A few months ago I was in the audience for an interview with the BBC commissioning editors.
‘We really liked [ITV’s] Marchlands‘, they said.
Oh yes…? I really liked it too, so I was up for this. Luckily, I wasn’t disappointed. The Secret of Crickley Hall borrows wholesale from the multi-part, multi-stranded ghost story that ITV did so brilliantly, but from the off it lets you know it’s going to be spookier. For one thing, it doesn’t have the cosy Sunday night cast, also it kicks off with the disappearance of a little boy who, we’re told, has some kind of psychic link with his mum.
The actual story starts almost a year later. The family – Gabe Caleigh (Tom Ellis), Eve (Suranne Jones), Loren (Arya off of Game of Thrones) and her little sister Cally. (That’s right, Cally Caleigh) – decide to move on by relocating to an upsettingly creepy grey house in a place called Devil’s Cleave *cue Graham Norton-style “Reeeeally?*
As with Marchlands, the story cuts between eras: the 1940s – when Crickley Hall was an orphanage for evacuated children – and the present day, in which the Caleigh family have made their frankly incomprehensible choice of Poe-esque death-manse.
The two periods come closer together when Percy, an old codger who ‘used to work’ in the house, starts making enigmatic comments (a device borrowed wholesale from Marchlands). Later we see that he ‘looks after the orphans’ in the graveyard. Not in a Savile way obv.- he means that he tends their gravestones. TV shorthand for possibly self-sacrificial good guy, then.
As this is only a three-parter, the action (of the spectral variety) starts nice and quickly, though unfortunately as the action gets spookier the programme does get a bit bit siller. The noises- shutting and opening doors, the terror of the dog- all make it quite clear we’re not going to be watching a sophisticated psychological drama. We skip swiftly from something which Sensible Tom Ellis assumes are pipes or mice to ACTUAL GHOSTS. The receptive Eve can see wee children running and playing in the corridors and on the stairs. Bless them and their unthreateningly ni-THWACK!
That’s the unconvincing sound of seasoned willow on fragile skin, and the first of many beatings meted out by the damaged, psychotic and, er, deceased master of the house Augustus Cribben (Douglas Henshall) to the living and dead alike. Or perhaps vice versa. Cribben, feared and evil head of the orphanage, is quickly revealed to be our villain, mercilessly caning his charges and dealing out corporal punishment to the present-day occupants.
The myth that ghosts can’t cause physical harm is laid to rest (sorry) with the whacking received by every major character and also by Loren’s unfortunate bully, who breaks into the house to leave a rat on Loren’s bed and is thoroughly whipped and thrown down the stairs for her troubles.
Episode two aired on Sunday night, so we now know just what’s going on at Crickley Hall, if not quite why. The story picks up speed with the Caleighs’ modern investigation running parallel to the efforts of impossible cute young teacher Nancy Linnet back in 1943. She’s fired from her new position when she complains about the ill-treatment she witnesses, and makes it her job to free the orphans from this house of horrors.
She’s helped in her task by – I did not see this coming – young Percy the gardener who becomes her beau. But Cribben and his sister, the ghastly harridan Magda, foil her at every turn. And when she discovers Magda is Mrs Robinson-ing senior orphan and (un?)willing assistant Maurice (a genuine shock in this well-worn tale), she is unceremoniously offed and dumped in the well in the basement. As you do.
As we segue from episode two into the spoilertastic trailer for episode three, we’re poised for an epic final showdown between good and evil…more or less. Will the orphans un-drown? Will Eve and Cam be reunited in this world or the next? Will Douglas Henshall put his top back on (please)? Will Tom Ellis take his top off (please)? Will EL James receive a credit?
It might be a bit daft in places, but on the whole The Secret of Critchley Hall is a stylish treat that makes a good case for more one-off serials on the BBC- though it’s worth mentioning that the real star of the show is the make-up technician responsible for the single tear that falls down each character’s face at all times. In fact there’s probably a team of them.