The Living and The Dead, the BBC’s latest foray into high quality supernatural drama, also sees them mimicking Netflix in releasing the whole series onto iPlayer alongside its more traditional “one episode every Tuesday night” pattern. That is a long-winded way to say that this review contains some spoilers so if you are keeping up weekly you have been warned!
Set in 1890s Somerset The Living and The Dead sees Colin Morgan, a Geek favourite from his Merlin days, as Nathan Appleby, a successful London psychologist who returns to his family estate for the Midsummer Festival with his wife Charlotte (Charlotte Spencer) a pioneering photographer. On the death of his mother he inherits the estate and, at Charlotte’s behest, decides to stay and run it themselves.
Suffice to say things are not easy. In the first episode the local vicar, Reverend Denning, asks Nathan to use his background to help his daughter Harriet who has been acting strangely. It is revealed through hypnosis that she is haunted by the spirit of Abel North, a suspected murderer and the son of an intolerant clergyman. As Harriet’s behaviour escalates Nathan and Reverend Denning start to suspect science may not be the solution and that Abel North’s return may be the symptom of something bigger and not adolescent neurosis.
Running parallel to this, it is revealed that Nathan had a son, Gabriel, who drowned in the estate’s mill pond some years before. This grief comes to the surface as Nathan and Charlotte discover a phonograph recording of his voice.
The final piece of the overarching puzzle comes when Nathan sees a woman in the hallway. A woman wearing a very modern (ie, 2016) red coat and holding an iPad. It is this scene that takes The Living and the Dead beyond a traditional historical ghost story and makes TLATD a more intriguing premise.
Later episodes involve a suspected witch as the crops become infested with pests and the fish in the pond are poisoned, a boy who sees the ghosts of dead boys sent down the mines, a disturbed school teacher and her dead best friend and visions of Roundheads riding through the woods. All point towards a cursed landscape as Nathan becomes obsessed with his visions (he seems the focus of the strange happenings). It is as if Nathan is descending into grief and madness and pulling the estate with him.
So what is good about TLATD. The time-slip storyline really gives it some definition and keeps us intrigued even as the individual “monster of the week” plots sometimes seem a little underwhelming. Just as early episodes become baggy a glimpse of a car or a woman looking through a window keep the viewer on their toes.
More intriguing, for me, was the realistic folk-horror trappings. Crows hung from trees and the Appleby’s maid, Gwen, who has a box of potions and a neat line in folk-magic. The series structure is loosely hung on the old festivals – mid summer, harvest, Halloween, with rural songs and dances harking back to pre-christian practices. The masks in the Halloween episode are truly creepy, as is the soundtrack – traditional British folk music reinterpreted by modern acts such as The Insects and Elizabeth Fraser (Cocteau Twins). At its best it is more Blood on Satan’s Claw than it is The Wickerman.
The performances are also universally excellent – Morgan and Spencer ethereally beautiful against the landscape, gamely depicting the unravelling of a young couple’s dream. Support is strong and characterisation good – the Appleby estate feels like a living, breathing, working community.
So what’s wrong with it? The writing is a little hurried. Ideas are picked up and discarded at will. The first episode makes great play of Nathan’s medical and scientific background but this is rarely mentioned again. Charlotte is a pioneering female photographer – this is also never commented on and her photographs used only to reveal ghostly presences in the background. This is a couple who have left a cosmopolitan life in London to run a farm and yet there is very little discussion about this. They don’t seem to miss their old lives, they don’t seem to have left any friends behind.
Whilst the overarching plots are well done the individual episodes can feel a little bland. It is almost as if they are a box checking exercise – evil clergyman possessing teenaged girl? Check. Ghosts of exploited children? Check. Witch and rural superstition episode? Check. They seem like ways to get to the end quicker and at times made me feel as if an earlier draft had just three episodes before an executive asked them to pad it out to six (economies of scale and all that).
More maddeningly, there is the case of Gabriel’s mother. She was not Charlotte. It is quite clear that Nathan and Charlotte met in London while he was grief-stricken. It was his melancholy that attracted her to him. So who was Gabriel’s mother? If this was ever really discussed it was too opaque for me to get. If it is something they were teasing for a second season again, too opaque. And why is Charlotte never mention that Nathan was married before? No jealousy? We know she desperately wants a child herself but the show completely ignores any “new wife, new child replacing old ones” undercurrents.
It is good to see high production value genre television and The Living and the Dead has much to recommend it. But I found it a frustrating watch and if it hadn’t been for the very last scene would not have particularly wanted a second series. But there is just enough intrigue to make me wonder what happens with Nathan and Charlotte and hope the BBC give it another go.
GS Rating: 3.5/5
GS Blogger: Bobby Diabolus