The Witchfinder: Season 1 REVIEW – Goose Chase

This 1640 comedy takes a while to get moving.

the witchfinder tim key daisy may cooper

When you give a TV show a title like ‘The Witchfinder’, it’s only very rarely some kind of analogy or riddle you must tease out the secret meaning from. It’s a half-hour, no-frills, location-shoot sitcom about a witchfinder, set back in the days when the finding of witches was a roaring trade.

Our main witchfinder here is Tim Key, playing the kind of baser, cowardly, fairly incompetent protagonist that comedy is saturated with these days – but it’s shame to damn it by association, because this is definitely Key’s strength. He’s probably best known as Sidekick Simon (very definitely not a protagonist), but in his own work he’s always shown a real flair for this kind of character, and anyone with flaws of their own will probably feel a little pang of recognition to see him in action.

And Daisy May Cooper is also playing to her strengths, as the same sort of outsider as she was in This Country, at a remove from most of society and as such a prime candidate for accusations of being a witch. The class divide, too, plays right into the show’s hands, with the posher Key’s educated witchfinder thrown up against the definitely not-posh Cooper’s hapless peasant (although what an obvious West Country girl is doing in East Anglia is anyone’s guess).

So off the bat it’s an odd couple pairing – which you’d expect to be fertile ground for a pair of awkward, misshapen potatoes like Key and Cooper. And it is, eventually, with a capital ‘ev’. For a bit too long it simply doesn’t give them the chemistry which, when it finally gets going, is actually rather good. Instead of being a duo, for a good long while they just seem to have been elbowed into the same shot.

This is a concept we’ll come back to – once they’ve got that groundwork covered, it all starts to click. And as The Witchfinder’s leads go, the show itself seems to know that on some level, upping the ante from ‘strangers thrown together by circumstance’ to ‘unlikely friends’ faster, honestly, than the story has merited.

Crucial to a historical comedy such as this is the ability to play around with the setting, rather than just dressing actors in smocks and have them moan about how the iPhone hasn’t yet been invented. The Witchfinder nails this. The horrors of either side of the English civil war, the general later-dung-age aesthetic, and, of course, the fairly nasty business of witchfinding itself are all deployed for comedy, but it’s not merely these big cultural touchstones – the show’s a dab hand at having people ramble on in convincingly old-timey fashion.

Nor does it fall into the other trap, that of needing to be particularly well-versed in history to figure out what’s going on. Obviously it’ll help if you recognise the name ‘Oliver Cromwell’, but it’s not at all vital, you won’t have to tune out for a bit until they stop blathering on about minutiae of the past. You don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of the English civil war to understand that Cavaliers are, you know, cavalier, and Puritans are – well, they’ve become the word for it too, haven’t they?

Some parts of the setting can be funny on the face of it – and I’m not just talking about Key and Cooper’s ridiculous puritan underwear, either. English place names are known the world over for sounding vaguely like a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and this journey to Chelmsford is no exception.

Reece Shearsmith, who already has chops at playing a comedy witchfinder in Inside No. 9, is a very welcome addition to the supporting cast – and here, the hammier he goes the better. Meanwhile, Julian Barratt’s fairly understated performance works just as well. The show does know how to use its names and faces, which is perhaps why it’s so jarring when it fails to.

Jessica Hynes, the witchfinder’s sort of witchfinding flunky, is used very sparingly. Not in a good way either, not as an occasional treat, but rather like she’s got some better material that’s been left just out of reach. Her vaguely affectionate relationship with another flunky, too, seems like the kind of thing that could have been really charming if it had any amount of time devoted to it.

And if there’s an obvious weak point in the supporting cast, it’s Daniel Rigby’s twatty rival witchfinder – who’s introduced on an impressively nasty note, then seems to lose some kind of vital organ and ends up just squabbling like a schoolboy with Key. After that, it’s particularly odd to see him having to grow back into being any sort of a real threat.

Like its vague antagonist, The Witchfinder turns out to be one of those projects that needs a little while to really get going, which is a pretty hefty indictment in these days of streaming services, immediate gratification, and fast food delivery apps. But it’s worth remembering that Blackadder, the show this and all other historical comedies will be measured against, traditionally has its whole weaker first season written off and is considered for all practical purposes to have begun with Blackadder 2.

The Witchfinder actually beats Blackadder off the blocks in those terms. It’s patchy for the first half of the season, then having got up to speed starts the work of being genuinely quite good and actually giving you a reason to laugh. As ever, the question there is “why couldn’t they just have done that all the way through?”

(This probably explains some of the weaker reviews out there, from newspaper columnists whose impressions were solely drawn from the first couple of episodes that came with the press pack.)

This is, really, an unexpected disappointment from the brothers Gibbons, the men who breathed new life into the Alan Partridge franchise – and while This Time With Alan Partridge might have had the occasional slacker area, it never asked you to sit through an hour and a half of wheel-spinning before it got moving.

What doesn’t help is that rather than a series of self-contained episodes from which one could simply cut out the diseased material, it’s very definitely a running plotline with one episode leading into the next. So, sad to say, you’ll have to slog it through the bad before finally breaking through into the good.

READ MORE: 8 British Comedy Shows On Netflix You Should Watch

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the witchfinder tim key daisy may cooper
The Witchfinder isn’t purely a story of missed opportunities, but there’s plenty in there. A few simple, decisive changes could have had this up to an eight, easily. Weather the storm of the first few episodes and there’s half a good comedy show to be had.