So I actually watched it, only two days late!
The new Sky Living drama about Enfield has attracted considerable media coverage, and from what I have seen so far good reviews. If it were just a fiction I would never get round to watching it – but it is (very notionally) based upon Guy Lyon Playfair’s This House Is Haunted and hence the Enfield Poltergeist. As such I guess I’d better say something. I have actually reviewed fiction before on my personal blog – you can find my review of the first Paranormal Activity film here.
“Everyone’s a critic” they say, implying that everyone who can’t perform or write themselves allows themselves to make harsh judgments of those who can. It is all too true in my case – as an actor I am appalling, as a screenwriter – well I’m not doing much of it now am I? – And as a writer, err yeah, ’nuff said. I did get an Asst. Director’s credit once when a real director taught me a bit and let me “call the shots”, but what I know about making film or drama can be written on the back of a postage stamp. If you want a considered review based on real knowledge of the paranormal on film go ask Tom Ruffles, he’s your man.
Still here is what I thought – the good, the bad, and the so ugly I twice paused it and walked away from the TV to go clear my head and stop being annoyed and shouty before I could continue…
Let me start by saying that as a representation of the events at Enfield, at least as depicted by Guy in This House Is Haunted, this drama is about as much accurate as Cameron’s Titanic is to the events described in A Night to Remember and the actual sinking of the Titanic. To justify that analogy – the dramatist, Joshua St. Johnston has pulled out strands of story, and woven together a drama, and set it against the backdrop of Enfield – and the sets are loving reconstructions of the 1970’s, with almost perfect verisimilitude in set, costume, and feel just as Titanic gets the ship and costume almost perfect. I lived in a council house 1981 to 1987, very similar to the one the Hodgsons lived at – and it was pretty realistic, though we lacked slugs and snails and ours was in much better structural shape. Note to Producers – poor does not mean dirty. The pipes looked right, but a lots of working class homes are pretty immaculate. I like the was it was handled here – looked right, and the reconstruction of the girls bedroom was almost perfect. I think the Monopoly set on the wardrobe is a 1982 edition, but otherwise almost perfect set dressing.
So it looks right, the names are right, the period items are right, the atmosphere is 77 – even down to a clip of a famous Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em episode on the TV – the lighting is almost Dogme 95, and the claustrophobic shots build atmosphere – all excellent. It’s a fantastic effort; the Viewmaster-G series toy looked right, and I think the Ker-Plunk set was the correct era too.
That’s the Good. The Bad now. And here is a confession…
I’m possibly not the target audience for this drama. I am going to guess that less than 50%, maybe less than a couple of million of the viewers of this show, will have ever tried to make sense of what happened at Enfield, written about it, talked to any of those there or describe themselves as “academic parapsychologists” on the dole forms. I may be in the 20% or so of the audience who have actually read This House is Haunted, and maybe the few thousand who actually have read much on poltergeists. And as far as I know, I’m the only viewer who has a Poltergeist blog, cos this is the only one. Therefore, as this is not a programme made for pretentious nerds like me, I would be an arse to review it. I shall do so anyway, but bear it in mind.
I saw that the Telegraph or someone did a review calling it The Good Life with ghosts. I haven’t read it yet – I prefer to form my own opinions – but I think they have something. There is nothing of Margot & Jerry about it, or the Goods – but in a sense it is about an assault on hegemony, common sense of a society. However The Good Life, like Keeping up Appearances, The Upper Hand, and pretty much every other 70’s and 80’s sit com was about something we barely understand now – social class. Well we pretend not to, we live in a classless society, but hell it’s rough on lads like me who aspire to rise above their station I promise you. I did pretty well, but like so many of the working class intellectuals of my generation, or maybe in my case pseudo-intellectuals, I ended up broke living in poverty on benefits in a house full of books.
Right now I get you don’t want a Marxist discussion of the base/superstructure model, and what economies generate poltergeists. My point is that the 80’s and Thatcher changed so much that unless you were in the 70’s it is hard to imagine the class system, and how pervasive and taken for granted class assumptions were until maybe the early 80’s. And here is the first failing – while The Good Life was about two middle class couples, one of whom dropped out and lived what would not be recognised as a perfectly mainstream organic urban farming middle class existence; the Enfield Haunting has to negotiate class distinctions in 70’s England.
So let’s start with the Hodgsons – plainly working class, poor but respectable. Dad has left. So what is the single most important class indicator for a production like this? Accent. North London accents are divided by class; way more so then but now, and Enfield has an accent. Now luckily they avoided the obvious trap of Cockney – but the family just sound all wrong, shattering the illusion for me. Eleanor Worthington-Cox sounds middle class, perhaps Cheshire (I’ll probably find out she grew up in Enfield now) and her brilliant performance as Janet is marred by an accent that would put her in the middle classes, not on a council estate in 1977. Now you can live on a council estate and talk posh – someone once said I did for instance, and I notoriously have a “telephone voice” if someone calls me – but the accents of the family evoke a disconnect in terms of class and time and place. I guess you need fairly neutral accents for TV, but also I was surprised that the familiar diction of North London has gone – and even the choice of words feels wrong. “bleedin’” made far too few appearances. Are there no North London child actors?
Only Peggy really convinced by accent, and she looks like a middle class Oxo ad mum rather than a working class woman of the 1970’s. Still the families acting are superb, so all is good there!
Now as Becky says “this is TV” and Lisa “yes Chris it’s a drama, not a recreation”. Yeah fair point. I just felt stronger play on the language and class aspects would not have harmed the drama, though it may actually make younger viewers uncomfortable. People under 40 often seem uncomfortable talking about class.
Now it gets harder for me; Spall and MacFadyen. Why? Because Maurice’s moustache and voice are totally wrong. I can do a pretty good impression of Maurice Grosse – I once dared to do it to his face, and he laughed, which was lucky as while a jolly and good natured chap he could blow up and explode in to harrumphing rage if provoked. However the moustache, and the voice, and a few mannerisms made Maurice pretty unique – and a bit eccentric. Spall has played it safe, by playing Maurice as a more respectable, slightly sad figure – I recall him more as a frenetically driven, sometimes angry, often laughing, usually interrupting kind of bloke – but I liked Maurice, who I knew a little, so I like Spall’s depiction – I just don’t recognise it. So for the 75% of viewers who never ate with Maurice, or talked politics with him – well you guys will have to make up your own minds. Just don’t confuse Maurice Grosse and Maurice Grosse, if you see what I mean. I guess that is true of any fictional depiction of a real person, but I can’t think of any I have seen. Maurice is odd – because you take away his North London middle class accent – a self-made millionaire I believe, Grosse was perhaps working class made good, but he a long away above the Hodgson’s socially. One lovely tough is Grosse’ red sports car spot on.
Guy Lyon Playfair likes the drama, and I can see why. The depiction of him is pretty good. Of course there is one of the scenes which lefts me infuriated soon after his character arrives. As I recall Grosse and Playfair were sitting together at a monthly SPR talk on a Thursday night when the shout went out and they volunteered to go look. For dramatic purposes that is completely changed here, and – well I’ll get to that in my rant under “the ugly” below. For now what we have to note is Guy is very upper middle class – I find him a little scary, as I find most Cambridge graduates. The depiction of his in this respect seems good – he was good looking, well educated, and knew about poltergeists. He also seems a little more cynical and harder to befriend than Maurice – I always wonder if I am inadvertently “using the wrong knife” round Guy, but we do not meet often these days as I have no money for SPR meetings or conference. :(
Guy also is extremely intelligent, a little belligerent when defending his case and while not a touch eccentric like Maurice, perhaps a little non-conformist. I like him from the few occasions we have met, but I’m a bit nervous of him, even by email!
There is a lot I actively dislike about the show. The biggest thing was early on, when Maurice and his wife take the call from the SPR (which of course never happened). There is a weird dream sequence in which it seems Maurice is looking at blood on Grosse’s head – I think Janet Grosse was 22 when she died, not a child, and her head injuries in the motorbike crash that killed her went a lot further than a bit of blood – but here the dramatist establishes Maurice was suffering “bad dreams” at the time of the case. I know nothing of the sort to be true; I did speak to Maurice about his daughter’s death, well he told me, and he told most people – he was obviously very upset by it, and it was why he came to join the SPR – but I still don’t think bereavement effected him. Spall play’s Grosse as vulnerable – I recall him as a an energetic firebrand, but I could be wrong. I was only an acquaintance of his- others should speak on this. Still this is a drama so that is fine, and the author is cleverly creating multiple potential explanations.
So what annoyed me in this scene? After Maurice leaves the house, his wife Betty is seen making a mysterious phone call and saying something like “Ray, I’ve got to see you”. She smiles – and I immediately got an uneasy feeling the implication was that she was having an affair. Now this seems nonsense from what I know – it serves a narrative purpose, to show that Maurice pretty much dedicated all his time day and night to the case – but Maurice was a family man and he and Betty were devoted to each other. Maurice has a son, Richard – perhaps that is the mysterious Ray, or maybe Ray is a family physician? The storyline will be resolved in the second or third episode I explain innocently enough, but it struck a nerve because of the David Baddiel incidents.
Baddiel wrote a novel featuring a fictional character called Maurice Grosse who has an affair –
They settled out of court, and Grosse characteristically gave his winnings to charity. After he died however, Baddiel used the character again in another novel (and film) The Infidel. I am diplomatically going to avoid saying what I think of this move by David Baddiel…
So with that background, I think the screenwriter should have stayed well clear of teaser storylines about Maurice’s (as far as I know extremely happy) marriage. I was annoyed a bit, and went for a walk to calm down. I’m sure episodes 2 & 3 will as I say dismiss this but…
And then the portrayal of Maurice, and the bond between him and Janet, well it just goes a bit far. He comes over as a kindly uncle, all perfect, but did he sniff that hairbrush? We are viewing this in the wake of the historic sexcrimes investigations of Operation Yewtree and things that were totally innocent often seem dodgy to us in this cynical and perverted age. For a moment i felt uneasy – was Maurice being depicted as a perv, to set up a storyline where at the end of the evidence we learn about his daughter’s death and his behaviour is explained? I’m probably too defensive of Maurice, but I felt uncomfortable. Nothing about him was in the slightest sleazy as far as I can recall! Quite the opposite.
The third thing that really annoyed me was the whole Playfair versus Grosse set up. As noted above, the two had previously met at an SPR event or two, but only really got to know each other after they came to Enfield. In reality they both volunteered at the 4th August SPR 1977 meeting. Except in the drama Guy arrives at the house, and joins the investigation, and then forces Maurice briefly out, having talked some utter bilge (I assume) about being sent by Prof Beloff to stop Maurice and protect the good name of the SPR. Would John Beloff have roared with laughter, or sued? I suspect the former, but it is nonsense.
The SPR since its inception in 1882 has not held corporate opinions. Members of the SPR may investigate cases, may have even been sent out by John Stiles and the Spontaneous Cases Committee, but they are investigating as private individuals and their opinions are their own, as the SPR does not hold collective opinions. If you don’t know much about the SPR ( http://www.spr.ac.uk ) you might want to have a quick look at this old blog piece of mind from my personal blog. Whatever the case, I don’t think the SPR sent anyone to “shut down Enfield”. I may be wrong, but I very much doubt it, and it certainly was not Guy Lyon Playfair.
Maybe a rival’s dynamic is more interesting, and Guy is depicted in the role of all the Sceptics he had to answer, then and today, putting their critiques to Maurice, who refutes them. An interesting dramatic measure, making Guy Lyon Playfair the villain, but not what I understand happened. Both investigators were pretty self-critical and sceptical, and I can’t imagine Guy rounding on Maurice with “I am the expert.” Good drama, don’t confuse it with the real dynamic. I think Guy here represents the other SPR members who came along and were woefully unimpressed, but “bandying the SPR name about?” Really???
Holy Levitating Lyon Playfairs Batman!
The moment at the end of episode one where Guy is suddenly hurled to the ceiling by the poltergeist nearly became a major contribution to psychical research in its own right, in that it nearly killed me. I was eating a packet of crisps, and physically fell off the sofa crying with laughter.
For a show about a poltergeist investigation – and it is about that rather than the poltergeist, the phenomena is firmly relegated to the background, with usually good but occasionally irritating sound – actually well done music but occasionally distracts rather than adds, blame the mix not the sound’s composer I guess – indicating “this bit is spooky” the actual haunting effects are absolutely bollocks. Janet sees an old man (is that Guy Lyon Playfair made up to look old and scary? You only see him for a second and I did wonder if he was playing a cameo!) Through the View master toy – really? – the Mirror journalists are relegated to the role of barely adolescent kids (they play a significant role in events) and the string of visiting experts seems boilded down to a cameo of what I guess are the guys from PYE.
The weird shot from Graham Morris showing the curtains blowing in turns in to a Hollywood horror movie sequence of the curtains strangling Janet. the story is told higgledy piggledy, without regard for the actual chronology of the phenomena, and while in places the phenomena are served well – the marbles which take the place of the marbles and Lego bricks that hit the Daily Mail guys scene is shot in such a way there is ambiguity about how it occurs, and if the kids chuck things, but seriously, the “creepy old man apparition” glimpsed through windows etc. a la Mr Pipes feels more like a homage to Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch than anything to do with Enfield, unless it is supposed to be the chap Vic Nottingham saw at the table? (You will look in vain for the Burcombes, the Nottingham’s, or most of the others who came to Enfield in episode one.
I guess introducing the girls and investigators enough – Peggy hopefully gets screen-time more in episode 2 and Graham Morris too. WPC Heeps gets a mention – but the problem with this simplification for good screenwriting, reducing an endless list of characters to a handful who perform their narrative function, is it severely reduces the strength of the testimony, and some twonks will make up their mind on Enfield not from the people, physical evidence or written sources, but from this drama Such people really exist, and I seem to meet them! :( ).
You are not going to learn much about poltergeist phenomena from this – go to the book. Unbelievably Becky claims most people do not actually WANT TO learn about poltergeist phenomena (!!!), and if they did they might not try a Sky Living drama. It’s like Lisa says “CJ, you simply don’t understand fiction and a good story: its entertainment”. While a few phenomenons were absolutely spot on – marbles stopping dead for instance – seriously, don’t confuse the real case (more dramatic at times) and the rather dodgy special effects here.
A few aspects of the case seemed a bit personal to drag out for a drama; the oldest boy Johnny sent off to an Approved School, the girl’s periods etc. I’m guessing Guy has good relations with the family and he approved the screenplay I believe; I was surprised to find I know a couple of people related to the current residents of the house, and I hope they are not being harassed by “ghost hunting kids” and that Sky Living make it worth their while. I’m not sure I’d want my childhood on primetime TV, but hey, that isn’t ever going to happen so I can sleep easy.
A good intelligent drama, as entertainment 7/10, mainly for good acting and great backdrops and period feel, but the script is not what I would have hoped for. I could not do anywhere near as well though, so bravo! To all involved. I am probably not the person to review this. :D