Crooked House, Inspired TV

by Arthur B

Mark Gatiss's M.R. James-inspired miniseries is the best seasonal offering of the year.
Thanks to the efforts of M.R. James and Charles Dickens, Christmas has become ghost season, and this year the BBC decided to tap into that tradition with Crooked House, a series of three half-hour ghost stories written by Mark Gatiss, the League of Gentlemen's token geek. Gatiss takes as his model the portmaneau horror movies of the 1970s, in which a series of short stories are connected by a linking device. In this case, said device involves history teacher Ben (played by a suitably wet-looking Lee Ingleby) finding a worn old door knocker in the back garden of his newly-built home; on taking the knocker to a local museum curator (played by Gatiss) he is informed that it used to adorn the front entrance of Geep Manor, a recently demolished Tudor-era mansion with an evil reputation. Two of the stories are tales from the Manor's history, introduced by the curator - the first episode takes place in the 18th Century, the second in the 1920s - whilst in the final episode Ben foolhardily decides to attach the knocker to his own front door, causing him to be haunted by the deceased Manor itself.

Whilst Gatiss's model for the overall presentation dates from the 1970s, the individual episodes adhere to a formula straight out of the M.R. James playbook. Considering that this is a fairly low-budget production, a low-key approach where more horrors are suggested than actually shown is entirely sensible, although to be fair there's only a couple of places where the limited resources really show - there's some slightly murky CGI at the end of the first episode, and the portrait of the Manor's original owners is slightly too obviously a photo with some photoshop filters lazily applied. Gatiss's scripts show a depth that is all too often missing from horror these days; in each case, the individual subjected the haunting is simultaneously suffering a personal crisis which ties in with the form that the manifestations take, so that haunting plays on real life, and real life plays on haunting. Perhaps the best instance of this is in the first episode, in which the victims of an unscrupulous financier are shown gently fading away into homeless destitution in the background whilst said financier is menaced by bloody stains and horrible sounds from the wainscotting.

Gatiss has developed a formula which allows him to stuff in more characterisation than you'd expect in half an hour of television; in fact, in this post-Buffy and Star Trek: the Next Generation era, where we're not used to TV fantasy coming in doses of less than 45 minutes, Crooked House is a delightful exercise in brevity. The episodes are carefully constructed, with not a single wasted second; whilst they can occasionally seem rushed, at the same time I'm not really sure what could be usefully added to them. Gatiss also wheels out the old trick of alluding to other incidents in Geep Manor, without going too deeply into them, giving us the impression that we're only scratching the surface of the place. (There's enough left untouched, in fact, that there could quite happily be another series later on.)

It certainly helps that as a writer Gatiss understands and loves the genre (for example, in the Curator's office you can see an old tube station sign from "Hobb's End" - the locale of Quatermass and the Pit), but he's also able to induce decent performances from most of the cast. And if some of his ideas occasionally come across as rejected Doctor Who scripts, the conclusion of the series is powerful enough to forgive all of that, as the Manor's true agenda becomes brutally apparent. You might see the ending coming, but that doesn't stop it packing one hell of a punch when it arrives.

Crooked House is repeated in full from 9pm on BBC 4, on the 27th December; alternately, episodes are available on the BBC's iPlayer.

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