December 1, 2012

The Secret of Crickley Hall (2012)

"A year after their son goes missing, a family moves to Crickley Hall. When supernatural events begin to take place, Eve feels the house is somehow connected to her lost son."

It's been so long since I read James Herbert's 2006 novel which the BBC adapted for this lacklustre Hallowe'en TV offering that I almost forgot what a derivative crock of shit it was. I'm not going to say that Herbie plagiarised "The Devil's Backbone" (2001), but he was clearly influenced by it before "Britishing-up" the story. If he says otherwise, I'll find it very difficult to believe him. It wouldn't be the first time that James Herbert sailed too close to the wind as his famous lawsuit over "The Spear" will confirm. His "Sepulchre" is hardly a million miles away from Clive Barker's "The Damnation Game" as far I remember either.

In fairness, the classic "ghost story with children in it" pattern goes back even before "The Haunting" (1963) or "The Innocents" (1961); both of which have influenced every ghost story ever since. With so many supernatural movies in such a short space of time including "The Others" (2001), "Saint Ange" (2004), "Fragile" (2005), "The Orphanage" (2007), the TV series "Marchlands" (2011), and the even more recent "The Awakening" (2011), it's pretty obvious that there would be some similarities.

Given the basic premise, I'd be foolish not to throw in "The Dark" (2005) and "Half Light" (2006) as more of the same unimaginative cloning from the last decade although "The Haunting of Julia" (1977) and "The Changeling" (1981) also dealt with the "bereavement and haunting" formula long before them. There's just nothing new when it comes to ghost stories.

If you look further into the "six degrees of separation" style connections around "The Secret of Crickley Hall" as a TV miniseries, it's far more amusing where they lead. Director Joe Ahearne is most famous for "This Life" which I'm sure I've mentioned on this blog before as being the series which gave Andrew Lincoln of "The Walking Dead" fame his big break. In between the two, Andrew Lincoln was in "Afterlife" (2006) where he played a bereaved father who had lost his son and teamed up with a psychic played by Lesley Sharp. That series was written by Stephen Volk who wrote "The Awakening" (2011). Although there's no real connection, Lesley Sharp was in an episode of "Doctor Who" and so was Tom Ellis who stars in "The Secret of Crickley Hall". They weren't in the same episode or even the episodes of "Doctor Who" which were written by Joe Ahearne, but you can still smell the BBC nepotism a mile away.

Tom Ellis as Gabe.

Just to complicate matters even more, James Herbert's "Haunted" was originally a screenplay which was rejected as a BBC miniseries, Stephen Volk wrote the BBC's infamous "Ghostwatch" (1992), and Lesley Sharp recently appeared in "Whistle and I'll Come to You" (2010) - another BBC ghost story. If you also look at Tom Ellis' list of acting credits on the IMDb, he's a definite BBC regular and also appeared in "The Fades" - the axed supernatural drama from 2010. It doesn't take a genius to work out that all these people know each other or of each other to some extent. How many generic ghost stories were passed between the writers and the decision makers at the BBC is another matter though. There are too many coincidences for there not to be some collusion along the way. And people say that Hollywood is shady!

Conspiracy theories aside, it will always look like Herbert copied Volk who then copied Herbert back before Ahearne was brought into the shenanigans. The rivalry and borrowing by all three writers is probably more noticeable than any of them realise themselves.

After all this rambling, the main problem with "The Secret of Crickley Hall" is that it's an overlong story which can be condensed into one or two sentences. Basically, there's a wartime orphanage/home for evacuees where the sadistic governor kills a little boy by circumcising him so severely that he cuts his pecker off in the process. The governor covers up the crime during a flood and ends up as a ghost along with all the children he abused. In the present day, a family whose son was kidnapped a year ago go to live in the former orphanage, and all the ghosties get riled up to solve two mysteries in one.

Give or take a couple of even more sordid details, that's "The Secret of Crickley Hall" in a nutshell (pardon the pun). Indeed, it could be retitled, "The Legend of the Mutilated Peepee" since that's the big secret. I don't care that this is a spoiler because I can pretty much guarantee that you won't see the little "Jewish" boy get mutilated or "The Secret of Crickley Hall" turn into "The Jew Who Bled To Death". Oh, no, the politically correct BBC won't dare risk upsetting anybody with that. The last time they were brave enough to be controversial in a drama was when Dennis Potter was still alive. Curiously, they don't seem to care about overpaid Jonathan Ross or Jeremy Clarkson flapping their insulting gums though.

As a miniseries, "The Secret of Crickley Hall" tones down the really disgusting stuff to such an extent that the barebones story is boring beyond belief. The book was short of scares anyway, but the brutality, paedophilia and incest which covered its weaknesses are scarcely touched upon in this pussified TV adaptation. I remember when the BBC used to have more balls. Honestly, "The Secret of Crickley Hall" makes me ashamed to be a British horror fan. What the Hell has happened to Britain since I've been away? What happened to all the gritty dramas?

Olivia Cooke as Nancy.

The characters in "The Secret of Crickley Hall" are merely stereotypical ciphers to move on the uninspired plot anyway, but the deadpan delivery of the actors in this miniseries is reprehensible. Olivia Cooke is the worst culprit. Although she's very pretty, and looks young enough to be in the orphanage as one of the orphans rather than their teacher, her monotone voice can't be disguised by cutely letting one glycerine tear run down her cheek. Could she act as if she cared even less? Can she act though? Probably not since she has to be all of 16 years old.

As for Tom Ellis (a.k.a. Dr Oliver from "Eastenders"), he's a little bit better as the sceptical Gabe Caleigh even though his taste in women must have gone on the wonk for him to end up with Suranne Jones (the mouthy one from "Coronation Street") as his onscreen wife. Okay, so a higher power miscast them together, but that's not how those of us with an unwilling suspension of disbelief view such a lack of chemistry or realism. All you want to say is, "He could have done so much better!" At least neither of them has mispronounced the word "us" as "uzzz" yet despite playing Northerners.

There's some bizarre thing about little fingers and a psychic link which makes absolutely no sense either. There doesn't even appear to be anything odd about Suranne Jones' hands in close-up so I have no idea what that's all about. Either it's a poor effect, bad camerawork, something that seemed more important in the script than it really was, or just feeble execution to match every other part of this travesty. It's hard to tell amidst the conflation and censorship. The psychic link homages "The Shining", of course, as does Tom Ellis' bad "Here's Johnny!" impression. I don't think he even tried to do any better. I can't blame him.

Suranne Jones as Eve.

Poor old David Warner has been wheeled out for this thing too as the old guy who used to be a young guy and knows everything. I've forgotten the name of that trope, but, yes, it's yet another familiar one. It's nice to see David Warner in something again, and he's the best actor in "The Secret of Crickley Hall" anyway. Not to take anything away from Donald Sumpter who has been in absolutely everything over the years, but he's not much cop (pardon another pun since he was in "The Bill") as a paranormal investigator. If he has more than four lines in the final episode, I will be shocked.

It's no surprise that both veteran actors have also been in "Doctor Who" recently. "The Secret of Crickley Hall" could even be "Former Doctor Who Actors Do Ghosties" if you want to be a real bitch about it. I suppose it makes a change from "Eastenders Does Ghosties" which has already been done to death.

I have no idea why the setting was changed from Devon to "oop North" except that occasionally the BBC vainly attempts to make Southerners believe that anywhere above Watford isn't full of Neanderthals who eat their own young. It's probably part of the same equal opportunities nonsense at the BBC which has forced every gay and racial minority actor into "Doctor Who" and "Eastenders" over the years. Yes, all six of them have been assured work by the same hypocritical company which allegedly turned a blind eye to Jimmy Saville interfering with little kids for over 40 years. Following that scandal, no wonder the BBC started to get cold feet about airing "The Secret of Crickley Hall". The ironic reminders in the subject matter are uncomfortably close to home, and there aren't any black or gay characters to redress the balance.

Susan Lynch as Lili.

The BBC missed a golden opportunity to replace the psychic with a Jamaican or Indian, but at least they've stayed truer to the book there. They couldn't use anyone Scottish either without reminding everyone of their stupid decision to axe "Sea of Souls". Knowing that Susan Lynch, who plays Lili Peel, fills the "minority" quotient by being Irish somewhat amused me. I bet someone at some point wanted Lesley Sharp for the role except that would have really given away how similar the present day part of "The Secret of Crickley Hall" is to "Afterlife". I still noticed though.

Since I'm writing this after seeing only two episodes, I can't say if the final one will improve anything. I missed "The Secret of Crickley Hall" when it was shown on BBC America (on October 28th) so I've had to follow the postponed UK schedule. I'm sure that the story won't change that much from the novel unless gay aliens fly in and abduct everybody or something comes out of left field like that. You can never tell what will happen with BBC TV adaptations of horror books as "The Haunted Airman" or any of M.R. James' ghost stories over the years can attest to. If it was a Stephen King adaptation, we would all be waiting for another giant spider so be thankful that this is James Herbert. Herbie just likes to destroy everything at the end so be prepared to see your licence fee wasted on some half-arsed flooding effects or explosions.

With the story taking place in two time periods, the most interesting parts seem to happen in World War II. Whether or not that continues, we will just have to wait and see. "The Secret of Crickley Hall" concludes tomorrow.

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