Tuesday, 18 August 2015

The OMG Factor

Everyone seems to have their own favourite half-remembered pre-runner to the X-Files.  This is mine, it's set in Edinburgh, and 'The truth is oot there...'

A red-headed female operative teaming up with an obsessive driven by the mysterious loss of a family member, working for a shadowy Government funded organisation which investigates the supernatural?

Inter-departmental conspiracies, a mysterious inner-circle informant and a title starting with 'The' then a letter of an alphabet, and finishing with a word starting with 'F'?

Now that the parallels with the adventures of agents Mulder and Scully have been well-and-truly stretched, laboured and over-egged, I'm going to forget all that.

Louise Jameson as Anne Reynolds and Jamres Hazeldine as Tom Crane, on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.
Instead I'm going to try to remember what The Omega Factor, a forgotten 1979 BBC Scotland gem was like when I was 14 and staying up very late to watch what Louise Jameson did after Doctor Who, when everyone else had gone to bed. Of course I remember the actress formerly known as Leela in fetching roll neck sweaters, but to be honest everything else is a little vague. I recall some genuinely unnerving moments in the earlier episodes, but a feeling that it all meandered a little as the series progressed. And ultimately the final episode seemed to have too many revelations about which side everyone was actually on to really deliver a satisfying or credible ending.
 This was the very beginning of ridiculously distant 1981, and combined with the fact that I felt as if I was the only person in the entire country who stayed up to watch, this odd little programme really should have completely slid from even my televisual total recall.

Surely the only spin-off this series would ever see?

But towards the end of that year I happened across a book in a second hand shop which purported to be a tie-in to The Omega Factor series. To be honest I didn't expect much from this tatty paperback, and was very surprised to find that it was actually brilliant. Written by series creator Jack Gerson it followed the events of his opening episode, but them diverged completely from the rest of the programme (mainly the work of other writers), to deliver instead a taut and scary supernatural thriller (I recall thinking at the time that t was a little like a contemporary Dennis Wheatley tale, but better). I imagined it was what the television serial was meant to be like - if it had been afforded the budget it so clearly lacked.

What I remember most about the novel, though, was the writing. I was about to sit School Certificate English, (in fact, I wrote a book review of The Omega Factor as part of my exam), so knew next to nothing about good prose, but Gerson's storytelling spoke to me. Particularly his evocation of the relationship between main character Tom Crane and his wife, Julia. A chapter describing an idyllic Sunday morning, rising late to lounge around together surrounded by Sunday papers and the smell of freshly brewed coffee is made to sound like heaven. So much so that I think I might have decided way back then that this was the kind of relationship I wanted to aspire to, to be part of a marriage where just being together was the best possible way to spend time.

I might have re-read the book once in preceding years, and it eventually joined a stack of volumes relegated from the bookshelf to a cupboard, left be forgotten. Except that's not quite true: passages from it would still pop into my mind sometimes: Crane's well-drawn, coarse but loveable contacts and associates, his long grieving after he loses Julia in a supernaturally instigated road accident and the final confrontation when somehow she reaches from beyond to help Crane prevail.

Tom Crane confronts Edward Drexel, played by Cyril Luckham.   Drexel's  mute acolyte
 Morag in the background was played by the series creator's daughter, Natasha Gerson,
who reprises her role in the Big Finish audio production.
I hadn't realised just how much of this story had stuck with me until Big Finish released a talking book adaptation last year, read by none other than original star Louise Jameson.

The shockingly familiar passages recounted in her equally recognisable voice brought it flooding back - of all the books to have subconsciously memorised it had to be this one?

This adaptation was the 'pilot' of a new audio range of full cast dramas from this prolific company, and I had the chance to listen to the first series of new Omega Factor stories last weekend.

The Omega Factor audio release teams Anne Reynolds with Tom Crane's son, Adam, and it is sublime.
(I just wish they'd kept the original logo).
I had half expected it to be a direct continuation, set in the late '70s and following up on James Hazeldine's Tom Crane and Jameson's Ann Reynolds straight after the events of the television series. However, this box set of stories is set solidly in 2015 and the revelation that many of the original characters had since passed away, including Tom Crane (and alas, actor James Hazeldine) hit me like a frost-coated brick. Although I have a very special birthday next year it isn't often that I feel old, but this was one of those moments where I really understood that the definition of nostalgia is being hurt by the past. We've all become accustomed to some extent to real people dying of old age, but when it starts happening to fictional characters we knew from childhood then time really has passed!

I won't attempt to review the box set here, as that isn't the purpose of this already over-long post, but I will say that The Omega Factor sets a new height in Big Finish's already lofty standards of production, writing and performance. Thoroughly entertaining and scary, it's everything a continuation of this obscure little series should be - and much more.
The Greek letter Omega doesn't quite describe a full circle, and hopefully that will also hold true for 'PSI: Edinburgh' - that this is just the beginning, an 'Alpha', of many new adventures.

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