Harry Price: Ghost Hunter is a frighteningly good festive treat

Preview: Rafe Spall and Cara Theobold shine in a spooky drama that delights in subverting the usual ghost story clichés

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From Charles Dickens to MR James, audiences have been enjoying festive fireside frights for many a Christmas past. TV adaptations of James’s stories were a seasonal staple throughout the 70s, and have been revived sporadically since, but this year it’s the turn of Harry Price: Ghost Hunter to set nerves jangling as loud as Santa’s sleighbells.

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Loosely adapted from Neil Spring’s novel The Ghost Hunters, ITV’s gripping two-hour drama takes a real historical figure – a ‘psychical researcher’ whose investigations into alleged paranormal activity at Borley Rectory in Essex became a cause célèbre in the 1930s – and drops him into a fictional tale that’s part ghost story, part psychodrama, part political thriller.

Edward Goodwin (Tom Ward) is a rising Parliamentary star who’s being groomed as the next leader of the Liberal Party. But when his wife Grace (Zoe Boyle) is found wandering naked and delirious in Covent Garden, having apparently been driven out of their new home by malevolent spirits, the party machine turns to infamous ghost-hunter Harry Price (Rafe Spall) in a bid to avert a political scandal.

Price himself is a reformed ‘psychic’ charlatan who has renounced such trickery in favour of debunking ghosts and spiritualists wherever he finds them. And he has an extra motive for taking on the Goodwin case: haunted by his own private grief, he’s determined to find a rational explanation that will keep poor Grace from being committed to the asylum. He also gets an assistant, of sorts, in the form of Cara Theobold – Downton’s Violet going back into service as Sarah Grey, a housemaid who’s considerably sharper than the masters she’s employed to serve.

Spring has said he was drawn to Harry Price as the hero of his book because he “oscillated between scepticism and belief” – and that’s the brilliant sleight of hand at the heart of the film: it constantly shifts the balance between the rational and the supernatural, revealing the clanking levers behind one apparition, only to throw up something apparently inexplicable the next, so that you’re never quite sure which way it’s heading.

Along the way, it delivers real, heart-stopping scares, including a terrifying game of hide-and-seek and a brilliantly clever, genuinely spine-chilling twist on the old ‘bedsheet ghost’ cliché. But whereas so many ghost stories are basically just cheap lantern tricks, this one has a proper human drama – and a weighty moral dilemma – at its heart to give it real… well, substance.

Spall is terrific as Price, channeling – it has to be said – much of the same crumpled charisma that his father brought to another real-life paranormal investigator in Sky’s recent The Enfield Haunting, while Theobald makes for a feisty, no-nonsense Scully to his (albeit less credulous) Mulder. There’s also excellent support from Boyle and Ward, plus Lewis Reeves as a spivvy news reporter and Albert Ogoro as Harry’s former partner in crime (look out for a great gag that wittily subverts Live and Let Die-style voodoo stereotypes).

Deftly written by Jack Lothian and handsomely directed by Alex Pillai, Harry Price: Ghost Hunter may well prove to be the most satisfying gift under ITV’s tree this Christmas. Any chance of a series?

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Harry Price: Ghost Hunter is on Sunday, December 27th at 9pm on ITV