Doctor Who The Witchfinders review: Siobhan Finneran and Alan Cumming shine – but this Jacobean witch-hunt lacks the magic ingredient

Prepared to be "Shivved" by Finneran's Savage, but are Cumming's King and the latest monsters a bit eggy?

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 20/11/2018 - Programme Name: Doctor Who Series 11 - TX: 25/11/2018 - Episode: n/a (No. 8) - Picture Shows: PRE-TX
**Strictly embargoed until 20/11/18 00:00:01** Becka (SIOBHAN FINNERAN) - (C) BBC / BBC Studios - Photographer: Sophie Mutevelian

★★ It’s a ripe and tasty script from newcomer Joy Wilkinson, who clearly has a sense of history, a grip on detail and how to pepper it throughout a Doctor Who episode. She establishes colourful characters – from the wicked lady Becka Savage to the troubled King James – and invests scenes with psychological heft. Her monstrous mud zombies are a spooky invention and the sci-fi spin on the benighted Pendle Hill isn’t a bad one. This all looks good on paper.

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Unfortunately, the execution on screen falls somewhat flat. Despite a grim location, the lowering skies and seeping mist, the dreich weather that beset filming, this production fails to muster much dramatic “atmosphere” or authenticity. I can’t really see past a clutch of actors gamely trudging about in mire and freezing cold. The mud-crones especially look like a ragbag of exhausted extras called to lurch hither and thither. By contrast, Mistress Savage’s baronial hall looks English Heritage pristine, unlived in, with no hint of Jacobean grime.

The director Sallie Aprahamian (who also helmed Arachnids in the UK) livens things up with overhead sweeps, lots of low-angle close-ups, especially favouring the king, but there’s still no disguising so much standing-around-talking, a dearth of action and tension.

Siobhan Finneran is a formidable actress forged from northern steel, so it’s no surprise to see her minting another tough nut in this northerly imprint of Doctor Who. I’ve been tickled by her froideur in everything from Rita, Sue and Bob Too (the 1986 movie) to Downton Abbey. She can do no wrong in my eyes. Five years ago, on the set of Benidorm, she was friendly and invited those present to call her “Shiv” but when I dared ask about her abrupt departure from Downton, she looked daggers at me. I’d been Shivved.

She’s magnificently shiversome as Becka Savage, the widowed landowner of Bilehurst Cragg. An appalling harridan obsessed with purging Satan from her village, Becka holds weekly “celebrations” to eradicate any locals who’ve crossed her or could even tenuously be construed as witches. “My conscience is clean,” she asserts. As ever, though, the bully has the most to hide, and soon muddy goo is seeping from her tear ducts.

Mistress Savage starts to lose her hold on me once her secrets are exposed. A gritty northerner she may be, but it’s unlikely that her ladyship would have climbed Pendle Hill to chop down that tree by herself. She’d have minions for such menial tasks. And once she transforms into the Morax lady monster… Well, it’s a decent make-up job, unpleasant bordering on ridiculous, and far too similar to the wooden Eliza in last year’s Knock Knock. And what a yawn when she starts bawling out her threats and backstory in one of those standard sci-fi synth-blares.

I also have a few problems with King James. The informed viewer may already be aware of his zeal for witch-hunting and that he’d published his treatise, Daemonologie, but would the monarch really be stalking the land without a horse and with just one “protector” by his side? “I have to travel incognito and also I rather like the drama,” James offers, by way of explanation as he whips off his mask. And would Becka Savage, or most loyal subjects across the kingdom, instantly recognise the sovereign and accept this stranger’s credentials?

Alan Cumming is undoubtedly a star turn. He’s Giving A Performance – one that’s peculiarly pitched somewhere between Blackadder and scotch egg. He plumps for a “posh anglicised Scot” brogue – but then who knows how James actually spoke? Cumming’s shtick takes me right out of the drama, but I’ve a suspicion I would relish his interpretation more, should I ever visit this episode again.

King James I of England and Ireland (James VI of Scotland) has rarely been explored as a central character on TV or film; he’s usually peripheral in dramas about his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, his son, Charles I, or his would-be assassin, Guy Fawkes. But James is a fascinating figure, and his complexity is well drawn here by Joy Wilkinson. I enjoyed his heart-to-heart in the woods with Ryan; he doesn’t belittle Ryan’s recent bereavements but can only trump them with “My father was murdered by my mother, who was then imprisoned and beheaded”.

Wilkinson toys with James’s sadistic streak, doesn’t undersell his faith in God and obsession with Satan, or dodge his sexuality. Of course, the king takes a shine to Ryan. “What is your field of expertise, my Nubian prince? Torture?” he fantasises. His final royal command is for Ryan to join him in London as his new “protector”. It’s lovely that Ryan isn’t horrified but deflects His Majesty’s ardour with gentle humour.

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Strangely, the time travellers gravitate towards Becka and James – almost relishing the company of these bloodthirsty murderers because they’re the most charismatic people in the vicinity. The dynamic shifts as trust is won and lost, but the Doctor especially keeps trying to draw the king out. “You can’t go hurting people just because you’re scared to face up to the darkness inside you,” she says. “You have to be better than that.” He listens to her counsel, blocks it and decides to duck her in the pond anyway.

If the filming was miserable for cast and crew, it looks to have been doubly dismal for Jodie Whittaker. It must be a stuntwoman not the star who dives into the pond to help Old Mother Twiston and, later, is submerged in the Doctor’s witch-trial, but Whittaker spends a lot of the episode sopping wet. Good on her. She’s heroic. Of course, this female Doctor was always going to be tried as a witch. Inevitably, she escapes her chains blithering about Houdini (really, again Doctor?) and is excruciatingly annoying when she flops up the bank like a waterlogged mallard, squawking, “Hi team! Gang! Fam!?” Duck her again, I say.

I had high hopes for a story written and directed by women, with a female lead, a fabulous actress as chief villain and an award-winning star who happens to be gay as a monarch mooted to be gay, but as a production The Witchfinders doesn’t coalesce into an intoxicating potion. Some vital magic ingredients – and I can’t quite put my finger on what – were not sprinkled into the cauldron.


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This article was originally published on 25 November 2018