This review contains spoilers.
I’ll miss Nancy, Crickley Hall’s bright-eyed schoolmistress. Like her Dickensian namesake, she risked her life to help a poor orphan, only to meet a tragic end. Our Nancy fell not at the hands of brute Bill Sykes, but young Maurice Stafford (Bill Milner), a sad, uncanny golem shaped by the Cribbens siblings and revealed to be having an abusive, pseudo-incestuous relationship with cruel Magda. “This house is pretty sick” said Gabe this week. He’s not wrong.
The second part of the BBC’s James Herbert adaptation had plenty of incident and revelation, though it lacked part one’s edge-of-the-sofa tension. Having established that Crickley Hall is haunted, (“We’ve got ghosts” announced little Callie cheerily last week), the initial shivers subsided. Nasty as the spectral Cribbens and his swishing cane is, as is always the case with shadowy monsters, his power to terrify was diluted once we’d clapped eyes on him.
Try as it might, The Secret of Crickley Hall’s direction didn’t succeed this week in sustaining the terror either. A brittle balance of pace and pause is needed to tell a ghost story that’ll have viewers spilling their tea in fright, and this week, it wasn’t quite in place. Without the required tension, haunted house stories soon become a limp series of close-ups on door handles and shots of people tentatively entering rooms (imagine how dreary the CCTV footage of the Paranormal Activity films would be if it didn’t make you jump).
What saved The Secret of Crickley Hall this week then, was the story, and the cast. If an audience’s spine isn’t tingling, then its interest needs to be sustained by plot, and thankfully, Crickley Hall had plenty of that.
Before her death, Nancy channelled another literary namesake – Drew, this time – by turning detective in her bid to bring down the Cribbenses. Her trip to bombed-out London led her to Augustus’ punishment book (later discovered by Gabe) and ultimately, to her death. Without Nancy, the orphans only have Percy to look after them, though judging by what we already know, their fate is very much accompli.
We also met three new entries from The Bumper Book of Ghost Story Characters, the cold-hearted clergyman Reverend Horace (Craig Parkinson), hysteric medium Lili Peel (Susan Lynch), and parapsychologist Gordon Pike (Donald Sumpter), the last two brought in by Eve and Gabe to respectively, prove or disprove the existence of Crickley Hall’s ghosts.
None were roles that called for much subtlety, and Lynch especially didn’t disappoint as the wide-eyed, frantic ghost whisperer who miscarried after her last encounter with Augustus Cribbens (Deceased). Lili’s maternal grief may have been included to forge a connection between her and Eve, but it felt more like a cheapening of Eve’s loss, as if Herbert was keen to shovel yet more sensationalist dead children into The Secret of Crickley Hall’s already-crowded infant graveyard.
Though it was Gabe’s idea for the Caleighs to come to Crickley Hall (the first of the story’s classic ‘why oh why would you do that?’ horror moments), this week it was Eve who took up the bad decision reins and galloped off into ‘why oh why’ territory. Distracted by grief and guilt over missing Cam and convinced it was the key to his return, Eve insisted on staying at the Hall even though it put her daughters’ lives (and the audience’s sympathy for her) at risk. Still, if nobody in a spooky story ever made an irrational decision, what fun would that be?
Percy and Nancy’s ill-fated love affair provided brief respite from all the murderous abuse, and bathed in its honeyed period glow, was a welcome reminder that not everyone in Devil’s Cleave is an unhinged sadist. Down the well Nancy went though, taking with her little Stefan’s dreams of escape – unsurprisingly, the one English word he knows -, and putting Percy’s life on pause as he forever awaited her return.
In episode one, Crickley Hall deftly tripped between melodrama, horror, and an affecting human story. This week was dominated by the melodramatic and the grotesque (ratcheted just a tooth higher on the camp-o-meter, Magda, Lili, Augustus and Nancy-with-the-withered-arm could easily have sprung from the imagination of Hunderby‘s Julia Davis or The League of Gentlemen). For the concluding part of this enjoyable well-cast adaptation, fingers crossed that the spookiness returns, and with it, the heart.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, here.
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