[The following contains spoilers.]
Days after pronouncing that the BBC have “lost the knack” of making ghost stories, Tychy is obliged to not necessarily retract these words, but to qualify them. Christopher Hamilton’s “The Thirteenth Tale” is adapted from a 2006 novel of the same name by Diane Setterfield, and it was broadcast last night on BBC2. It is not a ghost story, but it replicates the traditional atmosphere and setting of one with tremendous aplomb. Some may groan at the debt to those old timers Charlotte Brontë and Daphne du Maurier, which is hardly discreet, but the Gothicism is mostly decorative. “The Thirteenth Tale” is in fact a ghost story with a Humean twist and everything supernatural will be roundly and rationally explained. This sort of story is by convention comic, but “The Thirteenth Tale” reconciles its cheerful, Scooby-Doo ingenuity with some credible drama.
Margaret Lea (Olivia Colman), a professional biographer, has been summoned to the country home of the dying writer Vida Winter (Vanessa Redgrave) to hear the story of her childhood. We live in an age when the dark secrets of trusted adult authority figures seem to be regularly exposed, but in this story the adults are generally kindly and well-meaning. It is the children who turn out to be vile. We meet the twins Adeline and Emmeline March (both played by Madeleine Power) who look as unnerving and otherworldly as two tiny banshees. Between them, they have a single split-personality: one is passive whilst the other stands for the dark side. They are left largely unattended in a tumbledown country pile, but we are a world away from familiar aristocratic degeneracy. These two would scare the willies out of Sebastian and his teddy bear.
The success of “The Thirteenth Tale” is founded upon vivid performances from three actresses of different generations. Madeleine Power gives as good as she gets as the young Vanessa Redgrave. Redgrave is reliably mesmerising as the elder Vida, who croons and sneers from beneath gorgeous Pre-Raphaelite locks. Her surname “Winter” forcefully echoes that of the heroine from Du Maurier’s Rebecca; and as an aloof and reclusive bestselling author, she looks very much as one might imagine Du Maurier to have looked in person. There is initially something alien and merciless to Vida, which has conceivably arrived intact from the ancien regime. The off-key ordinariness of Colman’s character, the realistic urban note of a teacher or social worker, becomes unexpectedly mysterious once within the Gothic setting. Her character and motivations seem to be completely straightforward, and yet there is an intensity to them which remains inexplicable.
At first we are allowed to enjoy a dreamy supernaturalism, which involves frantically searching corridors or being chased helter-skelter down corridors by vague figures. The story’s solution inevitably stops the suspense with a jolt, and we are left to admire the intricacy of a plot in which every mysterious detail will fall dutifully into place. In the end it works, but for a while everything is under a lot of strain. There is also a sort of jolly joke at the back of it all. Vida is both the madwoman in the attic and the author of the tale.
We are drenched in daylight and the happy ending is positively oppressive. If this was the theatre, the audience might be quietly booing. The ghost who wanders Angelfield turns out to be a simple, happy guy, and the biographer is also human after all, in revealing a humdrum secret from her own past which apparently provides the key to her whole character. Perhaps “The Thirteenth Tale” is suddenly corny and televisual, but this was never a ghost story to begin with and the spell had to be broken.