Thursday, 8 January 2009

Crooked House

Thursday, 8 January 2009
Christmas and ghosts have always been good bedfellows; just look at the continued popularity of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol". Crooked House, written by and starring Mark Gatiss (The League Of Gentlemen) is a three-part portmanteau chiller, shown on BBC Four at Christmas. Gatiss himself plays the enigmatic Curator of a museum, who reminisces about the history of a door knocker taken to him by inquisitive schoolteacher Ben (Lee Ingleby). It turns out the knocker was once affixed to Geap Manor's front door; a stately home that attracted its fair share of "unpleasantness" over the centuries...

Shown over three consecutive nights, Crooked House is a trio of spooky tales held together by the present-day Ben/Curator conversation. The first ghost story, "The Wainscoting", whisked us back in time to Georgian England, just as wealthy businessman Joseph Bloxholm (Philip Jackson) moves into supposedly-haunted Geap Manor. His close friends are anxious about Bloxholm's realty folly, but sceptical Bloxholm is dismissive of their hushed warnings… until he starts hearing random knocking coming from the wooden panelling in a room corner...

The period detail was a little sparse because of the production's low budget, but it got the job done. This was an effective and entertaining start to the show, demonstrating a playful nature. Philip Jackson made for a good lead, while the resolution to the story was classic ghost story hokum. Even the unconvincing visual for a ravenous, man-eating blood-stain could be taken as a tongue-in-cheek nod to ropey '70s special-effects.

The second story is definitely the weakest of the three, but overcame a rather listless storyline and predictable nature with a satisfying, tense climax. "Something Old" again found us in Geap Manor, but fast-forwarded to the roaring 1920s. The estate was playing host to a costume ball thrown by Lady Constance de Momery (Jean Marsh), during which her grandson Felix (Ian Hallard) and girlfriend Ruthie (Jennifer Higham) announce their engagement... and inadvertently awaken a vengeful, phantom bride. A lot of period clich├ęs and haughty posh accents here, but the backstory to the spectre's revelation was fitting. A bit tedious, overall, but easy to watch.

"The Knocker" is the third and final story, now focusing on schoolteacher Ben in the present-day, as The Curator's ghost stories reach a conclusion and Ben returns home. Unfortunately, Geap Manor's door knocker appears to have plans for its new owner, and Ben finds himself regularly awakened by its ghostly knocking every 3:43 a.m. Answering his door to find nobody there, Ben finds he can sometimes travel back through time to Geap Manor's upon re-entering his house, where he witnesses a Satanic ritual being performed by the Manor's first owner, Sir Roger Widdowson (illusionist Derren Brown). What's more, it becomes clear that evil forces have a sinister, meticulous plan that involves Ben's pregnant girlfriend Hannah (Daniela Denby-Ashe)...

Inspired by Lawrence Gordon Clarke's BBC adaptations of M.R James-penned ghost stories in the '70s, Mark Gatiss has created the modern equivalent: a relentlessly entertaining, surprisingly scary trio of love-letters to those old spook-fests. Well-directed by Damon Thomas (on a tight budget, particularly for a period drama), and featuring a handful of excellent performances (particularly from Jackson, Ingleby, Gatiss and Julian Rhind-Tutt), this was wonderful entertainment that only suffered from the comparatively dawdling "Something Old" episode. For the most part though, this retained a gentle and creepy tone, which made the occasional shocks all the more bracing. In particular, there's a naked ghoul in "The Knocker" that's genuinely blood-chilling and an injection of J-Horror malevolence in an otherwise cosy, English tradition.

Let's hope Mark Gatiss has reignited a trend for such tales on television, as this was imaginative and captivating Christmas treat that passed most people by. A repeat on BBC1 or BBC2 (a la zombie thriller Dead Set's promotion to Channel 4 after its E4 debut) would be most welcome. As would a sequel; given its open-ended, bleak denouement...

22-24 December 2008
BBC Four, 10.30pm

Writer: Mark Gatiss
Director: Damon Thomas

Cast: Lee Ingleby (Ben), Mark Gatiss (The Curator), Julian Rhind-Tutt (Noakes), Andy Nyman (Duncalfe), Anna Madeley (Katherine), Jennifer Higham (Ruthie), Jean Marsh (Lady Constance de Momery), Philip Jackson (Joseph Bloxholm), Samuel Barnett (Billy), Ian Hallard (Felix de Momery), Daniela Denby-Ashe (Hannah) & Derren Brown (Sir Roger Widdowson)