Set in 17th century England during the last surge in witch trials following the English Civil War, ‘The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge’ is the first ‘Inside No 9’ with a period setting. This era of British history appears to be cherished by Shearsmith and Pemberton, featuring significantly in ‘The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse’ as ‘The King’s Evil’ (as part of the film within a film plot line) and in one of the Gents’ favourite horror films ‘The Blood on Satan’s Claw’.
However, this tale of an old woman on trial for supposed witchcraft, references another British horror movie – Michael Reeves’ 1968 film ‘Witchfinder General’. Well-observed & succinctly woven tropes create an extremely convincing sense of time and place, even though all of the action takes place inside a barn numbered 9.
The central figures of Mr Warren & Mr Clarke are based on infamous English witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins (the ‘Witchfinder General’) & his colleague, John Stearne. The pair arrive in the village of Little Happens, summoned by the Justice of the Peace, Sir Andrew Pike, to try Elizabeth Gadge, an old woman accused of witchcraft by her daughter & her husband.
It’s the most overtly comic of the series so far, but crucially – and what makes it work so brilliantly – is that the humour is conveyed with an authoritative air, through the historical accuracy
of the writing and the to-the-hilt way it is performed completely straight. The comedic ridicule, daftness & genuine sense of the absurd (like witness George Waterhouse’s testimony that he saw Gadge “eat a baby’s face off”) in the way the trial is portrayed and regarded by the writers, works due to the historic validity underpinning it. This is nothing like the Monty Python or Blackadder comic version of history. There is a commitment to detail & period authenticity in the script that heightens the comedy and enhances the narrative.
What is striking about ‘The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge’ is its recreation of 17th century language – its parlance, patterns of speech, the vernacular – and the way Pemberton & Shearsmith use it to construct both the comedic flights of fancy and a real sense of drama. The villagers’ ribaldry is deployed to hilarious comic effect, with the coarseness of their words contrasting with and subverting the high-flown language & status of ‘learned men’ Warren & Clarke. Their bawdiness takes a swipe at & undermines the puritanism of the times. Lewdness & sexual idioms feature heavily as a humorous and subversive counterpoint to the endeavour of the witch trial & the authority of the proceedings on which it rests.
The 17th century manner of speaking, in referring to & addressing common womenfolk as ‘goody’, is also used to create a high point of unadulterated silliness in the script, when the wife of village cobbler Richard Two-Shoes, is spoken of & to as ‘Goody Two-Shoes’.
However the main element of comedic playfulness in ‘Elizabeth Gadge’ is supplied by the only person in the story written primarily as a comic character – Sir Andrew Pike (played with delightful mischievousness by the superb David Warner) His foibles of lasciviousness, vanity and ambition (to put Little Happens on the map) produce some fine comedy moments: wanting his likeness captured with Mr Warren & Mr Clarke in his leather-bound sketchbook (the 17th century version of a photo opportunity); announcing the selling of tickets to the execution of Gadge & the hope that Little Happens might be “bigger than Pendle”; the delicious scene where he is shown an instrument of torture called The Pear (used to extract confessions of witchcraft) and imagines out loud it expanding to the point of ecstasy, rather than the agony its meant to inflict.
The other main characters in the piece – Mr Warren, Mr Clarke & Elizabeth Gadge – are by contrast, written with more serious intent, to bring out dramatic dichotomies, infuse the story with darkness & skilfully sketch background details to illustrate the interplay of factors surrounding the phenomenon of witch trials during that period.
Mr Warren (mesmerisingly acted by Reece Shearsmith) is a zealous, sinister figure, whose single-minded, fanatically driven determination to carry out his work, has tipped over into psychopathic coldness and an increasing impatience to reach the predetermined conclusion of finding the accused guilty. As his polar opposite, Mr Clarke is rational, fair-minded & humane, with a belief in the inviolable nature of the trial and the due weight of evidence. The dynamics of their contrasting personalities & the tensions in their relationship are intriguing and augment the main story of Elizabeth Gadge’s trial with a sharp and probing intelligence, subtly introducing moral issues and themes: The beautifully written scene where they discuss doing “the devil’s work ourselves” in trying women accused of witchcraft, one which condemns them to certain death; the memorable & shocking sequence which illustrates how Mr Warren’s zealotry has infected him, where he discreetly scatters some crumbs of food on the ground to attract the mouse Snowflake & ensure it ‘condemns’ Elizabeth Gadge, by setting the animal up to appear to be her familiar.
The character of Elizabeth Gadge is drawn with a duality which is both absorbing and unsettling. At first, seemingly a vulnerable, frightened old woman pleading for mercy & earnestly beseeching her daughter not to bear witness against her, in turn switches to an angry defiance, mocking & ridiculing Mr Warren & the trial proceedings. Gadge is imbued with a subtly drawn ambiguity, characteristic of Pemberton & Shearsmith’s writing, instilled through hints & inferences, whose meaning only becomes clear at the final outcome. Sir Andrew Pike says as much in the very first scene – “Things are not always as they seem”. Indeed, the sharply ironic ending reveals Gadge is actually a witch & that its most unsympathetic character, Mr Warren (dying on the burning pyre meant for Gadge) was right all along. The pair weave such transfixing nuances and shading into their work, which is why even a witch trial setting filled with recognisable motifs & devices, is so immersive & intricate when they write it.
The serious tone in which the story is distilled counterbalances the humour used to mock the ridiculousness of witch trials. It is the transitions between the two – the dramatic & the comic – that make ‘The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge’ superlative. It’s a case of comedy working best when the stakes are high (in Gadge’s case, engaged in a struggle for her very life) and offset with sober, solemn layers in opposition to the drollery. The multiplicity of background detail & shaded subplots – crafted with such loving care – reference & reflect the interaction of societal, economic and cultural elements behind witch trials: There is the matter of family disagreements & neighbourhood disputes which led some women to find themselves accused of witchcraft (Elizabeth Gadge’s daughter & son-in-law want rid of Gadge so they have more space in the house they share with her; George Waterhouse brought a cow from Gadge which then died) Touring the country, finding & trying women as witches had excellent monetary reward (as seen by Mr Warren’s presentation of a large bill to Sir Andrew Pike) The lowly position of women, especially single women, meant any behaviour, especially sexual ‘deviancy’, could lead to accusations of witchery (Gadge’s sexual favours toward Richard Two-Shoes imply this; his baldly stated yearn to hit her and blatant desire for her to be silenced, reinforce the abject position of women during this era)
It’s the density and complexity in the writing that complement the story’s comic aspects & give the drama such an authentic flavour. Pemberton & Shearsmith masterfully handle the historical material – they obviously know and love this period & the whole paraphernalia surrounding witchcraft & its trials. Its illustrative of the writers’ ambitious approach & artistry that ‘The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge’ is so much more than what in lesser talents’ hands would have been approached in the manner of a simple comic re-tread of ‘Witchfinder General’. For this reason alone, ‘Elizabeth Gadge’ is remarkable work, in a series that has already achieved extraordinary standards.
Writers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Executive Producer…Jon Plowman
Associate Producers…Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Mr Warren…Reece Shearsmith
Mr Clarke…Steve Pemberton
Sir Andrew Pike…David Warner
Elizabeth Gadge…Ruth Sheen
Sarah Nutter…Sinead Matthews
Thomas Nutter…Jim Howick
George Waterhouse…Trevor Cooper
Richard Two-Shoes…Paul Kaye