Recognise the name Stephen Volk? Hopefully, you do – this is the man who scripted one of the greatest televisual feats in British history. One chilly Halloween night, way back in 1992, his Ghostwatch hit millions of small screens, exposing families across the nation to an unexpected slap of ectoplasmic terror: as part of the BBC’s Screen One series of one-off, self-contained dramas, Ghostwatch went on to become infamous. Facing a torrent of complaints and widespread controversy surrounding the programme, the BBC decided to slap a decade-long ban on it. Since then, various versions have appeared on DVD, available for a song (if you’ve never seen it, you can remedy that forthwith), but the Beeb has never dared to show it again.
Since then, Volk has worked on numerous projects, including the lesser-known ITV series Afterlife. Starring seasoned television actress Lesley Sharp and a post-Teachers, pre-The Walking Dead Andrew Lincoln, Afterlife was a solid fourteen-part story following the tumultuous relationship between the two leads: Sharp’s psychic medium, cursed with an ability to see and commune with the dead, and Lincoln’s sceptical psychologist. Though this was only granted two series in which to tell its tale, Volk and his co-writers made the most of the premise, exploring big ideas such as faith, death, and the titular post-demise experience, while creating some genuine old-fashioned scares and compelling characters along the way.
Considering Britain’s rich history with the ghost story and the paranormal – Dickens’ A Christmas Carol‘; M.R. James’ defining spooktaculars; classic novella The Turn Of The Screw – it’s surprising how few successful long-running supernatural television series have been created in the UK, particularly in the past couple of decades. We’ve had the odd hit like Being Human, recent miniseries like The Secret Of Crickley Hall, Marchlands or Lightfields, and largely forgotten projects such as Sea Of Souls, but Afterlife is arguably amongst the strongest to emerge from Britain in… well, ever.
As the series turns ten years old this September, now feels a good time to take a look back and explore its creepy goodness.
Who you gonna call?
One of the most impressive strengths Afterlife displays is its restraint: while some writers could be tempted to go big in each episode, throwing all manner of effects and levitating furniture our way, Volk and his team instead keep the supernatural low-key. Instead of overloading the series with vivid, wailing, blood-soaked spectres, we instead see only glimpses of the undead, and spend more time exploring the isolating effects years spent convening with them has on Lesley Sharp’s Alison Mundy.
Each episode involves a visitation from the other side, though the form this takes varies: in one episode, it may be the spirit of a murdered child seeking justice; in another, it may be the rage of a departed spouse manifesting as bizarre flesh-wounds.
Sharp’s Alison is fairly withdrawn and downtrodden when we first meet her, newly relocated to Bristol. Carrying significant baggage and seemingly keen to start afresh, Alison is quickly asked to resume her work as a medium by two well-intentioned locals desperate to commune with a sorely-missed relative. Though Alison is at first shocked to be recognised and refuses the invitation, she eventually changes her mind – her desire to help ease the grief of both the living and the dead is too strong to deny.
Elsewhere in the city, Andrew Lincoln’s psychology lecturer, Dr. Robert Bridge, is busy introducing his students to the cold-reading techniques employed by supposed psychics, and takes them to Alison’s event as a demonstration of said methods. Unbeknownst to him, however, one of his students experienced a horrific family tragedy as a child, and is still haunted by the memories as a young woman – when Alison claims to be able to see one of these relatives, she sets a series of events in motion, which have the potential to lead to further tragedy. While Robert writes her off as just another charlatan to start with, he quickly becomes intrigued, and, by the end of the pilot episode ‘More than Meets the Eye’, has persuaded Alison to be the subject of a book exploring her abilities, under the belief that he may be able to help her become free of her visitations.
Over the course of the two series, the leads’ relationship shifts as perspectives change. Robert, still distraught and guilt-ridden over the accidental death of his son, becomes less angered by Alison’s claims of seeing his departed child, and more curious of what his supposed presence may mean. Alison, meanwhile, begins to experience distressing memories of her difficult upbringing – a situation in which Robert’s psychoanalytical approach proves vital.
These are areas in which the show really shines: exploring the difficulties of approaching a belief in the afterlife with a rational mindset, and the gap between what we can see and what exists beyond the average person’s realm of perception. However, the programme never becomes bogged down in these ideas – the storytelling is always tight and gripping, with no filler episodes.
Something strange in the neighbourhood?
As he did in the mighty, frighty Ghostwatch, Volk is able to create genuine scares throughout Afterlife‘s entire run. Each episode explores a different haunting, encompassing all kinds of bizarre and unsettling situations. Daniel One & Two, for example, presents a strange case involving a disturbed young man diagnosed with schizophrenia – is he really mentally ill, or is it something much worse? The Rat Man sees Alison and Robert called in to a prison following a number of suicides, leading to an unsettling encounter with the titular entity; Lullaby follows a house-husband’s struggles to cope with the sounds of crying coming through his baby monitor – even when his own child is sleeping peacefully.
For any fans of Ghostwatch who may have missed Afterlife, it’s definitely worth a watch – not only does it cover a lot of the same ground (the intrusion of the supernatural into an ‘ordinary’ household; the conflict of the sceptic versus the believer, and the gulf between) but it shows Volk as a master of the ghost story. He, and his team, know how to blend the everyday with the extraordinary, presenting spirits as both frightening and frightened. Everyone involved – especially Sharp and Lincoln – turns in solid performances, and the bond their characters form during the overall story is touching and believable.
While Stateside TV continues to bring us such ‘big’ horror series as Supernatural and American Horror Story, Afterlife remains a hugely-underrated slice of British-born supernatural drama worthy of more love. If you’ve never given it a try, now’s the time to do it – both series are currently on Netflix, for the streaming-inclined.
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