On the wall of Ashley Pharoah’s office hangs the bullet-riddled driver-side door of a red 1983 Audi Quattro. It’s a set-souvenir from Ashes To Ashes, the time-travel police drama he co-created to follow Life On Mars. Somewhere nearby is a sepia photograph of a young man looking justifiably disturbed by the sack-headed, creepily masked figures who surround him. That’s Pharoah’s souvenir from the set of The Living And The Dead, an eerie period supernatural drama launching in ‘box-set’ form on BBC iPlayer tomorrow.
Set in 1894 Somerset, The Living And The Dead is in the tradition of the dark English pastoral. It pits the rural customs and rites of an ancient way of life against the modern ingress of industry and technology. That’s the context. The major conflict is as described in the title, a clash between the present and the past.
In short, here be ghosts.
Pharoah was initially reluctant to write a Victorian-set ghost story for the BBC, not because he wasn’t a fan of the genre but because he wasn’t interested in repeating the “London, winter, foggy, cobbled streets…” formula. “Then I thought wow, if you did it in midsummer with blue skies, harvest, all that fecundity of the English countryside, if you can make that scary.”
The result is a six-part series telling the story of a young psychologist, Nathan Appleby, who returns to his West Country childhood home to run the struggling family farm. He soon becomes drawn into an obsessive need to prove that the ghostly events besetting his family are not imagined. Nathan’s relationship with his bright, independent wife Charlotte is threatened by a well of unresolved personal trauma with ties to the story’s supernatural elements.
The 1894 setting was inspired by Pharoah’s love of Thomas Hardy. “There’s that period when the Industrial Revolution comes to the English countryside and devastates a way of life that hadn’t changed in centuries. In a decade, it’s gone, really. So it was that clash of old rural England and new, industrial England, Paganism, if you like, and science. Those two traditions in English cultural tradition clashed through Nathan Appleby. He starts off a man of science and he ends off, who can say?”
Pharoah can of course, but he’s not telling. The six-part series does have a definite ending, he says, but if there’s an appetite for more from the audience he won’t rule out a return.
Original UK fantasy can struggle to find viewers, Pharoah admits. “Cop shows and medical shows are an easier sell, not so much to the broadcasters as to the audience. The audience that traditionally likes fantasy has gone to the cinema and comics to get that buzz, not from mainstream British television. We’ve always had a strong tradition of realism in this country. That’s one of the reasons we calibrated it very carefully that it’s not too… it’s not horror. The word we used on set a lot was eerie. I’m hoping that we won’t freak out a BBC One audience!”
Its creator might shy away from the label, but The Living And The Dead was certainly created in the horror vein. “I always loved M.R. James, particularly the BBC Christmas stories, Thomas Hardy’s Dorset ghost stories, all those great Hammer movies of the seventies, Witchfinder General, Penda’s Fen.” says Pharoah. The latter, a 1974 Alan Clarke Play For Today recently reprinted on Blu-ray by the BFI, left a real impression.
“I must have been thirteen and I have a vague memory of watching it. It is the weirdest, oddest thing. You can’t believe that was on mainstream television. It’s sort of a kids coming-of-age movie but there are demons and devils. It really stayed with me. This was an opportunity to tell stories in that tradition.”
Picture credit: Penda’s Fen (1974)
It was also an opportunity to tell local stories. As a West-Country native, Pharoah wove home-grown tales into Nathan Appleby’s life.
“I grew up in Somerset. I live there now. It’s always been full of stories. Episode two, for instance, is set in the old Somerset coalmines, which a lot of people didn’t know existed but were these dreadful places in Victorian England. I remembered a story of kids being trapped in there—because they used kids to work in them—and them just not bothering to get them out and I thought, well, there’s a ghost story in there!”
Lead Colin Morgan (The Fall, Humans, Merlin) says that ghost stories are just one part of it. “We’re focusing a lot on the supernatural, but it’s hugely emotional. The drive eventually for Nathan to prove the existence of ghosts one way or the other comes from very deep unresolved issues for him.”
The historical context too, has layers and resonance according to Morgan. “1894 saw the introduction of lots of new machinery and new ways of working which essentially were replacing people, churning up the land and tradition. All that change does things to people. It did things to people.”
And history is repeating itself now, Morgan suggests, his other gig in Channel 4 AI drama Humans surely not far from his mind. “It’s happening now. People are being replaced by new technology. I don’t think we’ve seen the full effects of it yet, but it creates depression, psychological issues.”
There’s existential and psychological terror as well as the creaking-door variety in The Living And The Dead, then? “Absolutely” says Morgan. “The tagline from the show is ‘What lies beneath should be kept beneath’. That works for the people and the land.”
Charlotte Spencer (Glue), who plays Nathan’s photographer wife, echoes that thought in her description of show’s uncanny countryside setting. “It’s almost like there’s something in the land, we’re constantly digging it up and building new things but there’s a sense that the land might reclaim itself.”
Nathan Appleby, a man of science initially resistant to accepting the paranormal events around him, might scoff at that kind of talk. “There is scepticism and doubt” says Morgan. “There’s a young girl talking in different voices and we don’t know if she’s experiencing psychological issues or if she’s been possessed. There’s a young boy – is he experiencing abandonment issues or is he really seeing things? There’s a young man who could be a paranoid schizophrenic or could have actual voices talking to him, it can be explained either way. The show does tread that line but errs more on the eerie side of things.”
True to form, Pharoah hasn’t just played with ambiguity but also with the genre of The Living And The Dead. There’s a hook at the end of the first episode that’s sure to draw viewers back for the second. If they so wish, there won’t even be a wait as all six episodes will be available to stream online before they’re aired weekly on BBC One from Tuesday the 28th of June. This is the first original drama the BBC has premiered in this way, and it’s the shape of things to come.
People will want to gulp The Living And The Dead down in one sitting, says Spencer. “It’s almost like chapters of a book, when you’re reading at night and you just want to keep going to find out what happens. But no spoilers remember!”
The Living And The Dead is available here on BBC iPlayer from Friday the 17th of June and airs weekly on BBC One from Tuesday the 28th of June.