Double double helping

Hannah Arendt, speaking of the perpetrators of the Holocaust, coined the phrase "the banality of evil"; behind witchcraft has always lain an effort to project banal, familiar evil on to exotic scapegoats.

But all the broomstick business does not make witchcraft an easily dismissible phenomenon. After all, belief in witches has a long and distinguished history: as Sir William Blackstone, the father of English jurisprudence, chillingly declared, "to deny the possibility, nay the actual existence, of witchcraft and sorcery, is ..... to contradict the revealed Word of God".

Alan Howard, Peter McEnery and Lisa Harrow

Good witching stories, among which, despite some obvious flaws, I would number Witchcraft (BBC2 last night and tomorrow at 9 pm), Nigel Williams's screenplay based on his 1987 novel, may or may not end up suggesting that witchcraft is metaphor; but all must convey a strong and tangible sense of evil.

Good, modern spooky tales also have a tendency to be playful and self-undercutting. Williams achieved this by constructing a highly ingenious plot, whose central character, Jamie Mathieson (Peter McEnery) is a professor of creative writing scripting a film about Ezekial Oliphant, a 17th-century witch-hunter who hanged his own wife and mistress as witches before revealing his own commerce with the devil.

Mathieson decides to consult his old history tutor, Alan Oakfieldl, on historical detail, only to find that Oakfield has become unhealthily obsessed with Oliphant himself. These multiple layers and connections allow Williams to weave a dense web of parallels and ironies between past and present, fiction and reality.

This might all have seemed just clever and intriguing, had it not been for the chilling sense of infection by past evil which Alan Howard brings to the part of Oakfield. Dotty academics seem to be Howard's speciality at the moment: here was a Higgins who had discovered not a new vowel-sound, but the Evil One.

Witchcraft's director, Peter Sasdy, has worked for Hammer, and sometimes overdoes the things that go bump in the night, especially at Oakfield's improbable Jacobean Cotswold manor. On the whole, though, he creates the right ambiguous atmosphere to keep us guessing about just where the epicentre of evil is located. Enjoyable performances come from Dorian Healy as a bone-headed student director and Georgia Slowe as a seductive harlot, who might just be a witch.

At the centre of this story, however, yawns a disturbing hole. Just what sort of person is McEnery's scriptwriter-professor meant to be? An effortless charm seems to make him irresistible to women (Lisa Harrow's Mrs Oakfield and the harlot), but what feelings and motives does he have when he beds them?

It is impossible to tell from McEnery's low-voltage performance, and the apparent self-immolation of Oakfield in a burning folly left me worried about the drama's ability to sustain its menace.

Harry Eyres

The Times, 15.12.92