CROOKED HOUSE: 1 - The Wainscoting

BBC HD - 22nd December 2008 - 11.00pm

Good God, Lawrence Gordon Clark lives! And my Christmas gets off to a spine-tingling start. Mark Gatiss, writer, and here playing the curator who links the three stories together, clearly loves both the portmanteau horror films of the Amicus stable - From Beyond The Grave given the greatest of nods here - and the stories of M.R James, some of which were adapted by the BBC (and Gordon Clark) in the early 1970s. He takes the James-ian idea of ghoulish retribution and here stirs into it our contemporary financial ills, creating a Bernard Madoff for the 18th Century in the character of Joseph Bloxham, superbly played by Phillip Jackson. Lots of astute lines about stock market bubbles and subplots about greedy financiers destroying innocent families. It doesn't need wigs and brocade coats to dress up this particular allusion.

Bloxham's ill gotten gains allows him to acquire and renovate Geap Manor but something is amiss with the wainscoting installed by the unreliable builders. Strange noises emanate from it and one evening Bloxham witnesses the walls drown in inky living shadows. And just where the builder got the wood for the wainscoting mirrors James' The Stalls Of Barchester for good measure too. Despite its small budget this is beautifully mounted by director Damon Thomas. He and Gatiss not only pay homage to two genre traditions but also find time to put in a visual in-joke too in the form of the 'Hob Lane' sign sitting in the clutter on the shelf above the curator. If you know your genres I'm sure a quiet little chuckle danced upon your lips tonight. He also expertly builds the tension using sound effects and efficiently weaves together the various strands of the story and where James would leave the ending an ambiguous one, this story goes for a ghastly denouement. If he and Gatiss stick to their course we will no doubt get a similar climax for the framing story that involves Ben, a local history teacher, the curator and the Geap Manor door knocker. It's a portmanteau and it must follow the rules!

The only weakness, apart from the paucity of the budget not stretching to give us enough period detail, was Andy Nyman's playing of Duncalfe, Bloxham's drinking buddy, which did tend to waver on the unconvincing. Jackson clearly steals the honours for his superb turn as Bloxham, a fine essay of a man gnawed at by his conscience and he's supported by a wonderful turn from Julian Rhind-Tutt as the haunted Noakes. Surely it is time for Rhind-Tutt to take on the mantle of Gatiss' Bondian hero Lucifer Box based on this evidence. His delivery of a line as innocuous as 'the hum of bumblebees and the smell of jasmine' will get your heart beating just that little bit faster. Overall, it is the sheer relish, from Gatiss, director Thomas and an enthusiastic cast, of putting together the three stories that results in a little gem of spookiness that is sure to be welcomed to that established canon of a ghost story for Christmas. Roll on, Part 2.

Here's an interview with Gatiss and a clip from The Wainscoting, thanks to BBC Four.

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5 Responses to “CROOKED HOUSE: 1 - The Wainscoting”
  1. The involvement of Mark Gatiss in anything is enough to make me take an interest.

    And it's a considerable irritant that this is on where I cannot see it. I am hoping for a DVD release.

  2. Dave, if you look hard enough you'll find a number of versions available to download via a torrent. I've spotted at least three this morning.

  3. Try these for size....

  4. Cheers, Frank.

    Years at Outpost Gallifrey have made me wary of talking about torrents and, to be honest, that's a little strange of me. I'm normally quite happy to sample a show before rushing out and buying the DVD.

  5. And, thanks to you I now have all three episodes and frit meself silly last night watching all of them.

    Good, spine tingling stuff .

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