The Secret of Crickley Hall, the voiceover warns viewers prior to each episode, contains scenes that some people may find upsetting. True to this statement the three part BBC1 drama, adapted from the bestselling supernatural novel by James Herbert, is stitched together with scenes that upset, disturb and, if you’re of a gentle temperament, may even frighten. Placed in a prominent Sunday evening slot, The Secret of Crickley Hall had all the right ingredients to create a chilling thriller serial. It had a good cast, characters with interesting back stories, a sinister setting and a premise that jumped between two engaging timelines…so why then was I left feeling indifferent subsequent to the conclusion, rather than feeling satisfied by the end? The answer I’m still mulling over a week later.
The series centres on the Caleigh family who move to the dusty old Crickley Hall in the hope that they can escape a past that haunts them. At the heart of the story is grieving mum, Eve, who can’t move on after the disappearance of her young son, Cam. She’s guilt ridden and refuses to accept the possibility that he might never come back. In order to avoid the anniversary of Cam’s disappearance, Eve’s husband, Gabe, moves the family temporarily to the fictional town of Devil’s Cove. As daughters Loren and Cally start to adjust to their new lives, Eve feels a presence within the walls of Crickley Hall and when she hears what she believes to be her son’s voice, she thinks that this new home might give her the answers that will help find him.
The story jumps between this present timeline and seventy years prior in 1943, when Crickley Hall was an orphanage for children evacuated from the Blitz. In the early timeline we follow young and self-assured teacher Nancy, who sets out to save the children from the tyrant who runs the orphanage, Augustus Cribben, a man who lurks in the shadows and mistreats the children as a twisted form of discipline. This timeline paints a realistic picture of the war-era and emotively highlights the prejudice and racism that occurred at the time.
These two timelines cross over and eventually merge as one as it becomes apparent to Eve that the children who lived and died at Crickley Hall, along with Cribben, are very much still there and are still suffering under his reign. Despite her family being in danger, Eve is so intent on finding her son that she refuses to leave, setting in motion events that threaten to steal away her remaining children.
So why did this series, with such a promising premise, fail to leave a lasting impression? The first episode was full of mystery and intrigue, vividly bringing to life Herbert’s characters and setting a high standard for the penultimate and final episode. The second episode suffered from a slight faltering in pace, but kept interest flowing as the story began to unravel and questions started to get answered regarding the secrets hiding in Crickley Hall. The last episode I feel was the downfall of the series. Despite admirable effort, the end rode the wave of tired ghost clichés and the final conclusion was predictable. It wasn’t a terrible ending by all means, but it felt lacklustre for a story that had so much potential to begin with. It was all too easily resolved and would have benefitted from some surprising complications to throw viewers off course.
Nevertheless, it has to be said that the cast are great, with the odd exception. Suranne Jones, who plays Eve, gives a heart-wrenching emotional performance that must be commended, with Olivia Cook (Nancy) and Douglas Henshall (Cribben) so believable in their roles that you could imagine they actually existed during the tough times of 1943. Pixie Davies, who plays youngest child Cally, is a confident little addition to the cast, as is the actor portraying the persecuted Jewish German orphan, Stefan. The children at times almost outshine the adults. The exception to these praiseworthy performances, and a thorough disappointment, is Donald Sumpter in the role of parapsychologist Gordon Pyke. Known most recently for his role as Maester Luwin in Game of Thrones, Sumpter is wooden and unimpressive as the ‘baddie’, aiding in the defeated conclusion.
The Secret of Crickley Hall succeeds to the extent that it’s an enjoyable watch at the time, but is overshadowed by supernatural thrillers created by the masters of Hollywood.