Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Crooked House

I still like a good ghost story. Yes, my years editing a magazine chock full of the things has not put me off, the way people who work in sweetie factories are said to come to loathe bonbons. So I'm rather pleased that this year the BBC has come up with not one but three new ghostly tales. Crooked House is a bit like the portmanteau horror movies produced - with varying success - about forty years back. You get a linking narrative, with the archetypal Sly Old Chap telling the equally familiar Eager Young Chap a story, in this case about a house with an evil heritage. Mwa-ha-ha, etc.

Crooked House has the advantage of a very strong cast and a good script, by Mark Gatiss. If it has a weakness, it's that historical ghost stories, while quaint and fun, do tend to keep the action at a bit of a distance. That said, the historical bits have enough to hold the discerning viewer's interest. The first part, 'The Wainscoting', is set in the 1780s, pretty much M.R. James territory. Indeed, there is at least one sly reference to MRJ and the BBC's Christmas ghost story tradition - the main characters meet in Gordon Clark's coffee house. The story isn't bad, but the denouement was a bit weak, I felt.

The second episode, 'Something Old', is far better. Interestingly, Gatiss seems to have grasped the essence of the inter-war era ghost story of the sort produced by Benson, Burrage and Wakefield. There's the cynical wit and shallowness of the Bright Young Things, the class snobbery, and - last but not least - the mutilation. As well as being a good self-contained tale, it was a pleasure to see Jean Marsh in a starring role again. Give the woman a Damehood, if she hasn't already got one.

I'll watch the final episode, the one with a contemporary setting, later. I hope there's a bit of a twist. You can, if you prefer, watch the whole thing in one go. Let me know what you think of it!

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