Tales from the house of horror
No Easy Answers The real- life case remains tantalisingly unsolved, and St Johnston was keen to preserve that ambiguity in the show. To an extent. “At the start of the process I was very keen. But as it went on I thought a story demands answers at certain points, and even if they’re not final answers you've got to keep moving things forward. What we’ve ended up with I think you can interpret in different ways, so there are answers there if you want them, but I suppose the ambiguity has been deliberately preserved.”
True Detective 2 For St Johnston, having a wealth of material to draw on proved an advantage. “It felt like a huge resource because it sparked off ideas in my mind and there's plenty of material. For example, if a moment came where I thought, ‘ Something scary needs to happen now’ somewhere in my mind I would have a hundred scary things that happened at Enfield that I could choose from. It means certain choices are much easier to make and it frees up your mind to deal with some of the tougher choices.”
Girl Trouble 3 Matilda The Musical’s Eleanor Worthington- Cox plays Janet Hodgson, the apparently possessed child swept up in a media whirlwind. Finding the right person wasn’t easy. “Within a sentence she will be possessed by the spirit of a malevolent 70- something man and be a frightened girl again,” St Johnston says. “The central thing she does so brilliantly is play a sparky 11- year- old girl who, despite there being a poltergeist who is terrorising her, never loses that girlish, playful quality.”
“There’s something very dark and dangerous happening in that house”
4 “Maurice’s wife Betty was a difficult character to write because Maurice and Betty in real life had a fantastically strong marriage, which I have celebrated, but in a drama you want to make things tough for them,” St Johnston says. “At one point I'd written a row between them that ended with Betty slapping Maurice and their son, who was an advisor, said: ‘ That would never, ever have happened.’ So we took it out. But we found a good story to tell with them, to do with losing a child.” and a cast of familiar favourites including Timothy Spall, Matthew Macfadyen and Juliet Stevenson, alongside relative newcomers Eleanor Worthington- Cox and Fern Deacon, who play the Hodgson daughters. Spall stars as Maurice Grosse – the fuzzy- lipped paranormal investigator who – along with the more sceptical Guy Lyon Playfair ( Macfadyen) – observed a series of unexplained events at the house, including levitation and the voice of a deceased former resident emerging from Janet.
For St Johnston, it was important that a solid emotional core underpinned the scares, something true- life tragedy provided. “A crucial part of this story for me was the fact that this lead psychic investigator, Maurice, had lost a daughter called Janet in a motorbike accident the year before, and that Janet had lost her father in as much as he had left the family home,” St Johnston explains. “It felt like whatever the supernatural story there could also be these real- world emotions of loss and emotional need that were underpinning it all, something to set against the scary stuff.”
St Johnston was spoilt for choice when it came to documentation on the case, citing Adam Curtis’s online essay “The Ghosts In The Living Room” and Guy Lyon Playfair’s book “This House Is Haunted” as particularly valuable resources. “Guy doesn’t have the same baggage as Maurice, and has a lot more experience so is therefore, arguably, more sceptical. They make a very funny double act because Maurice is warm and empathetic and trusting and Guy, in the way I’ve written him, is a bit more academic, writerly, and doesn’t always care quite what the reaction to what he says or does is.”
Although St Johnston was too young to remember the case when it happened, the ’ 70s is not a decade he’s ever forgotten. “It was an extraordinary time. I remember what the ’ 70s was like and what an incredibly different world it was. I think that is part of people’s interest in the story, and that’s what Adam Curtis writes about so brilliantly in that online essay – the strangeness of seeing an exorcism against the background of swirly wallpaper.”
As for scares, the show won’t skimp on them but keeps largely to the facts, resisting the urge to go Full Exorcist. “There was levitating in the real case, fits, objects being thrown around, strange figures being seen in the house and a number of different voices coming out of Janet and Margaret’s mouths, so we do all that,” St Johnston says. “Lots of very disturbing and unexplainable stuff happens. Sometimes it’s to do with surprises, sometimes it’s to do with the apprehension of what’s going to happen.
“But having said all that it doesn’t feel over the top because it all relates to stuff that actually happened. And there’s so much material we weren’t able to get into three hours. In a way it’s quite pared back. There isn’t a devil and there’s no head rotating 360 degrees, but I would say it can get quite Exorcisty. There’s something very dark and dangerous and surprising happening in that house, and you never know where it’s going to manifest next.” The Enfield Haunting premieres on Sky Living in May and will be available On Demand.
Somebody’s forgotten to buy the butterscotch Angel Delight…
sci- fact! The BBC's seminal horror mockumentary Ghostwatch was based on the Enfield
He was very close to figuring out all the lyrics to the latest chart hit.
And there was no phone hacking involved, okay?