Watching Harry Price Ghost Hunter

After reading Neil Spring’s The Ghost Hunters, time to watch the ITV adaptation, Harry Price Ghost Hunter.

(Though first, because of some mysterious scheduling hiccup, I found myself watching half an episode of Jekyll and Hyde. Admittedly, I didn’t have the sound up, but I don’t think having dialogue would have helped. Seriously, what the hell was that I was watching, other than Grade One scenery-chewing and actorly gurning? )

But back to Harry Price Ghost Hunter, the new ‘one-off’ drama with ‘pilot’ written all over it. Actually, it really wasn’t bad. I could probably watch a whole series if it maintained the standard of last night’s episode. It was very spooky and atmospheric while all the time playing with ideas of how we maintain rationality, accept fraud and deception, and a slew of other things, and did all of them well enough to be interesting.

Like his historical counterpart, this Harry Price is a ghost-hunter, determined to find a rational explanation for everything if at all possible. Like his historical counterpart, he is interested in using scientific apparatus to record temperature and movement, to take photographs, and so on. He does the research too. Unlike the real Harry Price, at least so far as we know, the fictional Price comes with a lot of emotional baggage. In the novel Spring tried to give his Harry emotional baggage by having him conceal the fact that he was a) married, and b) running a paper-bag supply business. In reality, Price apparently made no big secret of either, though he did allegedly fudge details of his birth and upbringing to make himself seem a bit grander than he actually was.

Fictional Harry Price, however, has a wife who was incarcerated in a mental asylum by her family, and also started out life as a medium himself, deceiving people himself before moving on to debunking paranormal phenomena. The story opens with a young man accosting him on his own doorstep, thanking him for making clear the meaning of being at peace and then shooting himself tidily in the head, to join his dead brother. Unsurprisingly, this puts a bit of a crimp in Harry’s work but then he is asked to investigate an alleged haunting at a large house, formerly a work house but now the private home of a prospective parliamentary candidate and his wife. The wife has been troubled by strange dreams and occurrences; most recently, she found herself naked in a street with no recollection as to how she came to be there. Her husband and his political mentor are very anxious to have the problem solved so as not to cause problems for the PPC’s burgeoning career.

And so we see Price go to work, eliminating the impossible to see what’s left. So far, so Sherlock Holmes. On Price’s first visit to the house, to meet the PPC and his wife, strange things happen. The servants bells ring although the wires have been cut (a detail lifted straight from the investigation of the Borley Rectory haunting) and a canary sings in an empty room even though it apparently should only sing when there is someone there. According to the PPC’s wife, she often has a feeling there are people around her when she is on her own, and she finds herself in places with no clear idea how she got there. Subsequently, when Price wanders through the cellars of the house, he discovers a mysterious chemical spilling from a bottle, and a pile of rotting apples (the presence of the chemical again echoes the investigation of Borley Rectory, when Rev. Smith describes finding a bottle of sugar of lead in the cellar when he arrived – lead acetate, a poison, but a sweet-tasting one). There is also a photograph of the children from the workhouse.

So, at this stage, the story could go one of several ways – a genuine haunting, or attempted murder (perhaps by the husband, eager to get rid of a wife who might be getting in the way of his political prospects, either by his own design or at the insistence of his repellent political advisor). Or the wife could be faking it because she hates living in the house, hates politics, or she is genuinely ill. Given the way that children seem to feature in the haunting, there is also the possibility that she has lost a child, or wants a child. Interestingly, her husband refuses to get medical treatment for her, because he is concerned that she will be locked away, something he feels would be wrong.

Price begins to pursue these different lines of enquiry, with the help of Sarah Grey, the house maid, who is initially assigned to act as his driver (she drove ambulances during the war) but quickly reveals herself to be sharp-witted, observant, a good researcher. It is she who ferrets out the story of the child murdered at the workhouse, drowned by another inmate. Price, meanwhile, has his associate , Albert Ogoro, ‘practitioner’ of some kind of African magic by night, fully-trained chemist by day, analyse the chemicals. Ogoro also assists in the first night of investigation, helpfully planting a device in the piano to make it play on its own. He is entirely pragmatic about his dual life as fake magician and chemist. As he explains to Sarah Grey, the hen he apparently sacrifices remains alive, but the people who attend his ceremonies are anyway so desperate that if what he does offers them comfort of some sort, is it so very wrong?

His approach is in stark contrast to Price’s mission to denounce and debunk the fakery: we see him break up a medium’s performance on stage, trying to explain to people what is really going on, showing them how it is faked, but to no avail. As the master of ceremonies suggests later, is it because Price himself has lost someone (the audience of course knows that it probably is – we might recall Harry Houdini at this point, who spent much of his life debunking mediums after he realised that they could not put him in contact with his dead mother). All this is significant in turn because Sarah Grey’s mother is a regular attendee at séances and public displays, spending money she does not have on tickets, seeking some sort of closure after her husband’s death. Whether Sarah Grey herself believes is less clear – her anxieties remain financial. The point, though, is that what the novel tried so very hard to convey is here placed firmly in context with a few well-chosen scenes, and done with considerably greater sympathy for those who are being deceived, and indeed those deceiving them.

But back to the case in hand. The chemist Ogoro has identified the chemicals that Price found (not arsenic, as I’d thought, and they go to great pains to say that it is not arsenic that lies at the heart of this) and something is clearly amiss. By this time, the young reporter Vernon Wall, the man who in real life broke the story of Borley Rectory, has turned up; he and Price seem to have some sort of history anyway, and Price persuades him to look into the background of Goodwin, the candidate, and in particular why he left his previous constituency. Which eventually leads them to the River Thames, a narrow boat, and a meeting with a young man who turns out to have been Grace Goodwin’s lover. And there was a pregnancy; the baby should be three months old. Needless to say, there is no sign of a baby.

By this time, it would be fair to say that the plot is not so much convoluted as a tiny bit over-extended and starting to flag, but we are fast heading towards a denouement. As has been clear all along, it was the husband, but the question is, what was he doing. Early in the story, it’s mentioned that his father was a chemist, and that he in turn studied chemistry for a while. It turns out he was making a crude form of barbiturate, with which to dose his wife, having discovered her infidelity. This caused her hallucinations, and meant that she miscarried the child, and afterwards, she suffered from terrifying withdrawal symptoms. Price, Ogoro and Sarah Grey intervene as Goodwin is in the throes of attempting to drown his wife.

But this is where the drama introduces an odd little twist. Goodwin had previously attacked Sarah Grey and left her unconscious on the floor. When she wakes, she can see the figure of a child pointing up the stairs; it’s a figure that has appeared a number of times, and that we’re led to suppose is exclusively Mrs Goodwin’s hallucination. Indeed, as Goodwin drowns his wife, she sees the figure of a child below her in the bath tub, reaching up. And yes, of course it’s a piece of sensationalism, but rather nicely done (certainly in comparison to some things, like the soundtrack, which was extremely noisy). Price’s whole schtick in real life was to attempt to eliminate the impossible, but he claimed to be open to the fact that possibly, just possibly, some people were psychic, and maybe some ghosts were real. Here, the audience is invited to wonder.

The whole thing is tidily closed down with Price doing a private sitting for Sarah Grey’s mother, to reassure her. Things are looking up for Price, and he might need an assistant. The resourceful Sarah Grey is clearly the person for the job. And yes, I would actually like this series to happen, at least if it keeps to this sort of standard of storytelling. It’s not surprising, particularly, but it was effective.

I’m writing this, of course, primarily because I’m interested in how the book became a tv drama, what was saved, what was discarded. As I predicted, practically everything except the names went. A little of the story of Grey’s parents was retained; watered down, one might argue, rendered simplistic and perhaps a little sentimental, but at the same time, I liked the fact that it engaged sympathetically with the fact that people wanted comfort after the War, wanted to know what had happened to their lost relations and so on. The drama catches the dilemma rather better, I think, than the novel, perhaps because the novel was unwilling to address the broader implications of what the mediums were doing. There is a point in the drama when Price mentions a doctor in Vienna; it’s an oblique hint that for many people mediums were the therapists they needed but which were not yet available to them. Which is not to say that we should regard mediums as a necessary part of the grieving or healing process – some were downright sharks, feeding on misery, but removing them would not eliminate the need. The real point being made, perhaps, is how much deception is good, and how much bad.

The tv Sarah Grey is a more sympathetic character than her novel counterpart; more likeable though sharp-tongued and not necessarily impressed with Price. She’s willing to spar with him and certainly doesn’t worship him. There is a certain amount of needling him about his perceptions of a woman’s capabilities. She takes the initiative on a number of occasions; the camera doesn’t always follow her but we see the end results and they are acknowledged as her work. This is no coup de foudre but more a meeting of two people with a formidable array of skills between them. Cara Theobald positions Grey as Price’s equal throughout, in a very crisp piece of acting.

And yet, the story focuses on Harry Price, proving the point that I made yesterday; that the main reason the novel doesn’t work because it stays so firmly within Sarah Grey’s head, when she is pretty much the least interesting person in the story. Rafe Spall’s Price is rather more attractive, inevitably, than his real-life counterpart, and he did the job well enough. My problem was that he kept reminding me of someone else; it took me ages to realise he looked terribly like Samuel West, and I couldn’t help thinking that this was what Sherlock might look like if Samuel West had played Benedict Cumberbatch playing Holmes. Having said which, there is more than a hint of Elementary about the whole thing. One wonders whether the real-life Price was quite so beset with doubts as his fictional counterpart, but without that doubt there would be little in the way of a story, other than the producing of a solution

But hey, it was fun, which is more than can be said for the novel.

(And to make life even more exciting, the programme was bracketed by trails for something called Houdini and Doyle. Together they fight … I have no idea, but I think I may have to watch it.)

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