'The Witchfinder' review: Alan Partridge writers fall flat with off-kilter period piece

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WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 01/03/2022 - Programme Name: The Witchfinder - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows:  Gideon Bannister (TIM KEY), Thomasine Gooch (DAISY MAY COOPER) - (C) Baby Cow Productions - Photographer: Gary Moyes
The Witchfinder: Tim Key as Gideon Bannister and Daisy May Cooper as Thomasine Gooch (BBC/Baby Cow Productions/Gary Moyes)

1968's The Witchfinder General is an iconic slice of Vincent Price which saw him burning women for witchcraft in the fifteenth century. Forever associated with the rise of British horror films in the sixties and seventies, this coldly clinical addition to the Hammer Horror sub-genre, should also act as a point of reference for those people choosing to tune in to The Witchfinder on BBC Two.

Penned by Neil and Rob Gibbons, who are best known for working on all things Alan Partridge, and produced by Steve Coogan's Baby Cow, this might feel like an odd fit at first glance.

Headlined by Coogan cohort Tim Key as Gideon Bannister, The Witchfinder embraces absurd supernatural obsessions prevalent during this period, then drops a kind hearted yet mildly pompous civil servant into the story. An approach which in the opening episodes at least, makes for an odd combination.

Programme Name: The Witchfinder - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 3) - Picture Shows:  Gideon Bannister (TIM KEY) - (C) Baby Cow Productions - Photographer: Jack Barnes
Tim Key in The Witchfinder (BBC/Baby Cow Productions/Jack Barnes)

By transplanting contemporary society into a fifteenth century setting, these writers are drawing humour and creating comedy from an inherent culture clash. With Tim Key in the title role, they are also trading on his past with Partridge, which goes some way to defining Gideon for them. Perpetually affable, undeniably out of his depth and yet oddly disarmingly in full Witchfinder regalia, this creation will take time to win people over.

However, all the pitch perfect period production design in the world means nothing without a good story. Over the course of three episodes, this would-be dramedy works hard to establish time and place alongside characters with an off-kilter self-awareness.

Read more: The Witchfinder stars worried about 'being cancelled'

On supporting duties is Spaced co-creator Jessica Hynes playing savvy female sidekick Myers, who spends much of her time being more resourceful than any man in the room. Similarly, Daisy May Cooper comes out on top as Thomasin Gooch, being both savagely sarcastic and bone dry in her derision of this Witchfinder in training.

Programme Name: The Witchfinder - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 2) - Picture Shows: (L-R) Thomasine Gooch (DAISY MAY COOPER), Myers (JESSICA HYNES), Gideon Bannister (TIM KEY) - (C) Baby Cow Productions - Photographer: Steve Peskett
Daisy May Cooper, Jessica Hynes and Tim Key in The Witchfinder (BBC/Baby Cow Productions/Steve Peskett)

Where this series works excels is in those moments between Thomasin and Gideon when drama manages to creep in. Unfortunately, there is so much emphasis placed on the wordplay between minor characters, that these scenes are both limited and lacking in impact. On many occasions The Witchfinder is so wrapped up in trying to be funny that things have a tendency to fall flat.

Likewise, an early rivalry set up between Daniel Rigby’s Hebble and Tim Key’s Gideon also feels fumbled as momentum is lost. Scenes between them which set up a long-standing competitive streak are squandered in order to maintain an unnecessary joke quota.

Programme Name: The Witchfinder - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 2) - Picture Shows: (L-R) Hebble (DANIEL RIGBY), Gideon Bannister (TIM KEY) - (C) Baby Cow Productions - Photographer: Steve Peskett
Daniel Rigby and Tim Key in The Witchfinder (BBC/Baby Cow Productions/Steve Peskett)

To make matters worse, much of the humour relies upon audiences having a working knowledge of comedy mavericks like Monty Python. A comparison which feels futile in relation to The Witchfinder, as much of what happens either lacks invention or fails to break new ground.

For anyone familiar with The Great, written by Oscar-winning scribe Tony McNamara, it will also be obvious what The Witchfinder is trying to achieve. However, where the former has run for two seasons and is regarded by many as an incisive slice of social commentary, The Witchfinder lacks both breadth and depth, despite an equally rich period in history to exploit.

Read more: Daisy May Cooper: ‘Life after RADA was very bleak’

Where one feels cohesive and solely defined by a solid gold ensemble, another is shaped purely by plot and lacks historical nuance. Much like the Olivia Colman Oscar winning period drama The Favourite, which replicates a similar trick on film, there is so much more that The Witchfinder could have done comedically.

Programme Name: The Witchfinder - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 3) - Picture Shows:  Thomasine Gooch (DAISY MAY COOPER) - (C) Baby Cow Productions - Photographer: Steve Peskett
This Country's Daisy May Cooper stars in The Witchfinder (BBC/Baby Cow Productions/Steve Peskett)

Similarly, when it comes to the Richard Curtis comedy classic Blackadder, which does more in season one episode 'The Witchsmeller Pursuivant', than this new incarnation manages with an entire series, there are no comparisons worth making.

With the former Curtis and company really embrace the absurd belief system that defines Witchfinders in general, while Frank Finlay makes his pursuivant both visually vaudevillian and intentionally bombastic. On top of that, Curtis relies upon his entire to ensemble to sell the premise, from Bryan Blessed through to Rowan Atkinson who are all on top form. In comparison this new series feels well mannered, demure and verging on the pedestrian when it comes pacing.

Watch a trailer for The Witchfinder

For some reason, The Witchfinder also feels strangely condensed, even though six half hour episodes would seem ample. There is a distinct lack of narrative progress, even though both Daisy May Cooper and Tim Key shines within their respective roles.

All that aside, what fails to make The Witchfinder a dynamic piece of entertainment will come down to perspective. Alan Partridge has always been a Marmite thing to many, meaning that audiences have loved and loathed him in equal measure.

A rule which will undoubtedly apply to this newest creation from the purveyors and instigators of all things Alpha Papa.

The Witchfinder is available on BBC iPlayer now.

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