Those of you who are familiar with the oeuvre of Vincent Price may have seen the classic British horror flick Witchfinder General, which starred the distinctive-voiced thespian as a fictionalised version of actual witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins and was met with disgust upon its original 1968 release due to its sadistic and gruesome use of intense torture scenes.
Clearly, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton were fans, though, as they use the film’s horrifying subject matter and serio-comic style as inspiration for this creepy lampoon of the witch trials that bungles its conclusion after much early promise.
The loose anthology format has allowed the writing duo to play with the nature of time and setting throughout the show’s run, but The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge marks the first time that they have used this flexibility to venture beyond the modern era and into a dark period of our history that Shearsmith previously explored in Ben Wheatley’s brilliantly mind-boggling A Field in England.
This week we’re taken back to the 17th century and to the grim village of Little Happens, a place so pathetically unremarkable its best attractions amount to a village green, a duck and, erm, a bench. It must come as blessed relief to the villagers, then, when an accusation of witchcraft against a defenceless old crone (Ruth Sheen) becomes the most exciting event in the village since a mysterious incident involving an escaped cow.
Two of England’s most notorious and feared witchfinders, played with straight-but-knowing brilliance by Shearsmith and Pemberton, are summoned to preside over Elizabeth Gadge’s trial, but is she the one who’s really guilty?
The deliberately arch performance style brings to mind Hot Fuzz – particularly the depiction of villagers as part of a satanic cult – with Shearsmith and Pemberton drawing a relentless string of chuckles from the absurdity of the witch trials as Gadge’s court case becomes increasingly, and pleasingly, farcical with every new shred of evidence.
“What,” cries Shearsmith’s Mr Warren “is ‘named’ when said backwards?” “Demon!” His audience chant back triumphantly. But, surely it’s Deman, isn’t it? Ah well, “Tis close enough”, it seems.
If one were to perhaps read too much into this, it could be said that the way the trial is brought on the basis of hearsay and the word of a vengeful daughter is intended as a swipe against the current legal system, whereby the accused is often first publicly tried by the media before even setting foot in a court room, the terrible circumstances of their case exploited for our own entertainment.
But that reading is likely far more serious than Shearsmith and Pemberton intended; they’re really just having fun mocking one of the most ludicrous periods in western history.
Yet again, the guest stars make excellent contributions, with David Warner (best-known for playing villainous types, like Holocaust architect Reinhard Heydrich) a particular standout as gullible and shamelessly pervy bigwig Sir Andrew Pike, who seems far more interested in the particulars of satanic bum-licking than in seeing justice served.
It is Shearsmith and Pemberton, though, who take centre stage this week as the two supposed witchfinders, with the latter’s seemingly reasoned, morally conflicted Mr Clarke providing a superb foil for Shearsmith’s stubborn theatricality as Mr Warren.
The only dud note to The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge comes at its very end. We’ve all come to anticipate a dark twist at the close of each Inside No 9 tale, and so it proves again this week with Shearsmith and Pemberton attempting to subvert our expectations in the final scenes.
The problem is that this repetitive device has now become the norm and therefore the twist is entirely predictable and lacks any kind of impact. Which only leaves a somewhat disappointing and rather bitter end to this otherwise wickedly funny spoof.
Click here to watch Inside No 9: The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge on BBC iPllayer