This review contains spoilers.
In the first five minutes of The Secret Of Crickley Hall, the Caleigh family experience a horror – the disappearance of their five-year-old son – so unthinkable that it’s difficult to see how any subsequent haunted house or spooky visitation could compare. A banal family morning becomes a harrowing scenario that makes for distressing viewing even before the Caleighs have upped sticks to Devil’s Cleave, the ominously-named village they seek respite in on the anniversary of the disappearance.
The loss of young Cam turns out to be a narrative masterstroke. Every supernatural threat that dangles over the family’s head in Devil’s Cleave, from sadistic ghosts to eerie wells, is made all the scarier because of the powerful heartbreak they’ve already experienced. Each time daughters Loren (Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams, being typically brilliant) and little Cally (Pixie Davies) are exposed to Crickley Hall’s creepiness, the danger feels more intense because of what parents Eve (Suranne Jones) and Gabe (Tom Ellis) have already lost.
The family’s unresolved grief for Cam makes The Secret of Crickley Hall an engaging human drama before it begins to rattle off its string of generic ghost story elements. Creepily-named locale? Tick. Mysterious groundsman who knows more than he’s letting on? Tick. Family dog whining, yelping, and scratching at doorways? Evasive clergyman? Local barman who dispenses folkloric horror stories with every pint of Guinness? Tick, tick and tick again. If it wasn’t for the psychological human interest of the Caleighs’ loss (movingly played by Jones and Ellis), Crickley Hall’s familiar ‘haunted house’ premise could seem hackneyed, rather than embedded in the grand tradition of ghost stories as it does.
The Caleighs aren’t the only residents of Crickley Hall we meet of course. Their story runs in parallel with the 1943-set tale of young Nancy Linnet (Olivia Cooke, a dead ringer for new Doctor Who companion Jenna-Louise Coleman), a schoolmistress who arrives to teach at the Hall when run as a wartime orphanage by ferociously creepy brother and sister pair, Augustus (Douglas Henshall) and Magda Cribben (Sarah Smart). Smart is brilliantly cast as cruel “toys have to be earned” religious zealot Magda – never has a pair of stockinged feet looked so menacing – while Henshall is suitably horrid as her traumatized, abusive brother who may or may not be an incarnation of the devil.
The double narrative is neatly told in turns throughout the sixty minutes, making viewers detectives who must piece together the tragic events of the 1940s with their chilling supernatural aftermath seventy years on. Both timelines are compelling and creepy, though the hammy horror of the forties story just pips the modern-day in my book. Though I shivered a little at the creak of a pipe or the tick of a grandfather clock in the present, my heart was in my mouth when Nancy faced Cribbens in his office.
Olivia Cooke is great as clever, brave, and resourceful Nancy, someone else who came to the Hall after suffering a loss – in her case, that of her parents and the use of her withered right arm. Her disgust at the Cribbens’ systematic mistreatment and abuse of their charges (just one of Crickley Hall’s titular secrets), and empathy for their preferred whipping boy makes her an heroic figure, and her burgeoning romance with earnest young gardener Percy (The Fades’ Iain De Caestecker in his youth, David Warner as an old man) only endears her to the audience further.
The one area in which Joe Ahearne’s adaptation of Herbert’s novel hasn’t succeeded is conveying what Eve sees as her telepathic connection to her son. On the page, a grieving mother seeming to hear the voice of her missing child is poignant and deeply sad, but on the screen, Cam’s horse whispers of “Mummy” are sillier than they are affecting. Suranne Jones, as ever, did a stand-up job with it all, but if you’d tuned in at the moment her character appeared to be having a séance conversation with a child’s spinning top, chances are you’d have turned over fairly quickly.
Changing channels would have been a mistake though, because The Secret of Crickley Hall is entertaining and involving stuff. Nancy and the Caleighs are such sympathetic leads that the horrors of Crickley Hall have a satisfying heft of consequence. I don’t want any of them to come to a sticky end, not spirited Nancy, not manic Eve, nor cherubic disappeared Cam, and least of all poor six-year-old Jewish-German refugee Stefan, whom the Anti-Semitic Cribbenses have singled out for particular punishment. More fool me for getting attached.
Taking recent news events into consideration, there must have been a conversation at the BBC as to whether broadcasting a drama about child abuse at a children’s home was appropriate at this time. With its heightened, genre atmosphere though, The Secret of Crickley Hall is unlikely to attract accusations of insensitivity. It’s not realism, but a spooks-and-kooks ghost story with a surprising amount of heart.
The Secret of Crickley Hall continues on BBC One on Sunday the 25th of November at 9pm.