Suranne Jones: Investigating Witch Trials, ep1 review: an intriguing mix of walnut bashing and wolf howling

Suranne Jones in Pendle, Lancashire
Suranne Jones's quest takes her to Pendle, Lancashire - Channel 4

Whatever you expected from a documentary called Suranne Jones: Investigating Witch Trials (Channel 4), it probably wasn’t Jones and singer Bat for Lashes communicating with one another in wolf howls. But this two-part series is part-history, part-Jones getting in touch with the witchiness inside every woman.

Howling is one way to do it - Bat for Lashes, aka Natasha Khan, says: “I think we’re all witches. A witch is just a woman who is in tune with mystical forces and the unconscious power of the cycles of life.” Right you are. Over in east London, a woman known as The Witch of Hackney Wick roped Jones into her spell “to break the cycle of persecution of women past and present”. For reasons I didn’t quite catch, this involved bashing up walnuts with a hammer.

Jones has always been intrigued by the idea of witches because she grew up near Pendle in Lancashire, site of notorious witch trials in 1612. The actress explored the history of what happened in Pendle before travelling to Germany, where close to 20,000 women were executed for witchcraft, during this time. In the second episode she visits Salem, Massachusetts, to hear about the witch trials which Arthur Miller used as an allegory for McCarthyism in The Crucible hundreds of years later.

An array of experts provided insight into the historical background. In 1487, German Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer produced the Malleus Maleficarum, a handy guide to identifying, torturing and killing your local witch. The arrival of the printing press allowed his words to be disseminated far and wide. James I of England was “obsessed” with the idea of witchcraft, and prosecuting witches was seen as a way of currying the king’s favour.

Spikes in witch hunting also coincided with periods of bad weather which affected crops, leaving the population hungry and desperate - conditions which, according to the academics, make people more susceptible to conspiracy theories because they are looking for someone or something to blame for their misery.

Suranne Jones
Jones was an engaging guide, uncovering dark stories and unimaginable history - Channel 4

The awfulness of the accused women’s predicament (it was also noted that some of the executed ‘witches’ were men, but the majority were women) was well-conveyed, along with the absurd catch-22s: having witnesses to say you could not have harmed someone because you were asleep in your bed at the time only compounded the prosecution evidence, because it meant that you had the magical power to be in two places at once.

Jones made the point that ‘witch’ is a derogatory term while ‘wizard’ is not, when their supposed powers are similar. The narrative then ran away with her as the programme attempted to link the lingering taint of witchcraft accusations to Hilary Clinton and QAnon, influencer Andrew Tate and the overturning of Roe vs Wade. But Jones was always engaging, and it was nice to see a celebrity with a genuine passion for the subject rather than someone going through the motions.