Ghost stories are a genre well suited to the audio format: they are, after all, about things going bump in the night. Fear is often generated more by what we imagine, how we fill in the blanks, more so than what we see with our own eyes. As such, BBC Radio’s The Battersea Poltergeist is a good fit for radio – and podcast, which is the format in which I listened to the series. Who wouldn’t want to hear all about ghostly goings-on while preparing dinner?
I used to love all things supernatural as a kid. I’d watch and read anything if it promised me unexplained phenomena. It’s not so much that I believed there were ghosts, sasquatches or UFOs – but I wanted to live in a world where they might exist. It’s what made me the perfect audience for those cheesy Arthur C. Clarke TV shows and for The X Files. So, when I started listening to The Battersea Poltergeist, my first sensation wasn’t one of unease or fear: it was familiarity. The show may have been structured and written to fit in with the still-popular trend of the true-crime genre (even referring to the story at its centre as a supernatural cold case), but it essentially tells a poltergeist tale that ticks all the poltergeist boxes. Adolescent girl, unexplained noises, floating objects, ghostly writing on the wall – you know the spooky drill.
I wonder what the series was like for someone who didn’t devour such stories, as for them it may have seemed novel. It’s not even that I minded the sense of familiarity I got from The Battersea Poltergeist, but it meant that for me there simply wasn’t enough of a story there to warrant eight episodes, plus various supplementary episodes. This supposedly true ghost story – though the show is always careful not to take one side or another with respect to its veracity – is stretched to an extent where it becomes plodding and repetitive, the familiarity turning into samey blandness at times. There are only so many ways you can vary re-enactments of scenes of domestic hauntings, it would seem, in particular if the characters, while well-acted (by the likes of Toby Jones, Daphne Keen and Burn Gorman), never evolve beyond the generic tropes they are.
What holds back The Battersea Poltergeist the most from being more than a slightly spooky yet essentially comfy slice of ghost story is the extent to which it tries to ape true crime formats – and how this conceit makes the show feel more constructed and less truthful in the end. Each episode is MCed by journalist Danny Robins, who tells the story of a haunted suburban family in 1950s London in parallel to his own investigation into this supposed ‘cold case’. Each episode progresses these two strands, the uncanny events at 63 Wycliffe Road and Robins’ investigation – but the latter is never really believable as an investigation conducted by Robins from one week to the next. Each time he tells us that since the previous episode he has found this piece of evidence or tracked down that testimony from a neighbour of the Hitchings family, it rings less true – because certainly the show would never have been produced, or been written as it was, if they hadn’t had the overall outline of the story to begin with. The week-by-week nature of the investigation is a conceit that becomes increasingly creaky as the show progresses.
By trying to fit the findings of his research into the same linear narrative of the re-enactments while keeping up the pretense that this is an actual representation of the investigation and its findings, Robins unwittingly highlights the constructed nature of the story, underlining the artifice in ways that counteract the attempt to mirror the true-crime format. The longer The Battersea Poltergeist goes on, the less true its framing narrative feels, as he springs findings on us as if they had only just materialised. Let’s put it like this: if BBC Radio truly commissioned this piece before Robins had collected his material and done the majority of his research, if they just let him come up with it as he went along based on whatever he read or whoever he talked to that week, I would start grumbling about the use of my licence fee.
The series does try at times to make the investigation into it more lively and engaging, but for me many of these fell flat, because they are rarely done with much conviction, feeling instead like the padding necessary to justify the episode count. We’re supposed to feel like we’re learning things alongside Robins, but this isn’t done convincingly enough to feel anything other than faintly patronising. Robins regularly talks to two other contributors, a sceptic/believer pair: a parapsychologist and true believer, and a psychology professor who has done research on fear and its effects on the mind. In theory, this addition was a good idea, as they could have provided context, additional information from their different perspectives, and a genuine debate about the nature of the events sixty years ago. Unfortunately, The Battersea Poltergeist does so quite rarely in its eight episodes, and not to particularly good effect. We get a visit to another haunted house with a bunch of paranormal investigators and a VR experiment conducted on Robins, but they are stretched out too much without providing a lot of additional information and thus remain quite shallow. More often, we just get Robins asking each of the two for their opinions on what has just happened in the re-enactments, and we get variations of the same statements the two have made before: the professor argues that everything can be explained rationally, the parapsychologist states the opposite. Blimey – who would have thought that two (supposed) experts whose perspectives are this different would come to those conclusions?
What The Battersea Poltergeist does have to offer is Shirley Hitchings, the girl at the centre of the case, now an 80-year-old woman. There is an interesting contradiction to her: the story she was a part of is frightening (if you buy into it or are at least swept up by it for the moment), but the way this old, lively woman talks about it doesn’t sound all that different from any conversation you might have with her over a hot cuppa. Shirley comes across as utterly normal, and the interviews with her have a domestic feel to them – even when she talks about ominous supernatural events that become physically threatening to her and her family. The conversational, cosy tone makes her come across as more genuine and less constructed than Robins’ narration of his investigation. She doesn’t necessarily make the series any scarier, but she grounds it by making the girl in the re-enactment a real human being.
The Battersea Poltergeist is enjoyable as a ghost story with a touch of “it really happened – or did it?”, but it could have been much better. It could have been either more ambitious, and more truthful, in how it uses its various ingredients – the conversations with the sceptic and the believer in the supernatural, the detours into similar cases and alternative explanations of the phenomenons – or it could have delivered its story in a more concentrated, more effective way. As it stands, the series is an example of the ghost story as somewhat pandering comfort food. Perhaps that’s what we need during a pandemic, rather than a truly frightening poltergeist tale, but if you promise “a paranormal cold case, re-investigated through a thrilling blend of drama and documentary”, as the BBC Radio website does, I think the audience is entitled to something that is chilling rather than cosy.