The Poison Tree: Review
Monday December 10, ITV, 9pm
It’s a British tradition that, when the weather is at its coldest, we gather around the fire and tell scary stories. A Christmas Carol, M. R. James, not to mention the BBC’s long-running A Ghost Story for Christmas strand. Yuletide’s spooky light may have become overshadowed by Halloween, but the tradition has seen a resurgence in the last few years: Crooked House, The Turn of the Screw and now The Poison Tree.
It’s an adaptation of Erin Kelly’s 2010 novel. Such stories seem always to be adaptations or to deliberately ape the style through genre-literate references. As this first episode opens we’ve got mothers and fathers, a rewound soundtrack and sinister talk of “the house”. There’s nothing new going on here, but we’re on home turf.
The bleak mud flats of the present day scenes call back to the BBC’s 1968 chiller Whistle and I’ll Come to You: one of the scariest TV programmes ever broadcast and a good place to start taking your cues. Biba, the sister seen only in flashbacks, dresses like a drowned bride in an early scene. Her ghostly pallor, recognisably Gothic dress and manic disposition make her the nucleus of the programme’s tragic tone.
As Karen chases Biba through the woods, there’s the hint of a sapphic romance between the pair. The sense of betrayal Biba feels when she learns Karen is sleeping with her brother, Rex, has this additional, implied dimension. The first few flashbacks evoke Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market: full of forbidden fruit, implications of lady-love and the dangers of temptation.
Across the episode, this segues into the mundanity of the present day. The double murder that concludes the episode is the fulcrum breaking under the strain of the two conflicting sensibilities. Let’s hope we’ve not seen the end of this magical past: the scenes set in the present are a bit… ITV. Dialogue like “I swear, you cross me on this and you lose us both” isn’t as intoxicating and neutralises the taste of everything in between.
The beauty is in the flashbacks alone, where the supernatural is evoked but never invoked. Ambiguity is part of the tradition. We create ghosts for ourselves: places are haunted by our memories. Think of all those Jonathan Creek Christmas specials. This sort of thing’s often packaged as ‘psychological suspense’ by television execs who are scared of the label ‘horror’. October is excess, gore and grue: December is cold, crisp and haunting.