“Most of the time, there’s a ghost, you put it to bed and go home. How do you do it week after week?”
That’s Ashley Pharaoh, creator of The Living and the Dead, speaking at the premiere of BBC One’s spooky new drama.
Starring Colin Morgan and Charlotte Spencer as a young married couple – Nathan and Charlotte Appleby – who inherit a farm in Somerset, what might have started out a sweet, period romance swiftly descends into eerie horror.
Eerie is the word. Ashley refers to Robert Macfarlane’s phrase “the skull beneath the skin of the countryside”, while Executive Producer Katie McAleese (of BBC Wales Drama Production), joining him at the event, name-checks Ben Wheatley among the show’s various influences.
“We talked a lot about the tone,” explains Katie, who describes the series’ feel as “quintessentially English”. In the modern world of TV horror, there’s certainly a uniquely creepy touch that director Alice Troughton brings to Ashley’s script, which takes place against the pretty, pastoral backdrop. Hammer Horror is in there, yes, but it’s telling that the most terrifying scares take place in broad daylight.
“We all wanted to try and tell a ghost story when the sun’s up and the fields are golden,” Alice explains.
Photo: BBC / Robert Viglasky
“The corner of your eye is scarier than what you see…”
Even in daylight, of course, things are still hiding in the shadows.
“The corner of your eye is scarier than what you see,” she adds. “It’s much more about the sense of the uncanny than in-your-face gore.”
That applies as much as to the show’s overall mystery as the things that go bump in the night. Ashley, who grew up in Somerset before going on to write shows such as Life on Mars, “wanted to make something about those landscapes” for a long time. But there are hints even in the show’s most simple illustrations that there is more than meets the eye here – a glimpse in one trailer suggests a mystery that promises to be fascinating as well as freaky.
“It was when I was writing the first episode I thought ‘What is a ghost?’,” muses Pharaoh. “If time isn’t linear, then we could all be ghosts right now!”
Ashley has never been one to turn away from a big, bold idea. When the show was initially conceived, the main characters were in their mid-40s, until Alice suggested having them in their 20s instead – a change that he was open to, giving the themes of new lives and past deaths a haunting weight. Soon enough, pioneering psychologist Nathan has become a defacto ghosthunter for the village, his own trauma and grief powering his weekly search for things beyond the veil.
Alice suggested Colin and Charlotte for the leads – and they’re a perfect fit for their roles.
“It’s always the dark, damaged characters I tend to get drawn to!” laughs Colin, who was last seen as a robot hacker in Channel 4’s excellent Humans. “There was a feast of that in Nathan!”
The two shows couldn’t be more different, which is exactly the way the former Merlin star likes it.
Photor: BBC / Sophie Mutevelian
“It’s always the dark, damaged characters I tend to get drawn to!”
“It’s what I live for,” he enthuses. “That’s what’s it’s about, getting that variety, living in different worlds, having different bodies, speaking in different voices, having different haircuts!”
“Good casting is making sure people get on with each other,” notes Katie, and Charlotte and Colin clearly get on like a house on fire.
“What I like is it’s going back to traditional, scary storytelling,” says Spencer, who adds that acting “posh” for the role of the London-based photographer was the most challenging part of the project. While her character is strong, though, she’s also flawed, angering the local farmers with her attempts to modernise the place, while trying to dissuade her husband from getting too involved in the case of the local priest’s daughter, who’s acting a wee bit possessed.
Ashley was “obsessed” with Thomas Hardy growing up, he admits, which influenced the writing of Charlotte. The result is a smart blend of present day and history: in front of their workers, Nathan and Charlotte are traditional and Victorian; behind closed doors, they’re endearingly forward-thinking.
The outwardly Victorian atmosphere stems partly from the house the couple live in, which hadn’t been lived in for 10 years before filming. Were there spooky goings on? “Our sound recordist left something recording overnight and there were some odd noises,” reveals Alice. “Then he left it running every night!”
The soundtrack also boasts singer Liz Fraser and traditional folk songs such as The Reaper’s Ghost, while Charlotte says she listened to folk band The Duhks as part of a playlist to get in the old-timey mood for the show.
The look, too, is as cinematic as classic horror can be.
“That was always the remit,” says Katie, who says that despite the stereotypes associated with BBC budgets, the aim was to be as cinematic as the high-profile US shows. “The thirst and the urge is there simply because we need to keep up,” she adds, noting that when they first worked on the show, True Detective was the talk of the town. Since then, the BBC has more than stood up to TV across the Atlantic, with several visually striking shows, such as And Then There Were None and The Night Manager.
Even the titles use footage from Stan Brakhage’s film, Mothlight, to unsettling effect:
Photo: BBC / Robert Viglasky
“BBC iPlayer is not a catch-up service, it’s a fitting-in-with-your-life service.”
The contemporary feel to the lead duo, meanwhile, is only fitting for a show that’s premiering on BBC iPlayer before normal TV: all six episodes of The Living and the Dead will be available to binge-view as a box set from Friday 17th June, weeks before Episode 1 airs on BBC One on Tuesday 28th June.
Is Colin excited about the iPlayer premiere?
“Absolutely,” he says. “It’s how I watch TV. I watch it as and when, as many people do. It’s a new thing for the BBC, but it’s not a new thing. What’s great also is we’re not forgetting about people who want to watch it week by week because it is airing on TV as well. The options are there, I think that’s what’s important.”
Katie agrees that it’s “really exciting”.
“It’s completely right that we are thinking about the way people watch things now,” she adds. “[BBC iPlayer] is not really just a catch-up service, it’s a fitting-in-with-your-life service.”
“I find it really exciting for this show, in particular – one of the things I like about this show is the scale of the journey that we take the audience we go on. It starts in beautiful, sunlit world and it goes into a dark, wintry one… Having been lucky enough myself to watch the episodes back to back, I really think it rewards viewing in that way.”
Charlotte Moore, BBC Controller of TV Channels and iPlayer, introduced the screening and announced the news, before confirming that the BBC “will be exploring releasing more series like this”.
The question, then, isn’t how a spooky series manages to serve up ghosts week after week (you can easily imagine a second season of supernatural psycho-sleuthing), but how slowly you can binge-view the six episodes to make the chills last. Judging by the impressive first episode, this is a horror show worth savouring.
All six episodes of The Living and the Dead are available on BBC iPlayer.