Sunday, 24 April 2016

Pilgrim by Sebastian Baczkiewicz

Pilgrim by Sebastian Baczkiewicz (pronounced "bunch-key-a-vitch") is a distinguished series of supernatural thrillers which have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 over the last seven years. The concluding mini-series has now gone out and the entire range of episodes were available online for a while here.  

Sadly these have now expired, but some of the adventures are available for download, and the whole thing will soon be available on CD (here and here).

I'm going into such detail about where you can hear these dramas because they're genuinely terrific and well worth searching out. 

They tell the story of William Palmer (superbly played by Paul Hilton), a stone mason in the 12th Century who was on a pilgrimage to Canterbury when he inadvertently offended the king of the Grey Folk (the fairies), who cursed him to life eternal. In the succeeding centuries Palmer has become a kind of fixer in conflicts between the Grey Folk and the Hot Bloods (humans). (Incidentally, Palmer is often referred to as 'Pilgrim', or Billy, suggesting that Baczkiewicz might be a Kurt Vonnegut fan — Billy Pilgrim.)

The series is made distinctive by its emphasis on regional locations and accents, and also its great use of popular music — usually to eerie or unsettling effect. Baczkiewicz is very talented indeed and has clearly learned from Harold Pinter in the way he writes taut dialogue which he pointedly invests with the jaunty menace of everyday cliché

I'd heard bits and pieces of Pilgrim over the years, but thanks to the recent BBC bonanza I was able to enjoy a week-long blitz of listening to all seven series (29 episodes), at a length of over 20 hours. The downside of this kind of 'boxed set' approach is that one detects certain element of repetition (people kept saying "What's that when it's at home?"); the much more substantial upside was seeing subplots slot neatly together and vivid minor characters recur in a welcome fashion.

My favourite episodes include Lyall Park, which combines elements of the Shining with the Lord Lucan case; Daventree Mansions, in which a magician disappears into a painting, and St Lewin, which features the priceless Mister Truffles.

Pilgrim is full of wonderful characters, like the were-fox Handley played by Joel MacCormack, the vivaciously dangerous Coral (Cassie Layton), and the seductive and lethal Mirabella (Janice Acquah). Baczkiewicz has a particularly strong line in villains including the aforementioned demon cat Mister Truffles (Zubin Varla) and the delightfully evil Birdie (Kate Fleetwood) who describes Pilgrim as "raggedy but kissable". 

In that regard the German CD cover is more accurate than the BBC ones — which stupidly seem to assume that Palmer is still wandering around dressed like a 12th century pilgrim. He isn't. Palmer's very modern in some ways, and the clash between the old and the new, and our hero's long-term world view, make for some interesting observations — he casually mentions that Picasso was a messy eater and some keenly amusing dialogue: "What did your last slave die of?" "Dysentery."

Or, when Palmer describes a troubled spirit he found inhabiting a well: "Inhabiting it how?" asks a sceptical young woman."Well, he didn't have a fitted kitchen," says Palmer.   

Baczkiewicz writes great dialogue: "If that face could talk..." "That face can talk." And I admire his descriptions of supernatural beings: "...a giant." ... "What kind of a giant?" ... "An I-smell-the-blood-of-an-Englishman kind of a giant." 

I loved listening to this entire saga. Or, as one of Baczkiewiecz's sinister grey folk puts it, "A sausage dancing in a frying pan could not be happier."

My only regret is that it was over so soon. I feel it could have easily run for ten or twelve seasons instead of seven. There is a ray of light, though. Pilgrim hasn't been as emphatically concluded as Sherlock Holmes was when he went over the falls. And, like Holmes, I hope he'll be back by popular demand.

The Pilgrim dramas were directed by Marc Beeby or Jessica Dromgoole (a great name for this material.) 

(Image credits: .The groovy tree monster is from Rare Share. The cave is from the episode Jackson's Mill at the BBC. The wonderful cat Mr Truffles is from a gallery at the BBC. The 'Complete First Series' is from Audible. The rather cool painted cover of the 3-CD set, and the two images derived from it, are from the German publisher Christoph Merian.)

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