Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Harry Price: Ghost Hunter

Spoilers ahead!

The ITV production Harry Price: Ghost Hunter, screened on 27 December, turned out to be about as good as I thought it would from the pre-publicity: the acting was generally fine and the locations and costumes were nice.  The weaknesses were in the concept and the script.  The continuity announcer seemed a little excessive when he proclaimed theatrically that it concerned the man who ‘went by the name of Harry Price, Ghost Hunter’, but he set the tone for what followed.  Initially shown conducting a fake séance, Harry mends his ways when a troubled young soldier commits suicide in front of him on his doorstep.   He is later asked to look into a disturbing case: Grace, the wife of up and coming Liberal MP Edward Goodwin, had been found wandering naked in public and is complaining of experiencing delusions, including that of a ghostly boy, in their sprawling home.  If Harry cannot find a plausible explanation for the incidents Grace may be committed to an institution at the insistence of Edward’s party in order to save his political reputation.  The Goodwin family maid Sarah is seconded to assist Harry, much to her displeasure.

The story is probably set in 1920, as near the beginning Harry walks past pedestrians wearing surgical masks, a scene probably designed to evoke the post-war flu pandemic which had finished by the end of 1920.  There is a reference to the Unemployment Insurance Act, which came into existence in the same year.  It is certainly no later than 1922 because the coalition government is mentioned, and Lloyd George’s peacetime coalition was in power until October of that year.  Home Rule for Ireland is referred to, which would make it earlier than the establishment of the Irish Free State, also in 1922.  Harry breaks into a bogus demonstration of mediumship and gives a cold reading to a bereaved mother during which he says she lost her son, presumably in the war, a year or two before.  So far so authentic, though one would expect to see more disabled and destitute war veterans on the streets so soon after the end of hostilities.

The psychical research aspect is sympathetically treated.  The real Price certainly enjoyed his gadgets, and Harry employs a battery of these around Edward’s house.  There are moments which bring to mind cases, notably the writing on the floor which links to the Borley wall writing.  Instances of internal bells sounding when there is nobody to ring them are known in the literature, for example the 1887 Dixon case, reported in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research.*  One wonders exactly how using Graphophones would help when there was no automatic method of starting them (notwithstanding which Sarah hears Grace speak on one when she plays it back), and Harry’s explanation to Edward of how he uses his kit seems more appropriate to the modern ghost-hunting period.  Harry forgets to black out the windows when making photographic prints, though he still gets excellent results.

Despite the efforts to provide historical context and authenticity, the whole thing feels routine.  For a start the clichéd unscrupulous (but with a soft heart really) journalist-on-the-lookout-for-a-scoop depiction of Vernon Wall, in reality the Daily Mirror reporter whose articles did much to publicise the Borley Rectory case, seems to be modelled on Ripper Street’s one-eared hack Fred Best.  Sarah takes a standard journey from hostile opposition to what she sees as Harry’s charlatanism, rooted in her mother’s financially disastrous obsession with Spiritualism, to liking him, with the hint of a budding attraction between them by the end.  The bond is cemented when Harry, in a means justifying the ends ploy, feeds her mother a ‘message’ from her dead father to allow her mother to move on.  This is one piece of fraud of which Sarah approves.  To prevent the audience regarding her as an appendage to Harry we learn that she drove an ambulance during the war so is an independently-minded woman fallen on difficult times.  Fortunately for the plot Harry’s wife Cora is dead, having expired in an asylum, a fate that simultaneously renders him sensitive to Grace’s plight, makes the audience sympathetic towards him because of his guilt, indicates his sincerity in what he is now doing, and leaves open the possibility of romance with Sarah.  In reality Price’s wife Constance (Connie) outlived her husband but it wouldn’t have been dramatically advantageous for the fictional Harry to have a wife. 

Edward’s home looks too grand to have been a workhouse, and the photograph of its inmates we see shows only children, suggesting that it was actually an orphanage.  Calling it that though would have been an unwelcome reminder of the 2007 Spanish film The Orphanage with its own complement of ghost children. There is the hint that, despite the suggestion Grace could have heard about the death of a little boy during the workhouse years and hallucinated him in her drugged state, the boy’s ghost she sees is real because Sarah sees him as well, but then Sarah could be suffering a concussion, having banged her head after Edward’s assault.  The door to the unknown is ajar even when the mystery has apparently been wrapped up and a non-paranormal explanation accepted.

There were humorous touches, such as the sinister Liberal party fixer Sir Charles informing Harry that he had been chosen for his ‘particular set of skills’, surely a nod to Taken, though Rafe Spall is a long way from being an action hero.  At a political meeting Edward informs his audience ‘we are all in this together’, as bogus a sentiment then as it is when the Tories use the phrase today.  These moments are quietly done and do not intrude self-consciously on the drama.

What does intrude is that enormous liberties have been taken with the historical Harry Price (who would probably have loved the programme, though his wife might not have been as happy).  For the historian the problem is that public understanding is filtered through media representations.  Does this much matter as it is only entertainment?  After all, naturally Harry here is a non-smoker, in fact nobody smokes; any non-smoking depiction of the period shown on television has to be phoney but we accept this manipulation and it doesn’t dent our enjoyment when we are aware of such anachronisms.  Unfortunately, as much as one would like to think of history as a self-correcting process, there is a real possibility that those who see this will go away with the misapprehension that Price really did make a living as a fake medium until a young solder shot himself on the doorstep, thereby starting Harry’s career as a debunker, and that he really did entrust his chemical analysis to the fake-voodoo practising Albert.

The credits indicate that the programme is based on Neil Spring’s book, and Spring himself claimed in his promotional activities that ‘Tonight a long awaited dream comes true. At 9pm, ITV will air Harry Price: Ghost Hunter, the chilling adaptation of my début novel, The Ghost Hunters.…  As an author, having your work adapted for the screen is an honour, but especially so when it is done to such a high standard as this.’  That’s almost a trading standards issue because apart from sharing some characters (Harry, Sarah and Vernon) it bears no relationship to the book’s plot.  In fact, what all this has to do with Spring is a puzzle.  The script wasn’t written by him but by Jack Lothian, so all Spring has contributed to the ‘adaptation’ is the fictional character Harry Price as a peg, doing things the historical Price never did, and a couple of other characters, one real (Vernon) and one fictional (Sarah), both changed from the novel.  Fortunately for him, Spring is off the hook and Lothian has to take responsibility for the script’s weaknesses.  For me, the worst thing about the programme is that I correctly predicted the identity of the villain before even seeing it, partly because the teaser synopses released by ITV put me in mind of Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight.  I had been half-joking but was confident I was right when Edward gratuitously comments that his father had been a chemist and he had studied it himself.

The key weakness is that the producers want it both ways.  They are trading on the Harry Price connection, which is guaranteed to provide a ready-made audience of Price fans, of which there are a great number even if many do not really know much about the historical character and are now misinformed.  Yet as I have pointed out previously, for all this has to do with the real Price it might as readily have been called Fred Bloggs: Ghost Hunter.  That would have been more honest but offered the ITV publicity department less to work with.  I expect the series the one-off was set up to be the pilot for will be commissioned, but the scriptwriters will have to improve considerably on this effort to bring the plots up to match the rest of the production values.

* See my article. ‘Mr Dixon and the Mysterious Bell Ringing Case of 1887’, The Paranormal Review, Issue 54, April 2010, pp.23-26.