Stars: Adam Elms, Gemma Shelton, Paul Toy, David Chafer, Mandy Newby, Jack Sheriff, Natalie Rose, Jimmy Johnson, Adam Atkinson | Written & Created by Max Gee & Natalie Roe | Directed by Natalie Roe
There’s one thing that usually damns a web series produced on a shoestring budget: production values. You might think such paltry things as “character” or “story” would be more crucial to a project’s success, but a lacking plot or untalented performer can be disguised (at least for a scene or two). On the other hand, if the costumes, set design and locations are shoddily handled, you’ll notice straight away. If a premise is good enough or centred wholly on the character interactions…well, you might get away with it, but you’d have been better off writing a play instead. If the series is a period piece, however, and your production design isn’t up to snuff, then the whole thing falls down. Power lines in the background of an ancient Russian tundra? Nah, mate. Zips on a tunic supposedly worn by a disciple? Shoddy craftsmanship. Using animals that didn’t live in a country until a century later? Now you’re not even trying.
Thankfully, Tales of Bacon‘s first episode doesn’t have any of these problems. The self-styled medieval comedy roadtrip series has succeeded where many micro-budget productions fear to tread, painting a convincing portrait of a 14th-century England and introducing us to a Pythonesque cast of characters. From the first frames, it’s clear that the period locations, set dressing and costumes are the show’s USP; in an internet overstuffed with user-generated and professional content alike, this unique look and feel is a canny and well-executed decision.
In the title role, Thaddeus Bacon (Adam Elms) is a pardoner – one who absolves sinners of their burdensome wrongdoing…for a price, of course. Grifting his way across the country in the name of the Lord but really in his own self-interest, Bacon comes across a young woman about to be burned at the stake by the pious Bishop of Norwich (Paul Toy) for the ill-defined crime of being a witch. Said witch, a spirited, ballsy – and therefore troublesome – woman named Elfrida Deverwyck (Gemma Shelton), ran away from her father’s home after discovering she was to be married off to a small boy in order to start pumping out children of her own (and make her dad a few quick gold pieces).
This is the first time our lead duo meet, but it comes late in the pilot; we’re given a chance to meet each on their own earlier in a smart structural move that allows us to witness their unique strengths and weaknesses. Elfrida, for example, is a smart, resourceful and courageous woman who’s not one for planning or knowing when to shut up, and as a result finds herself in sticky situations. Bacon, on the other hand, is a shrewd but cowardly man who never met a mark he wouldn’t like to con. Both actors are charismatic and have fun with the dialogue, which errs on the Joss Whedon side of historical accuracy. Luckily the writing, from series creators Max Gee and Natalie Roe, shares a similar taste for banter in dire situations that should please those who prefer their period fiction with a little flair. The script delivers visual wit (“Should I break his fingers?” a vagabond asks shortly before dropping a jar containing a preserved human hand) and sly one-liners aplenty (“I’ll take two for adultery…and throw in the toenails,” a prospective pardonee asks of Bacon), offering more than enough chuckles to see you through the episode’s swift eleven minutes.
This being a roadtrip, it’s unlikely that we’ll see many of the folks Bacon and Elfrida come across again, which is a mixed bag. Some characters, like the amoral charlatan Robin Hood turns out to be, succeed in sparking off the leads’ personalities and adding more to the comedy than just clever wordplay. Other actors feel limp and awkward, unintentionally revealing the occasional wooden line, though this may be partly due to some sloppy sound recording and other minor technical issues that crop up in the first half.
These are small concerns, though, and don’t impact a general enjoyment of the episode. There’s no doubting the ambition on show here, especially when you see the live ox the crew hired for one scene. You can wish for tighter performances, more consistent sound and fewer redundant lines all you like, but this isn’t a Hollywood production; it’s a tiny web series made for less than £1,000 by people who would rather create something they feel passionate about than wait for the right moment and budget to come along to execute it perfectly. That will always be admirable, and my hat goes off to the cast and crew for not only making Tales of Bacon, but for doing it so damn well. Here’s looking forward to the further adventures of Thaddeus Bacon and Elfrida Deverwyck!
Full disclosure: the author of this review knows several members of the crew and offered feedback on an early draft of Tales of Bacon‘s pilot episode.