The Secret of Crickley Hall Review

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This review was first published in the television section of The Student, Edinburgh University’s student-run newspaper (Tuesday 27th November 2012)

The Secret of Crickley Hall, BBC1, Sunday 9pm

***

How do you avoid clichés when filming a haunted house thriller? The BBC’s new 3-parter The Secret of Crickley Hall doesn’t even try. Old, large and isolated house: check. Nice new family moving in: check. Creepy cellar: check. Eerie rattling cupboard: check. Dog sensing evil spirits before the humans do: check. Barkeep retelling a local legend… I could go on. The strange thing about The Secret of Crickley Hall is that, despite the clichés, it still manages to be both frightening and deeply intriguing.

The story is based on the 2006 novel by horror legend James Herbert, directed and adapted by Joe Ahearne. When Eve Caleigh (played by Suranne Jones) takes her son for a walk in the park, she mysteriously falls asleep on a bench and awakes to find her son has vanished. One year on, the still grief-stricken family move into Crickley Hall, located in the village where dad Gabe (Tom Ellis) has found a new job. Weird things soon start to happen (of course they do). Doors open and close of their own accord; wet footprints creep across the floor and up the Hitchcockian twisted stairs.

A psychic connection between Eve and her son seems to be broken when he disappears, but when the family moves into Crickley Hall the connection is re-established, preventing viewers from shouting ‘why don’t you just leave?!’ at the screen. The family cannot leave the house when Eve can hear her son calling to her from within its walls; a clever plot device.

The story cuts between 2012 and 1943, when the house was an orphanage run by sadistic, cane-wielding Augustus Cribben (played with brilliantly psychotic fervour by Douglas Henshall) and his weird sister Magda, played with sinister iciness by Sarah Smart (sample lines: ‘Toys have to be earned.’ ‘Food has to be earned.’) When intelligent young schoolmistress Nancy Linnet comes to teach at the Hall, she bravely sets out to rescue the orphans from the Cribbens’ reign of terror.

The acting is consistently stellar, the deep, rumbling music effectively goosebump-inducing, and the plot zips along at a satisfying speed, drawing you deeper and deeper in. The first episode left lots of questions unanswered: why the particularly brutal treatment of Jewish orphan Stefan? What happened in the flash flood of 1943? What’s the significance of the local myth regarding the Devil and Crickley Hall? I, for one, am eager to find out.

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The Hour Review

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This review was first published in the television section of The Student, Edinburgh University’s student-run newspaper (Tue 20th November 2012)

The Hour, BBC2, Wednesday, 9pm

****

Everyone’s favourite 1950s newsroom drama The Hour has returned for a second series, and it’s out with the Suez Crisis and Communist spies of series one and in with the nuclear arms race and Soho criminality of 1957. After the criticisms lobbed at Abi Morgan’s script last year, this series’ opener had a lot to prove.

Whilst lauded for its meticulous set design, costumes, hair and make-up, as well as its top-notch cast, series one was accused of being patchily inauthentic, with the question ‘But would they have said that in 1956?’ issuing from the mouth of many a pedantic critic.

Another problem was its pesky genre-crossing: was it a soapy period piece or a political thriller? If Mad Men could be gripping without anything really happening, where was the need for all the thrills and chills?

It seems, however, to have ironed out these supposed problems. The human drama and thriller aspect of the season opener blended seamlessly together, and the script was as spot-on as the acting.

Romola Garai is excellent as producer Bel, elevating the character from the stock woman-in-a-man’s-world figure she could have easily become and investing her with just the right amount of ambition, ability and insecurity. Ben Whishaw is mesmerising as principled, fearless reporter (and now co-news anchor) Freddie, and Dominic West  brilliantly portrays the infuriating but talented presenter Hector, whose penchant for drinking, womanising and seedy underworld nightclubs is a deliciously ticking time-bomb.

There’s a fire burning beneath the surface of Oona Chaplin’s desperate housewife Marnie (never have egg yolks been beaten so furiously), and the look on her face as Hector kisses her cheek and says what must surely be the three most chilling words a wife can hear – ‘Don’t wait up’ – is priceless. The women’s stories here are, gratifyingly, every bit as important as the men’s.

Anna Chancellor steals scenes as war correspondent Lix, with her cigarettes, high-waisted trousers and gloriously plummy vowels. Peter Capaldi is fascinating as Head of News Randall Brown, cutting through bullshit, offering uncanny insights into people’s psyches and exhibiting a mean case of OCD. The hinted-at history he shares with Lix is a particularly intriguing side-plot.

Violence, or the threat of it, runs throughout the episode, whether on a personal or global scale. Soho gang culture is set alongside the government scaremongering of the public in order to justify their nuclear ambitions. Throw in the growing BBC/ITV rivalry and you have yourself a potentially explosive plot comprised of a number of skilfully interwoven threads. The result? An utterly captivating hour of television.

Secret State Review

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This review was first published in the television section of The Student, Edinburgh University’s student-run newspaper (Tue 13th November 2012)

Secret State, Channel 4, Wednesday 10pm

***

Channel 4’s new conspiracy thriller Secret State certainly feels timely given the string of Establishment cover-ups recently brought to light, from the phone-tapping scandal and Hillsborough disaster, to the malingering BBC/Jimmy Savile debacle.

In this four-part drama, Gabriel Byrne stars as Deputy Prime Minister Tom Dawkins, a moral gemstone in a cess-pit of corruption. When an explosion at a Teesside refinery owned by US petrochemical company Petrofex kills nineteen locals, including small children, Dawkins makes it his business to uncover the ugly truth behind the disaster. Later, when a plane containing the Prime Minister goes missing as it returns from a Petrofex conference in Texas, it seems that Establishment ties to the company might lie behind the disturbing and increasingly mysterious events.

It’s a clever and compelling plot, (very) loosely based on Chris Mullin’s novel A Very British Coup, but it’s bogged down by an often clunky script and dodgy characterisation. Dawkins seems too transparent, ethical and unambitious to be in the high-powered position he’s in. Charles Dance does his usual Charles Dance thing as Chief Whip (stern, powerful, reptilian), and then there’s the obligatory ball-busting female politician, Ros Yelland, who barges into men’s toilets and barks lines like ‘Fuck the polls!’

Gina McKee’s plucky journo has far too much ill-explained access to classified goings-on, and characters keeps insisting on conducting secret conversations in public parks. There are too many politicians looking thoughtfully into the middle distance, and viewers could be forgiven for wanting Malcolm Tucker to stride in and give them all a good talking to.

The show’s pace also feels slightly off-kilter; too much happens too quickly, accompanied by a near-constant ominous soundtrack. Unfavourable comparisons to dramas like Homeland seem inevitable, with the US show allowing its plot to unfold in a far more organic and satisfying manner. Viewers may also feel irritated by the plot sign-posts scattered throughout Secret State, which take away the enjoyment of working things out independently.

There are some genuinely thrilling moments, such as when Dawkins picks up a knitted glove still containing a child’s blown-off fingers, or when he receives a call from a freaked-out pathologist concerned with the toxicity levels found in the dead bodies. Byrne delivers a fine, dignified performance as a man of quiet but steadfast integrity, though even his unquestionable talent can’t distract from the smell of ham wafting from a few of his colleagues.

However, this is only one of four parts, and the information-dump of part one is likely to ease off as the drama progresses. Flaws aside, the story itself is undeniably intriguing, and with Byrne carrying most of the show on his shoulders, Secret State may yet shape up to be a decidedly enjoyable yarn.