When the BBC sent me The Secret Of Crickley Hall to read, they had me at "James Herbert". I'd been a fan since The Fog. Crickley Hall didn't disappoint - it's got the same vice-like grip and is fairly unique among ghost stories. Two reasons: James Herbert properly solves the problem of why the haunted visitors can't leave the house, and he provides a real physical threat not just bumps in the night. The last hour is a great Hitchcock chase thriller. Sold, I went to BBC North and we discussed the parameters, principally the age old question of how far horror can go on TV - one I've faced throughout my career. Crickley Hall is emotional and accessible, which is why it is right for BBC One, but it's also intense and disturbing.
I originally tackled it as a single 90-minute film - James Herbert read the draft and gave it the thumbs up. It was later decided to expand it into three hours, making it an event. This was a familiar development - the last BBC pilot I was involved in was expanded into a longer serial. The book runs to 600 pages so it wasn't hard seeing where the extra drama was. The brief flashbacks in the book of sinister activity in 1943 formed the basis of the new scenes. We attempted something I've not seen in ghost dramas - to tell the story of the people who become ghosts as well as the people who encounter them.
Usually the ghost revelations come piecemeal, entirely through investigation, mostly at the end. I dug out my DVD of Godfather 2 to revisit that masterclass on dual time structure. James Herbert read the revised drafts and executive producer Hilary Martin, script editor Simon Judd and I met him to hear some nervousness about the intercutting. We explained that the structure was a work in progress and would continue through editing, as it did. Our editor Graham Walker constantly came up with new ways to play out the narrative. It's a delicate dance deciding when to pose questions in the present that would be answered in the past and vice versa. We listened to James Herbert's observations about the characters he'd created and fed them in. Even to changing the name of the dog.
The house was the biggest challenge in design and location. It took the best part of a year to find and it wasn't until producer Ann Harrison-Baxter came on board that we managed to nail it. It had to be in a landscape which could flood, be in the middle of nowhere, on top of an underground stream, and most crucially, had to be the kind of place a man might take his grieving wife and family to get away from it all. It couldn't look like the Psycho house and yet had to have some air of menace about it. It also had to be filmed for 1943 and now. We eventually found a house owned by a builder, probably the only owner who would have allowed production designer David Butterworth to mangle his property. Walls were put in, staircase ripped out, stone floors set down, dark panelling installed throughout, two different driveways planted, gates pulled up and on and on. The change in landscape over the 80 years was handled by matte painting specialists. We drew the line at the underground river and David constructed the cellar well as a set, as well as the attic dormitory. Both he and costume designer Yves Barre were under a lot of pressure to produce the goods in time because of our decision to shoot the period story first in the schedule. It would have been easier all round to start with the contemporary story but we felt it was important to have the memory of the 1943 shoot in our heads when shooting the contemporary story so we could aim for subtle echoes in framing and design.
After the house, the other key decision was the cast, brought together by Julie Harkin. Suranne Jones is known for many things but for me, a Doctor Who fan, I found her performance as The Doctor's Wife absolutely amazing, anchoring the most bizarre things while embracing the mad joy of it all. Fearless. Tom Ellis is someone I've wanted to work with for a long time and has the same ability to inhabit crazy worlds like Miranda but stay real and play the truth. He made the perfect foil for her. The drama stands or falls depending on whether you believe them as a couple and for that reason they had as much input into the script as James Herbert. When you've written the script it makes working with the actors much smoother. It's a lot easier to throw out lines (and sometimes scenes). The most emotional moment in the story came out of a rehearsal with them. David Warner and Donald Sumpter also worked on their roles, enhancing the script immeasurably. David's character appears in both time periods and make-up designer Lin Davie had to match his looks across his younger self Iain De Caestecker with the judicious use of contact lenses and some prosthetics. The gloriously implacable Sarah Smart was played in present day by a 97-year-old woman who was required to stab her victim through the neck. Susan Lynch played one of the hardest roles to pitch right - the medium who tries to communicate with the ghosts. She was as grounded and believable as everyone else, while still creating someone mysterious and enthralling to watch. Newcomer Olivia Cooke was suggested to me by an actor friend who worked with her on her first TV role and she provided the spirited heroine of the 1943 story, Nancy Linnet. As in the book, her character has a withered arm which was constructed by prosthetic effects designer Davy Jones. It was also Davy's responsibility to create the final terrifying image of the physical reality that lies behind a ghost. Everyone was keen that all the visual effects in the show - and there are a lot - should be invisible to the audience, whether CGI or physical or a combination.
One big cast concern was the children. There are a lot of them in the story, all the way through, some as young as five. We had to be very mindful of children's hours, twisting the schedule inside out. Their time was precious. And when they were on set, we had to make sure the fear factor was under control. Pixie Davies who plays the youngest Cally, had an extra cuddly toy on hand. Kian Parsani was brought over from Germany to play the part of Stefan, chief victim of the Cribbens. Bill Milner played the complex role of Maurice who is forced to do the Cribbens' sinister bidding in more ways than one. But the person who represented the heart and soul of the children was Maisie Williams, playing Loren, the eldest daughter. She's the one who quietly holds the family together in their grief and is left alone to face the horror and rescue her sister at the climax of the story.
When shooting in two different periods, the temptation is to style each differently. We felt that the 1943 story should have the same emotional weight as the contemporary story - that both stories are actually present day. We didn't want 1943 to feel more distant. So our Director of Photography Peter Greenhalgh does not hit the audience over the head with filters or grading to remind them where they are. This stylistic decision was made to bring the stories together which felt appropriate for a ghost story - the past is repeating endlessly in the present. Time has broken down. And it has the added benefit of making our villain - the sinister Mr. Cribben (played to terrible perfection by Douglas Henshall) as real now as he was then. He still stalks the corridors of Crickley Hall for rebellious children. And his cane cuts painfully now as then.
Sound plays a more crucial role in a ghost story than most other genres. Silence is very important and any extraneous noise, from a clothes rustle to a breath, can kill the moment where you want an audience to jump out of their skin. Dubbing Mixer David Old helped refine the soundtrack to mix naturalism with pure expressionism. Recording clean sound for period drama is an art and recordist Jonathan Wyatt ensured we could keep post production dialogue replacement to a minimum. Dan Jones provided a stunning orchestral score which alternately makes the skin crawl and brings tears at the tragedy that befalls some of the characters.
And finally, our most special but least enjoyable effect: the rain. Two thunderstorms in two different time periods over most of the last hour. You think you had the wettest Summer for 100 years? Tune into The Secret Of Crickley Hall.