THE BATTERSEA POLTERGEIST Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Matthew Kresal re-investigates a paranormal cold case.
There always seems to have been an interest in things that go bump in the night. Especially ones which have an air of authenticity to them, having occurred apparently to someone not unlike ourselves, otherwise perfectly normal until the extraordinary came to knock. In 1956, such an event took place at the otherwise unassuming 63 Wycliffe Road, home to the Hitchens family in the south London borough of Battersea. Earlier this year, more than a half-century after it became a media sensation, BBC Radio 4 re-opened the case with their podcast The Battersea Poltergeist, with its compelling mix of docudrama.

In some ways, the episodes and case updates of The Battersea Poltergeist combine two quite different approaches in exploring this incredible tale of a ghostly haunting. The first is the documentary side of things, follows Danny Robins, armed with the notes taken by the taxman by day/ghost hunter by night Harold Chibbett, as things unfolded, pursues the case in the present day. Along the way, Robins consults with the podcast equivalent of a Mulder-Scully team in the form of ardent skeptic Ciarán O’Keeffe and paranormal researcher Evelyn Hollow. Each offers examples from the past and context to the ghostly phenomenon experienced by the Hitchens family back in the 1950s, trying to make sense of the seemingly inexplicable. Robins also does some hands-on work along the way, including speaking to experiencers of other haunting events such as the 1970s Enfield poltergeist and being brought a virtual reality experience by O’Keeffe to demonstrate how fear can warp our perceptions. Robins becomes the way into the case for the listener, learning as he does about what happened then, what might have been behind it, experiencing all of the doubt and wonder that come along the way.

The second approach is the drama side of this docudrama. Playing out as a mix of detective story and supernatural haunting, the dramatic sections of the podcast are every bit as compelling as the documentary sections. Something unsurprising given the strength of its cast, led by the pairing of Dafne Keen as Shirley, the teenager at the heart of the poltergeist activity, and Toby Jones as taxman turned ghost hunter Harold Chibbett, who comes to be known as Chibs by Shirley and the Hitchens family. Keen is perfectly cast as the teenager both intrigued and repulsed by the events that she is at the heart of, while Jones brings a mild-mannered dignity and determination to Chibs. The remaining cast includes a host of names that fans of the Big Finish audio dramas and genre television reviewed elsewhere on this site will recognize. They include Burn Gorman as Wally Hitchens, Alice Lowe as mum Kitty, Sorcha Cusack as grandmother Ethel, Miranda Raison and Dan Starkey as journalists and David Troughton as a would-be exorcist. The cast is a strong one, superbly bringing the drama strand of the story to life, complemented by the sound design of Richard Fox and the music of Evelyn Sykes.

Then lying somewhere between these two strands, incredibly enough, is the real-life Shirley. Now in her elderly years, Robins speaks with Shirley throughout the series, allowing her to become a character in her own right at times. In doing so, the line between interviewer and storyteller, documentary and drama, and (to quote a later episode title) doubt and wonder often blur when Shirley appears. How much of what she tells us, and was reported at the time, actually happened? How do we, as the skeptical Ciarán O’Keeffe often tries to do, explain what happened not just to Shirley but others at 63 Wycliffe Road during the haunting? Answering that is a dilemma that Robins and listeners grapple with throughout, with the real-life Shirley offering pieces of the puzzle, along with wit and stories along the way.

For whatever you may think, skeptical or believer, being full of doubt or wonder, The Battersea Poltergiest has plenty of chills and haunting questions to offer.

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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