Peek past all the prime time detective shows, and there are hints that ITV’s schedule might just be getting a bit more interested in genres outside of the emergency services. Primeval is the big example, of course, although that had to be saved from the axe by a co-production deal with cable television. But still, we’re up to four seasons and counting now of the monster mash, and given that it’s hardly the cheapest show to make, that’s something to be appreciated.
And then there’s Marchlands, a ghost story spanning three different eras in the same house, that’s running over five episodes. Inevitably, then, this opener had a lot of business to get through, and it battled through the immediate backlog as quickly and gamely as it could.
Family one, back in 1968, features Jamie Thomas King and Jodie Whittaker as young couple Ruth and Paul, whose young daughter, Alice, seemingly drowned. They live with Robert’s parents, Evelyn and Robert, played by Tessa Peake-Jones and Denis Lawson.
Moving towards the glorious wallpaper and dodgy washing machines of 1987, meanwhile, and there’s Helen and Eddie Maynard, played by Alex Kingston and Dean Andrews.
While in 2010, Shelley Conn and Elliot Cowan are Nisha and Mark, a young couple who have just moved into the house, and are expecting their first child.
The show does its damnedest to get us to know these people as quickly as possible, having the most luck with the Maynards in 1987. The prime reason for this is that Kingston and Andrews are clearly having the most fun with their roles, and right now, theirs are the performances to most watch for.
Once set up, then, Marchlands confidently moves between 1968. 1987 and 2010, as the mystery of the disappearance of Alice, who appears to be haunting later occupants of the house, begins to unravel.
The shift in eras is done nicely, via a quick timely reference, or a solid transition, and once the show has taught us its shorthand, it speeds the jump between the decades well enough.
So far, so good, then. However, what lets Marchland‘s maiden episode down immensely is its unwillingness to let us try and work too much out for ourselves. Aside from presumably young Alice running through the woods at the start, every single jump, and every important moment is clangingly signposted by the musical score. It’s not that the score itself is bad. It’s just very badly deployed.
It’s not just the music that contributes to the general feeling that we’re not trusted to work out what happens, either. Near the end of the episode, we get a musical cue, the name of someone written down, a character reading out said name, and a picture of them, too. I’ve heard about double bagging just to be on the safe side, but Marchlands takes it to silly lengths here.
It doesn’t help that the opening episode trades on one or two ghostly clichés, either. The main one being the cat. As soon as the animal appeared, I, and I suspect most of the watching audience, would have been advising Kingston and Andrew to not bother getting too much Kit-E-Kat in for the weeks ahead. Still, the prop department have kept us guessing, by dragging up the most unconvincing ball of fluff from a local skip to substitute for the supposedly dead moggy floating in the pond.
That aside, it’s puzzling why the execution is a little lacking. There’s the guts of a good idea here, and Stephen Greenhorn’s script keeps things burning along, even when it appears cracks are being papered over. (Greenhorn, incidentally, is responsible for a pair of Doctor Who episodes, The Lazarus Experiment and The Doctor’s Daughter.)
But while the show is entertaining enough, it’s not working, at least right now, as a ghost story. The supposedly eerie moments aren’t eerie at all, and Marchlands is at its most entertaining every time it takes a sojourn to the 80s. There’s clearly drama building up in the 60s and 2010, though, and there’s four more episodes to see how that plays out.
I’ll certainly be watching them, as right now, Marchlands is delicately poised to go either way. I’m pleased that ITV is giving this sort of show a go and would really like to see it all come together. Less music would be a start. As would a bit more ghost story, and a little less soap.
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