Sunday, October 29, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #11: The Pendle Witch Child

An hour-long BBC4 documentary presented by the poet Simon Armitage, ‘The Pendle Witch Child’ takes as its starting point the appearance of nine-year-old Jennet Devices at Lancaster Assizes in August 1612. Jennet gives evidence implicating most of her family and various others. The outcome of the trial is ten hangings.

From this, Armitage and writer/director Ros Ereira tease out the complicated intersections of superstition, fear, religion, law, politics, forensics and the power of words, be they the oral testimonies of those accused or accusing, or the written records of the trial. Which was, apparently, a big bestseller in its day. As was the slim volume ‘Demonology’, by King James the First – a publication unique in British literature: a guide to the danger of witches and the best way to deal with them, written by the then reigning monarch. ‘Demonology’, in its closing pages, offers guidance to courts on trying witches.

If kingly law-making influenced by superstition isn’t jaw-dropping enough – and it’s definitely not the kind of thing that crops up in ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ or ‘Kavanagh QC’ – then Jennet’s catastrophic testimony effectively established a precedent regarding the giving of evidence by child witnesses. Something that would come back to haunt her, and very nearly cost her life, two decades later when a young boy accused her of witchcraft. Early application of what we would now call forensic evidence helped demolish the case, after which it was discovered that her accuser and his father were running a money-with-menaces scheme whereby any local women who didn’t pay up were accused by the lad.

It all paints a damning picture of a certain period in British history, one that Armitage and Ereira link to the ‘boogeyman’ mentality of our current age – if it isn’t paedophile rings that the media are telling us to be terrified of, it’s the threat of terrorism, this latter exploited by governments to justify rendition, detention and torture – to speculate that, while superstition doesn’t have the grip on society that it used to, other forces compel us to act in ways that prove human nature hasn’t changed much in 400 years.

Armitage’s low-key and dryly ironic presenting style is well suited to such heavy and often dispiriting material. A probation officer before his literary career took off, he’s the ideal person to guide the viewer through the labyrinthine and archaic workings of the law and the courts. Exteriors shot at Lancaster Castle – where the Jennets and others were jailed in 1612, and still a working prison until 2011 – are particularly atmospheric. Indeed, location work is used well here, and the ‘talking heads’ aesthetic that so often scuppers documentaries is sparing. Throughout, Ereira employs superimposed animations to dramatise the trial and the events leading up to it. They look odd and out-of-place to begin with, but take on a creepy life of their own as the narrative progresses.

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