Interview: Timothy Spall, ‘I turned it down at first, because it frightened me'
Veteran actor talks about new haunted house drama The Enfield Haunting
In 1977 a family was terrorised by poltergeist in a non-descript council house. It was one of the most documented hauntings ever studied in the UK. That these shocking events happened in the middle of suburbia just made them even more terrifying. Now this 'true' story, as recorded in Guy Lyon Playfair’s book This House is Haunted, is being adapted for television as The Enfield Haunting.
Matthew McFadyen and Timothy Spall play two paranormal investigators who set out to uncover the truth behind the chilling supernatural activity in this new three part drama directed by Kristoffer Nyholm (The Killing). Spall tells us more.
What was it about The Enfield Haunting that grabbed your attention?
When I first read the script, I actually turned it down because it frightened me.
In what sense?
It was just so convincing. What makes it terrifying is the fact it is so normal. The world it’s set in is not a Gothic castle or an 11th century cathedral, but a slightly run-down council house in Enfield that’s home to an ordinary family. They’re not Satanists or anything. When scary things happen in normal environments, it amplifies the terror. If our horror is served up in a Gothic bowl, it separates us from it. A suburban home, though, makes it seem possible.
So what made you change your mind?
I read it again and I realised it wasn’t a negative story. In fact, it’s very positive. One of the reasons it frightened me was because it was so good and believable, but then I read it from the point of view of the relationships, of what caused these things, of what made it frightening, of what frightened me. I understood it more. It deals in mysteries, things that people don’t know about themselves that suddenly manifest. It’s beautifully written, too. Clever and sophisticated without wearing those qualities on its sleeves, which to me is the best kind of writing. It’s a nuanced drama that happens to have a poltergeist in it, not a straight-up horror.
I wouldn’t have done it if it was. It’s about relationships and unusual connections, tragedy and anger, unresolved problems that surface and come together.
How much did you know about the Hodgson case before you signed on?
Not a lot. Interestingly, though, I grew up on a street in south west London, in Battersea, and it turns out a woman who lived four houses down from me has since written a book about having a poltergeist. I spoke to my mum about it and she said, "oh, yes, I vaguely remember whatshername having a poltergeist." We didn’t make much of it.
Would you class yourself as a ‘believer’?
I don’t know. A question mark hangs over the show, which makes it more interesting. I’ve never seen a poltergeist, but I do believe there is more than what we see, that there is more than just this. I believe that a world that doesn’t have some kind of magic in it wouldn’t be worth living in.
What can you tell us about your character, Maurice?
He is a man from another age, one of the last Edwardian characters. He went through the War and has old-fashioned standards, but, being an inventor – he invented the revolving bus stop advert – he is also very forward-thinking. It’s a lovely mixture. He has a wonderful open mind, a great warmth and is a man of natural kindness. His life, though, is coloured and scarred by a terrible loss. It’s hurting him, it’s hurting his wife [Juliet Stevenson] and it’s hurting their relationship, but he’s putting a brave face on it.
The Enfield Haunting premieres on Sky Living, Sun 3 May. Read our review of The Enfield Haunting.