First thoughts on the opening episode of James Herbert's new BBC serial, 'THE SECRET OF CRICKLEY HALL'...
*This review may be haunted by spoilers - please watch before reading!*
The first episode of James 'The Rats' Herbert's 'The Secret of Crickley Hall' aired on the BBC last night - and Herbert's loyal fans must have been waking up the dead with their inner cheers at having their master of horror back at the top of his game (with a new bestselling novel 'Ash' scaring off those hundred Shades of Greys and a lavish BBC TV adaptation of his work frightening the primetime 'Downton Abbey' slot viewers on a cosy Sunday night - it's the year of the wise old rat for sure).
The opening credits of the new serial came with a long tracking shot through twisting woodland that was filmed in deep blue-tinted negative and led, eventually, to the sight of Crickley Hall itself - a suitably unhinged title sequence that led into the impressive opening setpiece of the drama; a playground kidnap. A young boy's mother, played by Suranne Jones, falls asleep on a bench while her son plays at the park - who knows for how long; maybe just seconds, minutes, or longer. It's enough time - to never know what happened in those missing moments. After a year of searching, the family decide to move out of London and head up North, for some time away (as the boy's first birthday since the abduction approaches), but what the family (mum, dad and two daughters) find upon renting Crickley Hall is a home bathed in great tragedy and the ghosts of the wartime past still loitering in the cellar and playing on the stairs.
The scenes between past and present were shot seamlessly and the slap of the cane against bare flesh really sounded and felt painful but it was those moments where the former master of the house (war-injured and migraine-riddled Augustus Cribben) came back and whipped his unseen cane at those modern-day residents of Crickley Hall that were the most suitably wicked and jolting. The constantly threatening deep dark well in the cellar that this ghostly monster of a man lurked around was also as creepy as a BBC set gets.
The final moments of the first episode, with the oldest daughter being awoken in bed and whipped on the legs with the master's cane (and the intimidation and worsening threat was thick in the air here) were terrifying - especially the knowledge that the family had no other choice but to stay in the house to get their missing son back.
This was an eerie supernatural stampede of Sunday night drama. I loved it, but then I've always been a devoted James Herbert fan and equally adore anything that stars David Warner - soothingly tortured here as creepy family dog-snatcher, wartime gardener at the Hall, and a still-in-mourning child grave tender; 'Old' Percy Judd. Why so many children died on the exact same date so many years ago, seems a mystery that only Judd can one day explain.
Olivia Cooke as the pretty new wartime school tutor Nancy Linnet, herself a former orphanage girl, was cheerably - brilliantly - feisty (and I can't wait to see her in the upcoming 'Bates Motel' US TV series) and Maisie Williams outstanding too as Loren Caleigh - the terrified older daughter in the present day who handles the leery cruel ghost menacing her with a resigned coping (of sorts) and probably the same way she would handle any real life dirty old man. Maisie's pretty good at playing scared - making me jump at the same moments she did (I really believed the crack of that whip when it struck drew blood too) - she also had the best right hook of the cast (before signing up for Crickley Hall, this young actress had already fought and carved a name for herself in the US TV hit 'Game of Thrones' so a single punch to a bully in Crickley Hall was probably no big deal). Look out for Maisie Williams then - she's an actress clearly hopscotching her way towards being a major star.
Another young actor - Kian Parsiani, as German Jewish refugee Stefan (in his first acting role here), is unbearably quietly tormented and also a name to watch.
Little moments in last night's episode mattered - the mum reminding her daughter where to punch a man in the face to get the most effect (so that no more of her children get abducted) and the use of a giant ornate wartime spinning top to contact the missing (presumed - but maybe not - dead), were perfect. But this TV rollock in subdued fears of the dark and the relentless cruelty of some of those that haunt us (as well as confronting themes of less clearly supernatural abuse) was dominated by one man - Douglas Henshall as (boo-hiss!) Augustus Cribben; a chap with a wicked right whip and a fondness for brooding alone in the shadows when not tormenting little children. As the first episode of this restless new supernatural drama ended, I couldn't help thinking - why do the bad dead have to survive as ghosts too and spoil all the fun for the more contented spirits that want to play in the corridors of such places as Crickley Hall?
Words: Mark Gordon Palmer
All images are copyright BBC/ 2012