SADISTIC. Highly sexualised. Macabre. Perverse.
All words that can be used to describe just about any one of Brit horror maestro James Herbert’s novels. But never ‘family friendly’ – until now. Writer/director Joe Ahearne (Doctor Who) has adapted Herbert’s bestselling 2006 novel, The Secret of Crickley Hall, for a three-part BBC Halloween drama filmed in and around Manchester.
It’s also a mystery that pulls you in right from the first, plaintive call of “Mummy” that Eve hears when no one else is around.
As a teenager I used to hide my Herbert stash in a box under my bed so my mother wouldn’t think her daughter depraved. Being invited to spend a very respectable evening at the BBC premiere of the opening episode of a Herbert adaptation, followed by a Q&A session with Ahearne and lead actor Suranne Jones, made my younger self’s reading habits seem legitimate - finally. It is just a shame that while at the event I managed to give Herbert fans a bad name.
Trying to redefine the man who brought us man-eating rodents as ‘family friendly’ was always going to be a tough task. Luckily, Hearne discovered that removing all of the “relentlessly appalling” stuff (as he called it in the Q&A session) from the book left plenty of room for dual timelines in his adaptation. The main one charts the Caleigh family’s experience of the eponymous hall; the other explores the lead up to the tragic event in 1943 that furnished the hall with its ghosts. This censoring has paid off: Ahearne’s additions fit seamlessly alongside Herbert’s original plot.
On the one-year anniversary of the disappearance of their son, Cam, Eve (Jones, Scott & Bailey, Doctor Who) and Gabe Caleigh (Tom Ellis, Miranda, The Fades) decide they need a change of scenery. Gabe takes his wife and two daughters to the ominously named Devil’s Cleave where they rent Crickley Hall, a building not as empty as it seems.
The family soon discovers that the house doesn’t just have a dodgy boiler to contend with; unexplained wet patches appear on the stairs, the cellar door won’t stay shut, ghostly feet run across the attic floor and something is unnerving the family dog. Is it Eve’s lost son calling for help, or simply the imaginings of a fraught mother pushed to her limit?
A series of smoothly interspersed flashbacks set in 1943 show Crickley Hall was once a children’s orphanage that housed evacuees from London during the war. The orphanage is run by the cruel and abusive Cribben siblings, who believe that food and toys are rewards not rights and that caning is a suitable punishment for being Jewish. The arrival of a young teacher sparks a chain of events that lead to the mysterious deaths of most of Crickley Hall’s residents, but not all…
Herbert clearly intended this to be a traditional haunted house story and this adaptation ticks all the right ‘things that go bump in the night’ boxes. However, where this mini-series diverges from the usual horror tropes is that it is an emotional family drama at heart. It depicts a family stuck in limbo unable to move on, as haunted by the past as the house they’re now living in.
It’s also a mystery that pulls you in right from the first, plaintive call of “Mummy” that Eve hears when no one else is around. Refreshingly, Eve sees the ghosts as an uplifting presence, which provides her with the dilemma at the crux of this production: does she stay in the hell house for a chance of finding her missing son or leave to keep her family safe?
Another of this adaptation’s strong points is its incredible cast. Ellis proves he can be more than totty. Jones ensures that the detached Eve keeps her grief quiet and internal but still allows the audience to see she is a woman on the brink. Sarah Smart’s (Doctor Who) performance as Magda Cribben is delightfully languid and menacing.
The supporting cast is just as good: there’s the ever brilliant Iain De Caestecker (The Fades), David Warner (Wallander) and Donald Sumpter (Game of Thrones), as well as some cracking young actors (Maisie Williams, Game of Thrones, and newcomer Pixie Davies are just superb as the two Caleigh daughters).
But despite the layers of suspense, the dependency on a deafening soundtrack often overpowered any carefully built tension in his script. Still, this was the only disappointing aspect
In the Q&A session that followed the preview Ahearne said to expect a “bittersweet ending”. But it isn’t all doom and gloom; what stops this tale of grief and death from being too dire is that Herbert’s patented dark humour is evident throughout, although Ahearne has applied it in lighter strokes to match the softer touch he’s taken with the book’s more adult aspects.
Unfortunately, this three-part drama isn’t especially terrifying. Most of the horror is implied, and Hearne credited this to how he was heavily influenced by Hitchcock. But despite the layers of suspense, the dependency on a deafening soundtrack often overpowered any carefully built tension in his script. Still, this was the only disappointing aspect of what is otherwise a very well executed adaptation of Herbert’s novel.
As for giving Herbert fans a bad name; let’s just say that approaching Suranne Jones while she was on the way to the toilet and then telling her I have a photo of her from a pantomime she was in 12 years ago is not the best way to endear anyone to a cause.
The show airs later this autumn.
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