The Secret Of Crickley Hall , the BBC’s lavish adaptation of the James Herbert novel, begins this coming Sunday night. To get you in the mood, here’s our set visit feature from SFX #228
“Some horror movies start in the first ten minutes, and they completely smash you over the head with it, and then there’s nowhere to go. Whereas in the really great horror stuff, the really, really terrible stuff doesn’t happen until halfway.”
Joe Ahearne is taking a break from production on his new haunted house drama to talk about the art of suspenseful pacing. This current project is a three-part, three-hour narrative – much longer than cinematic ghost stories, which rarely go over a hundred minutes. But there’s nobody in British TV more experienced when it comes to sci-fi and fantasy, as writer or director, than Ahearne (his CV includes vampire thriller Ultraviolet , exorcism drama Apparitions and Doctor Who ) – “He’s an absolute specialist and fan of this genre,” says executive producer Hilary Martin.
“So at the end of the first part,” Ahearne continues, “something awful happens – which I won’t give away – and that kind of powers you through the rest of the two parts. And the last part is just a big suspense setpiece chase sequence, almost for the whole thing. The third part is full-on horror.”
“When you go on holiday in this job, you need to have a good book on the go,” says Martin. A few years ago, her good book was James Herbert’s 2006 novel The Secret Of Crickley Hall . “Sometimes when I’ve been watching ghost stories, I’m shouting at the screen, ‘Just leave! Leave! Leave the house! It’s clearly haunted!’ Whereas with this one, our main character has lost her son – he’s missing – and she feels that she can hear his voice in this house.”
The main character, Eve, believes the ghosts are trying to help her psychically connect with her child. “When she sees the ghost,” says Suranne Jones, who plays Eve, “it doesn’t frighten her as much as give her some kind of hope as to being able to connect with her child... that’s what keeps them in the house.”
When Martin returned from her holiday, she looked for someone to adapt the book and found Ahearne more than up for it. “It’s very clever, but it’s very clear,” he says. “It’s not like trying to adapt something that’s incredibly abstruse or theoretical.”
The novel’s ghosts originate in 1943, when some orphans were evacuated to the house – only to fall foul of their sadistic host. In the book the story of those characters is related in short flashbacks but “we decided not to do it as flashbacks but as a dual time frame. I think it’s more emotionally powerful if you follow the story in the past in real time with those characters.”
“You might see the 1940s guys walking through the dining room,” says Jones. “And then it’ll cut to us in 2012 walking through.”
“It’s the first drama that I’m aware of where you’ve seen how the ghosts got to be ghosts,” Ahearne adds, “and that was one of the things that appealed to me in doing it.”
It’s a sunny day when SFX visits the location, a very striking house in rural Yorkshire. “Apart from today, it’s been absolutely freezing,” laughs Tom Ellis, who’s playing Eve’s husband Gabe. “But it’s been quite apt for the show. We’ve been quite lucky, filming it in springtime but having winter weather. But yeah, the house is amazing.”
“We spent quite a large part of our budget on redesigning the house,” says Ahearne. “I’ve never done that much work on a location before. The staircase was changed completely. The staircase in Crickley Hall is kind of a big character really. Various people come to grief on the staircase – rather like in Psycho .”
Even with the budget for rebuilding, scouting for the location took more than a year.
“Initially we got some photographs of some massive gothic scary houses,” says Martin. “And with the front part of your brain it’s like, ‘This is amazing, it’s terrifying and fantastic and atmospheric’, but then again, we didn’t want our modern-day family to look stupid for saying there. If the house said: ‘I’m a scary house!’ then...”
…It’s Scooby-Doo? SFX offers.
“Exactly. It has to be what I would call ‘neutral’ gothic,” says Ahearne.
In the story, the Caleigh family stays at the house so they don’t have to be at home on the anniversary of their son’s disappearance.
“If that’s the premise, you can’t take them to somewhere that looks like the Bates house in Psycho . Because it’s a woman who’s emotionally fragile, it’s got to look something less in-your-face than that. In that sense it’s a bit like the Overlook Hotel...”
This mix of supernatural horror and real-life horror gave the actors a lot of big emotions to juggle.
“The ghost story is the ghost story,” says Ellis, “but also the connotations of doing something that’s this dark, and has this kind of backdrop of tragedy to it – it’s affected me in ways I’ve not been affected before, on-set.”
Jones, who consulted a bereavement councillor when developing her character, agrees. “There’s a couple of really harrowing scenes that take you to a place that you don’t want to particularly take yourself to. Luckily Joe sees that and says, ‘Right, okay, we’ve got that in two takes, I don’t want to have to make you do that again.’ It’s a dangerous thing if you’re going to do that all the way through.”
“We filmed a scene the other day,” Ellis adds, “and after I filmed it I had to phone my wife to tell her how much I loved her, and speak to my daughter. But I got her answerphone...”
Much recent British genre TV has been on BBC Three or Four and produced on a limited budget – but Crickley Hall is a prime-time, post-watershed BBC One production. It’s a very big deal. “Yeah, it’s about as much budget as you can get for a TV drama without getting into Pride And Prejudice ,” says Ahearne.
Did Ahearne feel he had to pull his punches for a mainstream audience? “I don’t think so, really... not like with Apparitions , where a lot of the extreme violence that we filmed didn’t make it into the final cut for reasons of taste and decency. With this, because a large part of the subject matter of the book is to do with cruelty against children... it’s not so much you can’t show that, you wouldn’t want to really... The more shocking things in the book we’ve managed to retain, not in terms of violence but in terms of the emotional shock.”
“The fear factor comes from the suspense of knowing that things are going to happen,” Martin agrees, “and Joe’s incredibly articulate in the way that he portrays that visually, and just ratcheting that tension up.”
And then she gives us a whacking great spoiler for the ending, which we won’t pass on – but suffice to say, it doesn’t wimp out. “When you’ve seen the beginning, I just can’t imagine how you couldn’t get to the end of it.”
The Secret Of Crickley Hall airs on BBC One on Sunday 18 November at 9pm.
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