A month or so into Fox TV’s Exorcist TV series, I thought it was about to time to revisit the BBC’s own foray into demonology – 2008s Apparitions.
Running to only 6 episodes and never quite finding its audience at the time, Apparitions followed the work of Father Jacob (played by Martin Shaw with all due gravitas and a little bit of that Professionals grit), a Catholic priest and sometime exorcist. Some higher-ups in the church want to discourage this practice, particularly Cardinal Bukovak (pitched perfectly between ambitious functionary and potential bad guy by John Shrapnel) but Jacob knows something is afoot.
The first episode sets the scene for everything that follows. Jacob is presenting the case of Vimal, a trainee priest, to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Jacob and Vimal believe that Vimal’s leprosy was cured by Mother Theresa, it miraculously disappearing at the moment of her death as the young Vimal prayed to her. But Vimal soon begins to doubt this, particularly as a homeless man called Michael starts to taunt him, saying that it was a demon that cured him, not the saint, and that he wanted to be cured out of vanity. He also reveals that the demons know Vimal is secretly gay, another cause for the young man’s guilt.
Simultaneously to this Jacob, now back in London, is visited by a girl, Donna, who believes her father is possessed. Jacob approaches the girl’s father, Liam, but he acts suspiciously (he is totally possessed btw) and knocks Jacob unconscious before running away. Liam later calls Donna and asks her to meet him that night in Kensington Gardens.
Donna tells Jacob this, however, who discovers that Donna was conceived in Kensington Gardens at the exact moment of Mother Theresa’s death. The girl is only blooming holy, and the demons want to defile her through her father. Jacob calls on his old mentor Monsignor Vincenzo and the pair of them exorcise Liam in the park, casting out the demons.
But this is not to be a happy ending. Vimal, tormented by demons, visits a bath house where he is visited by Michael who kills and skins him. Yep, at this point a slightly spooky BBC drama goes very bloody and very nasty. And that ends the first episode.
There is a lot to digest there (don’t worry I’m not going to summarise all six episodes) and it is symptomatic of the series as a whole. Writer and director Joe Ahearne obviously did not get the memo about decompressed storytelling. The show also fell foul of critics who lambasted it as silly or overly-serious, and who didn’t respond well to its controversial topics or extreme violence.
So why should it be worthy of second look? To my mind Apparitions was ahead of its time. Apparitions treated its subject matter seriously – I think at that time viewers were used to mainstream TV shows about ghosts and demons being either knock-about zany tea time viewing (i.e, Strange) or American imports (The X-Files). A BBC post-watershed show that was pretty gory and treated demonic possession seriously was not something people were ready for.
Which is a shame as it has much to commend it. Martin Shaw is great as Father Jacob. Warm, craggy, stubborn, kind – everything you’d want an exorcist to be. The storyline is genuinely epic and arches across all six episodes, taking in the war in Bosnia, Islam, abortion, prison reform (a sex criminal appears to become possessed by a saint) and most interestingly, the idea of doing good things for bad reasons (demonstrated in almost everything Cardinal Bukovak and Monsignor Vincenzo do).
Some set pieces are genuinely creepy – Father Jacob being tainted so he can no longer pray and hiding out in a hotel is actually quite intense, particularly when Cherie Lunghi appears as a woman in a bar to tempt him. The tone is also spot on. It is very gritty, filmed like a police procedural on the streets of London. Everything looks so normal which is why, when the supernatural shows itself, it is such a shock. The locations, the characters, everything feels real, even the possessions. There is no graphic make-up changes, just good acting, as a loving father suddenly becomes cruel, as a homeless veteran becomes confused and finds himself doing awful things. Now post-The Walking Dead and Outcast, it holds up pretty well.
It is not without it’s faults. Firstly there seems to be no external verification of demonic behaviour. All anyone needs is Father Jacob to pronounce it and it is so. All it takes is someone to say to him “I think Dave’s possessed” and off he pops ready to exorcise. It is a small quibble and par for the course in supernatural shows that try to root themselves in the everyday – we need there to be demons for the show to work but as soon as demons become too frequent it ceases to be set in the real world.
The major problems stem around the show trying to juggle modern attitudes towards things such as homosexuality and abortion and the attitudes of the Catholic church. Father Jacob is never anything less than sympathetic but in order for some of the plots to work, some serious mental agility is required. For example, making Vimal a repressed gay man is a perfectly legitimate storyline. He has taken a vow of celibacy but still has some lurking Catholic guilt despite Jacob being supportive. But did he have to be skinned? I know it’s to taunt Jacob (his skin later turns up as the binding on a bible) but lets not kill off our only gay character just to give Jacob motivation – they are demons, he’s a priest; that’s pretty good motivation right there. No need to “fridge” Vimal.
Also, one of the later episodes is set in an abortion clinic (a post-menopausal woman finds herself pregnant and one young girl claims to be a virgin and is acting oddly – one is possessed but which one?) whilst again demonstrating Jacob’s sympathy does seem to be punishing the women involved. The story is interesting enough without the slightly malicious way it treats the female characters.
These, admittedly large caveats aside, Apparitions was deserving of a second series and it feels a shame that it never got one. The arc is neatly wrapped up in six episodes, though there is a large suggestion that Cardinal Bukovak is up to something more. To my mind it is better than The Exorcist TV show and Outcast, and worth another viewing.
GS Blogger: Bobby Diabolus