Christmas is a time of traditions: The Queen’s Speech, Christmas Dinner, presents and time spent with family or watching the TV.
Among the many seasonal programmes – tucked between the Dickens, the comedy specials and the family films – there is always something more supernatural to spice up the holiday viewing.
This year ITV has stepped up to the plate with Harry Price: Ghost Hunter, a two-hour one-off (with all the look of a pilot for a full series) set in 1920s England, and told some of the story of Harry Price, conman turned psychic investigator as played by Rafe Spall in Ashes to Ashes writer Jack Lothian’s period drama, adapted from Neil Spring’s book.
The first half of the story gave us a setting, with few obvious 1920s trappings. We have a rising star MP Edward Goodwin (Tom Ward, Silent Witness) whose wife Grace (Zoe Boyle, Downton Abbey) seems to be going mad, under delusions of the ghost of a young boy.
Enter Rafe Spall as Harry Price, poacher turned gamekeeper using science to investigate the strange. Price was passive for the first hour, driven by events, and it took his growing relationship with the maid Sarah Grey (excellently played by Cara Theobold).
Sarah started off driving Harry around, then helped him investigate the history of the Goodwin’s house – a former workhouse. As Harry took control we saw him lose his temper at a séance and this began the reveal of some of his own back-story, and a wife condemned to the asylum by her family against his wishes.
Price was aided by the rather under-used Albert Ogoro (Richie Campbell, Frankenstein Chronicles) and the story seemed to be converging on the nature of ghosts – subject to rational explanation or something supernatural. This was epitomised in a conversation between Price and Goodwin:
Price: ‘I don’t believe in ghosts, Mr Goodwin.’
Goodwin: ‘Neither do I… Have you considered the possibility you might be wrong and something evil is in the house?’
In the end the resolution was more prosaic; Grace was being drugged by her ex-chemist husband in retaliation for her infidelity. The poison was driving her mad and the ghost seemed to be no more than a dream, yet one almost grounded in facts, and one Sarah Grey herself glimpsed after a blow to the head.
The story-telling had led the viewer well away from the husband being guilty, and he supported his wife against the wishes of his own party, doing a convincing job of being innocent. This would have left no other party able to be guilty so in the end the plot tidied up with few surprises.
Where it shone was in Sarah Grey – she acted as a representative of emerging modern woman, and her connection to Price energised them both. The final scene showed every sign of more stories following, and while this particular story fell short in a few places, the central spine is strong and Spall is excellent as Price, making Sarah and Harry a wonderful pairing.
As supernatural stories for Christmas go, Ghost Hunter may ultimately have its feet fixed firmly on the ground of science, but there were enough elements to leave viewers uncertain much of the time.
Aired at 9pm on Sunday 27 December 2015 on ITV.
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