TV Review: The Thirteenth Tale

Do you believe in ghosts”

The BBC having decided that we needed to be scared this Christmas put on this ghost story, adapted from a novel by Diane Setterfield. In many ways, The Thirteenth Tale ticks the boxes of the stereotypes of the genre – ginger people, creepy twin girls, a haunted house, a spooky housekeeper not telling the new governess everything, a disembodied girl’s voice singing nursery rhymes. But putting a twist in, it also adds Vanessa Redgrave in a ginger wig and Olivia Colman with her serious face on to make a melodramatic but somewhat unsatisfying piece of television.

Redgrave plays Vida Winter, a dying novelist whose most famous work was called Thirteen Tales despite only containing twelve, and whose biographical details have long been surrounded by obfuscation and contradictions. As the wolf comes baying at the door, as she describes her end-stage pancreatic cancer, she summons biographer Margaret Lea to her home to finally tell the truth about her life. But Vida’s choice was no accident and as Margaret peels through the impenetrable layers of the thirteenth tale, she is forced to face up to her own stories.

In terms of the telling of a deeply disturbed childhood, Christopher Hampton’s adaptation is really rather good, and the ever-shifting narrative reliability means that we are constantly on our toes as to ascertaining the veracity of what we’re being told. Redgrave’s Vida as the narrator is a canny choice indeed, her slipperiness at odds with the usual faith we have in her voice (thanks to Call the Midwife), there’s some excellent work from Madeleine Power as some seriously creepy young twin girls and it is always nice to see Tom Goodman-Hill (here as a morally weak doctor). 

But as the story swirls down to its labyrinthine final third, James Kent’s direction ends up being as clear as mud. I was paying attention (for once) and I had no idea who was who after one particular key revelation and though this interchangeability forms part of the ultimate denouement, it proved to be too baffling for my liking. And the final note of potential romantic redemption made me puke, such a predictably sappy ending and too unconnected to the main thrust of the story for it to have the emotional impact it should have done. Missable. 

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