This review contains spoilers.
Fittingly for an adaptation, Joe Ahearne’s The Secret of Crickley Hall ended with the satisfying catharsis of closing a good book. Answers were provided and characters were laid to rest, but not before the tense third act of Herbert’s ghost story had played merry havoc with the nerves of everyone watching.
From the moment Gabe drove away leaving Eve, Loren and Callie alone with the now-unmasked Maurice Stafford (Donald Sumpter), I was horridly transfixed. Sumpter made for such a wonderfully underplayed villain; calm, exhausted, and utterly resigned to fulfilling Cribben’s demand. “He only wants one of you”, he reasoned with the two children, “You’ve had a good life. You were… loved”. Like the police officer reassuring Gabe that “No one hurt him” after the identification of Cam’s drowned body, they were simple lines, but ones that concealed untold torment.
Like co-star David Warner, Donald Sumpter carries years of experience-gained gravitas with him, so having the two together on screen was a treat. The cast both period and present coped admirably with difficult scenes, though Suranne Jones outclassed the likeable Tom Ellis at most turns. Not that the young actors were overshadowed. Bill Milner, Maisie Williams, and little Pixie Davies proved themselves impressively capable, Williams particularly so.
Once the connection between young and old Maurice had been made, the resemblance between the two actors in manner and stance was unmistakable. Ahearne’s camera framed the pair in the same way, both eerily appearing unannounced in shadowy doorways, hunched and hand in pocket.
Despite his horrific crimes, Maurice remained a victim in the eyes of the audience, and so retained our interest and – very nearly – our sympathy. In many ways he was a foil to Nancy; both were pitted against the sadistic zealotry of the Cribbens but one had the mettle to stand up to them, while the other folded himself to their will.
That Maurice’s true identity was revealed using some unassuming camera matching instead of maniacal laughter and a devilish ‘Yes, it was me all along!’ monologue only added to the quiet intensity of those parallel climactic scenes. Leaving his and Stefan’s fates unknown until the last instalment kept us guessing, and crucially, swept us up as much in the period story as in the present.
Though we knew the orphans’ deaths were coming, the manner of them was a macabre surprise (it must have occurred to more than a few of us that any flood would have a hard time reaching Crickley Hall’s attic). The promise of Cribben’s suicide turning out to be an act of mass infanticide was a wicked, if not altogether unexpected, twist. Cribben having exacted a final, terrible punishment on his charges, Stefan responded with a terrifically apt revenge of his own. (How cruel, by the way, for a young Jewish boy to escape the German death camps only to face being gassed in England’s green and pleasant land.)
Cribben’s drugged feast was like something from a Grimm’s fairy tale, an obscene last supper for Crickley Hall’s ill-fated orphans. Happily for Stefan, Nancy’s chocolate (or perhaps his having learned far too early that there’s no such thing as a free lunch) saved his life. Call it a sunset ending if you like, but in a story filled with atrocities, Stefan making it to a long and happy existence filled with love and kittens was exactly what I wanted to hear.
Less convincing was Lili’s nursing home visit to Magda, now a would-be hairpin murderess hiding her crimes behind fake catatonia. Like some of this week’s head-scratching edits (Lili Peel was called before the police?), and the suspension of disbelief required to accept that the Caleighs had cut through the required red tape to have Cam buried next to the adult Stefan, the Magda sequence wasn’t a high point, though it did provide Percy with the knowledge of what really happened to his Nancy.
Nancy reappeared twice this week in very different forms. One, a ghoulish creature that wouldn’t look out of place in a zombie flick, and the other a Christ-like version of her young self, glowing with beatific strength, standing up to murderous bully Cribbens one last time. The well and hallway sequences made for great heightened viewing, even if the subsequent wrapping-up scenes were flavoured by the characteristic flatness we’ve come to expect from ‘the morning after’ in ghost stories.
At its heart, The Secret of Crickley Hall was a study of atrocity against the WWII backdrop of one of humanity’s darkest chapters. Herbert’s story showed how people are capable of wickedness, some due to madness, others to zealotry, cowardice, or – like Maurice – simply because they lack the strength to oppose it. Happily, the story had a much tidier, more comforting ending than its historical referent. Good won out, evil was punished, and we all shuffled off to bed a proper story told. Perfect Sunday night viewing, more like this please BBC.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, here.
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