Monday, September 30, 2013

For Your Ears Only: Hordes of the Things

Thanks to the rise of nerd and gamer culture (and that can be a mixed blessing, believe you me), fantasy spoofs are pretty easy to find these days. They vary widely both in quality and in approaches to the material, but they all reflect the increasingly mainstream position the genre enjoys in pop culture. So it's interesting to uncover a relatively early attempt at lampooning high fantasy.

Hordes of the Things was broadcast in 1980, in a period of animated Tolkien adaptations, the early Dungeons & Dragons craze, Star Wars and its imitators, and perhaps most significantly, the highly popular, acclaimed science fiction comedy series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Hordes is by no means a retread of Douglas Adams' masterpiece, but it's hard to imagine that BBC Radio didn't have it in mind when commissioning this four-part adventure from Andrew Marshall and John Lloyd. (And both were produced by Geoffrey Perkins.) It's not nearly as groundbreaking, but it is a decent collection of jokes deflating the seriousness and pomposity of the millions of epic adventures adorning bookstore shelves then and now.

The realm of Middlesea has been largely taken over by The Evil One and his titular legions of terrifying monsters. Only the peaceful kingdom of Albion remains, besieged on all sides. But while the King (Paul Eddington) fiddles with diplomacy and Crown Prince Veganin (Simon Callow) boldly rides around not accomplishing much, the wizard Radox the Green (Frank Middlemass) has uncovered a prophecy of a great hero who will sound the Summon Trumpet to bring other heroes to face off the armies of darkness. Said hero appears to be the lowly Agar (Christian Rodska), a woodcutter with a minotaur companion (Martha Knight), but he's not sure he's cut out to save the kingdom.

Being a series of four half-hour episodes, one might expect Hordes to focus on telling a single story and resolving it within the limited time allotted, but this doesn't seem to have been the writers' main priority. Instead the action keeps jumping back and forth between various groups of characters, from the King's foolish attempts at appeasement, to Veganin's crusades, to Radox getting involved with wizard business and trying to suss out the full version of the prophecy. Because so much is jammed in, none of it develops very much.

So what we basically have is a series of comic vignettes, in which various fantasy tropes are lampooned. It's not unsuccessful on this level. There aren't that many truly hilarious or laugh out loud moments (or at least there weren't for me, your mileage may vary, etc.), but there is a pleasant atmosphere of silliness underlying even the really corny jokes. Without much time to develop character or concepts, we're stuck with music hall banter, but that's the sort of thing that Muppet Shows are made of so I really can't complain.

The humor tends to stick to surface-level riffing on the absurdity of fantasy concepts: attempting cultural relations with foul beasts of unrelenting evil, harpies worrying about their looks, that sort of thing. It's a little disappointing but also to be expected from a comedy about a genre that had, as of yet, not been extensively mined for laughs. (We were still a few years off from numerous pun-laden fantasy novels, or for that matter Discworld.) At times it even works. The enthusiasm of the performers (with Patrick Magee on narrating duty) is commendable, Callow standing out for sheer loud bravura.

Since it's not much of a coherent narrative, what sticks out in Hordes of the Things are the individual moments. There's a confrontation with a monster that kills with a gaze that's remarkably well handled, considering that it's radio, and an especially clever twist to another monster threat. There's nothing that sticks out as particularly sour, either. If the ending is a bit of a messy, Goon Show fadeout, that's about as much as the story can justify. I wish it were more memorable, but I can't deny it works as what it sets out to be, a light holiday trifle taking some reasonably clever swings at a popular genre. It may be the definition of inessential, but it's a distinctly agreeable experience.

Written by APR Marshall and JHW Lloyd
Produced by Geoffrey Perkins

Grade: B

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