Last Night's TV: The Pendle Witch Child/BBC4
Who Do You Think You Are?/BBC1

 

As hills go, Pendle, in Lancashire, surely punches above its weight when it comes to looming. A long un-risen loaf of moorland, it isn't particularly high or particularly distinctive in shape. And yet it has an undeniably foreboding presence in the landscape, accentuated on screen by the fact that it's very rarely depicted without a heavily filtered sky. They got so carried away with the effect in The Pendle Witch Child, in fact, that there were times when it looked as if it was wearing a black cap of overcast – not inappropriate given the fact that quite a few of the film's subjects ended up dangling from the end of a rope.

It's hard to know whether Pendle acquired its air of menace from its connection with the witch trials described in Simon Armitage's film or whether its brooding topography helped give rise to the panic in the first place. Certainly the connection is well-established now and lucratively exploited by local knick-knack shops and cafés. Armitage's purpose was to strip away that touristic levity and restore a bit of terror to the story, as well as to show just how much damage a scary story can do when it finds an over-anxious audience.

The child of the title was Jennet Device, a nine year old who, for reasons that still aren't clear, ended up denouncing her mother and nine others for witchcraft after her sister Alizon had convinced herself that she'd cursed a local pedlar into a state of paralysis. An ambitious local magistrate, anxious to make a name for himself, took up the case, inspired in part by a royal bestseller, King James's Daemonologie – a sort of "Witchhunting for Dummies" which offered a checklist for guilt and the helpful advice that children's testimony could often be invaluable in securing a conviction. Jennet, the prosecution's star witness, haunted the tale, both in Armitage's narrative and on screen, where she was summoned up in spectral, hollow-eyed form by Phoebe Boswell's superimposed animations.

Jennet's family paid an immediate price for her story, while she paid a deferred one – sent to the dock herself years later after another child, Edmund Robinson, had excused his late arrival home with an ad hoc tale of shape-shifting greyhounds and witchy kidnapping. He then toured the local churches denouncing various members of the congregation as paid up Satanists. Jennet's earlier testimony provided a case law precedent for the admission of his, as detailed in Dalton's The Country Justice – a standard handbook for magistrates at the time. Fortunately for her, King James was no longer on the throne and the mood of the magistracy was a good deal more sceptical and forensic. The famous physician William Harvey was called in to examine the accused for marks of the Devil (he found nothing "unnatural") and Edmund was eventually subjected to a stiff cross-examination, under which he buckled and admitted that it was all nonsense, generated in part by the lurid stories he'd been told about the earlier case.

There was a sting in the tail, though. Years later it was a copy of The Country Justice that was resting on the desk of the judges during the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, another notorious instance of juvenile denunciation. And just in case we got too complacent, Armitage reminded us that social panic and judicial overreaction have never gone out of fashion – a timely note as English courts work overtime to process our own modern spirits of unrule, in their hoodies and looted trainers.

The standard unit of measurement for an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? is the OMG (the Oh My God) – though readings always have to be adjusted for the excitability of the participant. One of the highest OMG ratings ever recorded was for an episode featuring Sarah Jessica Parker, but since she even appeared to be startled to find that she'd had a great-grandmother, most reputable tables exclude her. J K Rowling was less easily amazed by the basics of genealogy, but even so her programme had a very respectable OMG figure. We got one when she discovered that her maternal great-grandfather shared a birthday with her (and so, by extension, with Harry Potter), another when she found out that he'd won the Croix de Geurre for a heroic rearguard action during the First World War ("I've always been most impressed by bravery against the odds"), and a bleak and melancholy one when she learned that his remains now lay in a common grave, probably unrecoverable even with her considerable resources.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing