This review contains episode 1 spoilers.
Ashley Pharoah, the creator of The Living And The Dead, made his name writing genre TV with a twist. He and Matthew Graham added a time travel mystery to the police procedural in Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes, then spliced the supernatural with court drama in Eternal Law.
Pharoah’s new series The Living And The Dead plays the same game. It’s a traditional Victorian ghost story with Something Else Going On. Two events in the first episode alert viewers to this fact – the vapour trail of a modern airplane in the 1894 Somerset sky and the closing sight of a twenty-first century woman, iPad in hand, walking around the nineteenth-century farmhouse in which the story is set.
Seeing these modern apparitions is Nathan Appleby, an experimental psychologist who returns to run his family estate following the death of his mother. Is Appleby mad, in a coma or back in time? That’s the hook to snag you for next week’s instalment.
Or if you wish, to press play on it immediately and settle in for a six-episode binge. The Living And The Dead was released a fortnight ago as the BBC’s first iPlayer drama box-set before appearing in its weekly Tuesday night slot. The strategy worked a treat for Peter Kay’s Car Share, which became the highest-rated new sitcom of recent years. If it repeats that success, the ‘have your cake and eat it’ approach is likely to become standard for new BBC drama and comedy.
There’s no reason it won’t work this time around. The Living And The Dead is good-looking, atmospheric and accessible. It’s neither so terrifying that it will scare off the Poldark crowd (it shares a producer with the same), nor, thanks to the modern-day mystery, so vanilla that genre fans will be bored.
Potentially disturbing scenes—a fluffy duckling meeting a grisly fate, a farmhand’s throat being cut by a plough—are tastefully handled and gore-free. Tasteful restraint sums up the style of this first episode, directed by Alice Troughton (Doctor Who, Torchwood, Merlin, In The Flesh). Its makers promise that the horror will ramp up as the series progresses, but the opener is all about building a sense of the spookily uncanny.
It’s more successful in this when it cuts free of the Victorian ghost story clichés and explores the weirdness of the English landscape. The pre-credits sequence is so familiarly generic you’d be forgiven for expecting it to turn into parody. A young, etherally beautiful Victorian girl in a white nightdress and Kate Bush hair is lit by a candle that flickers past creepy porcelain dolls, glass-eyed toys and rocking horses. A floorboard creaks, there’s a shock as she sees a figure behind her in the mirror… Only when th episode gets outside does it escape the predictable and gain greatly in intrigue.
The rural summer setting adds a real piquancy, transporting the chill Victorian ghost story away from cliché and towards the eerie rituals of the midsummer English countryside. Nathan (Colin Morgan) and his new wife Charlotte (Charlotte Spencer) arrive at Shepzoy House on the summer solstice where they join the farm workers in an eerie torch-lit parade accompanied by deliciously creepy choral singing.
The music overall, traditional songs and original compositions performed by The Insects and The Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser, is terrific. Combined with shots that linger a little too long for comfort on the golden landscape, the result is a growing sense of unease. This is dark English pastoral, Thomas Hardy with ghosts, as Pharoah light-heartedly describes it.
Take away the supernatural and you’re firmly in Hardy territory – countryside rites, grave-faced ploughmen, ripe young serving girls, a headstrong heroine, a dying world caught between modernisation and tradition, the ominous weight of future tragedy… It’s a familiarly comforting backdrop that rather suits being complicated with otherworldly goings-on and a genre-subverting twist.
With all its talk of going to hell and being dead and buried, the episode one script is guilty of a few too many clunky allusions to the supernatural, but it quickly paints the scene and most importantly, establishes the charming couple at the heart of the story – the Applebys.
Morgan and Spencer play modern Victorians deeply happy in their new marriage. He’s patrician and kind, she’s spirited and optimistic. They’re both charming enough to pass the classic horror movie character test of whether you’d warn them away given the chance. Run, kids, you think. Go back to London and leave all this Summerisle business behind.
Alas, they never listen.