The Secret of Crickley Hall...

Monday 19 November 2012, 13:06

Joe Ahearne Joe Ahearne Writer

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The-Secret-of-Crickley-Hall.jpg Suranne Jones and Tom Ellis star in new BBC One Drama The Secret of Crickley Hall

I came at writing sideways, as my main passion is directing.  I'm always on the lookout for a script where there's something for the director to do, beyond point the camera at whoever's talking about their relationship.  I love actors but I'm a fan of Hitchcock and where I get fully energized is when characters figure out situations by looking and not just talking.  I like to photograph people thinking.  Of course I love cute dialogue too but you don't really need a director for that.  When I was starting out in TV some fifteen years ago, the kind of stuff I wanted to direct either wasn't being written much, or what little there was, wasn't available to the likes of me.  So I wrote things I'd like to direct and tried to attach myself to them as a director.

After directing a short for which actress Siobhan Redmond won a BAFTA, I got my first TV script break on lawyer series This Life with World Productions.  It was about as polar opposite to my declared interests as it was possible to get.  I met the Head of Drama Sophie Balhetchet on a pitch about vampires.  She loved the notion of modern vampire hunters and got me onto This Life which was entirely about characters talking about their relationships.  Even so, I found the first series that was already on air riveting - the decision to keep the cameras way back on long lenses, with no change of position allowed, really was very vivid.  A style much copied in the years after.  And the characters really sparkled.  So, after writing a script which they wouldn't allow me to direct, they offered me other writers' scripts to direct.  Sometimes there's a worry about allowing writers to direct their own scripts - can they be objective?  Are they really the best for the job?  Sometimes execs don't like being given a choice of one - who does?

The directors on This Life were on a tight leash.  We were not allowed to interfere with the performers, exec producer Tony Garnett warned he would be very angry if he came down on set and saw a tape measure or a tape mark on the floor.  He declared the most important person on the crew was the focus puller.  Despite the constraints (or because of them?) there were ways of using the editing and the camera to make visual points, you just had to try harder.  (and yes I did risk Tony's wrath by sneaking a mark on the floor to get a particular shot, all to no avail because by that time, after months of freedom, the actors had lost the knack of hitting marks).  But it was really all about the characters they'd created and they were wonderful and easy to write for, because you'd already heard their voices in the first series.  As a director, I lucked out in getting William Gaminara's script which dealt with Anna's breakdown, for which Daniela Nardini won the BAFTA.  Don't let anyone tell you awards/ratings don't matter.  I've found over the years that it's been much easier to get people to trust me on my own material after I've been on a project that's done something or won something.  So after This Life, even though I was only tangentially involved in its success, I was allowed to write and direct six hours of my own vampire series Ultraviolet.

In the years since, I've alternated between directing my own scripts and other people's.  I was lucky enough to work on the first series of the rebooted Doctor Who where I directed a Russell T. Davies script.  Working on material of that quality really does make you take a hard look at your own limitations.  I remember reading his pilot script for Doctor Who and feeling so very far away from that level of command.  Again, I reckon it was the success of that series and the BAFTA nomination I received for directing that gave people the confidence to allow me to write and direct subsequent projects Perfect Parents and Apparitions.

The advantage of directing your own script is that you know what you meant, even if you were wrong about it.  That make you a lot freer explaining it or changing it.  The Secret of Crickley Hall is the first adaptation I've done which has been filmed.  It had some of the same advantages as This Life in that I was working with pre-existing material - the characters and plot created by James Herbert for his bestselling novel.  The lessons This Life taught me remain - trust the actors and let them tell the truth.  Doesn't mean you can't have fun with the camera but you'll get much better work overall if you give and take and remember it's not all about you.  Have a clear idea what you want, block it out in your mind or storyboard it but then see what the actors do and be prepared to change your ideas.  Change is scary but good.  The temptation is to think everything can be solved in the script beforehand but if you write for TV or film, it's not a novel - you need other people to help you tell your story.  A lot of Crickley Hall - and really key moments - were rewritten after rehearsals with Suranne Jones and Tom Ellis and David Warner and Donald Sumpter and many others.  Sometimes you have to rewrite to get them into the rehearsal room in the first place.  When you've been in development for a while it's easy to forget that programme making happens outside the script.

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Watch the trail for the new BBC One Drama The Secret of Crickley Hall.

Watch a trail of the new BBC One Drama The Secret of Crickley Hall.

The Secret of Crickley Hall has a great contemporary narrative but when it was decided to extend it over 3 hours we burrowed into the historical characters to tell two stories not just one.  Most ghost stories follow the same routine - people go to house - house is haunted - people find out why ghosts are there.  You don't have the wonderful texture James Herbert provides in the prose, you only have "what happens next" and that is brutally exposing to anything that doesn't move the narrative forward.  Ghost stories generally operate on the basis of concealing information from the audience.  Usually the visitors have no emotional connection to the events they're uncovering.  James Herbert gave his central character a great emotional connection to the orphans who haunt Crickley Hall - her own son is missing.  And also a great reason why she can't leave when it gets scary - she hears her son tell her the ghosts know where he is.  So it felt logical and emotionally apt to tell the story of the orphans alongside her own.

The first version of the script I did was a single 90 minutes and I was able to use a lot of that for the 3 hour version as it was essentially the contemporary story.  What we added was the historical back story and I learnt a lot about parallel narratives.  TV scripts often have a B and C strand where you cut away from the principals and where you switch stories almost never ends up in the edit where you imagined it on the page - scenes play at different tempos and with different resonances in entirely unpredictable ways.  Every time we recut our drama and reordered the two parallel stories, different characters became more effective even though the content didn't change.  That was a revelation to me, as well as vexing.  I've worked on stuff before where the odd scene got switched around in the edit but not to this extent.  It reminded me yet again how elastic narrative is.  It's very hard to know what ideas you must not deviate from and which you should relinquish for the greater good of the whole piece.  You can fall in love with a particular transition but if there's a better place for that scene overall you have to let it go.

When I first started writing and directing I was something of a control freak and played out the entire story in my mind, drew it out and tried to make the actors and camera do it the way I imagined.  You can get some individual great scenes that way and I still do that on complex action scenes but it's much more productive in the long run to let scenes breathe.  Actors can give you so much, you'd be surprised.  I still am.

The Secret of Crickley Hall continues on BBC One this Sun 25th Nov. 

If you missed Episode 1 you can catch it on BBC iPlayer.

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