
stereotypical ‘police arrest the crazy suspect’ ending that doesn’t feel particular fitting for the
complexity Llewellyn has set up.
I’m unsure whether or not to recommend Dead Plates. Sure there are some excellent moments of
characterisation that really make the cramped script come alive and move along, but I can’t help
feeling like I wanted something a bit more it. The whole thing doesn’t feel particularly Torchwood,
perhaps it would have been more at home in the horror focused Dark Shadows range. I do want to
hear more from Bilis because I feel other writers may do something more interesting with the
cosmic horror atmosphere the character brings, but Dead Plates might be a release focused on the
hardcore Bilis fans rather than those like me who are indifferent to the character.
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