The Witchfinder review: Some of the finest comedy talents have produced something strangely mediocre

The new BBC comedy is written by the brothers behind so much of the recent Alan Partridge output, but somehow their Midas touch seems to have deserted them

Sean O'Grady
Tuesday 08 March 2022 22:30 GMT
BBC releases trailer for The Witchfinder

What sorcery is this? Somehow, like a usually brilliant wizard on an off day, the BBC has chucked some of the very finest talents into their cauldron of comedy – but produced something mediocre. Where The Witchfinder should be a potion of powerful trouble, it is merely quite amusing, not-bad television.

It is very strange, this, as if the producers stand accursed for some unidentified sins of the past – yet their track records are flawless. Tim Key, for example, plays the title role of Gideon, an ambitious but incompetent junior witchfinder in civil war England. Key is a very talented comedian, actor and writer, and the role ought to fit him like one of the big floppy Jacobean hats his character likes to wear to intimidate the common folk; but somehow Key doesn’t quite find Bannister’s formidable but nuanced ineptitude. Bannister is assisted by a willing but slow-witted wench by the name of Old Myers (Jessica Hynes), and acquires a murderous witchfinding rival, Hebble (Daniel Rigby) – two more major comedic talents who try to turn base metal into comedy gold, and end up with this OK sort of alloy.

Daisy May Cooper, who was so spell-binding in This Country, does better as Thomasine Gooch, a foul-mouthed, “difficult” woman accused of “culling a pig by sorcery”, and seemingly making hairy bacon in the process (it is a particularly ugly carcass). She’s innocent, even by the weird standards of witchfinding justice. Bannister knows it, but he pursues her case anyway. Through a convoluted plot device involving another, deceased witchfinder that I can’t quite understand, he seizes on Gooch as his chance to make the big time in the necromancy eradication business. So the pair set out to the assizes at Chelmsford. There’s good banter along the way – Cooper is adept at putting a hex on her enemies, and there’s some nice sight gags with severed fingers and other silly witchy stuff – but nothing wondrous.

The writing is by Neil and Rob Gibbons, the brothers behind so much of the richly nuanced absurdities of the recent Alan Partridge output, but somehow their Midas touch seems to have deserted them. I notice that Steve Coogan is script consultant and executive producer, and there’s quite a strong flavour of tongue of Partridge in this brew, so to speak – but without Coogan himself on screen. In other words, The Witchfinder might have been a more sulphurous cocktail – I mean better – had Coogan been cast as Bannister. Instead his habitual sidekick got the gig.

Bannister and Gooch’s journey on horseback and on foot through 1640s East Anglia leads them to encounters with a roll call of some of the best established and emerging talent including Julian Barratt, Tuwaine Barrett, Celeste Dring, Vincent Franklin, Cariad Lloyd, Allan Mustafa, Reece Shearsmith and Ellie White. That astonishing group ought to be enough “for a charm of powerful trouble, like a hell-broth boil and bubble”, as a witch once said, but we end up with a lukewarm Pot Noodle. Disappointing.

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