Why The Living and the Dead should be your next box set
Ivan Radford | On 20, Jun 2016
This spoiler-free review is of the first three episodes of The Living and the Dead.
“Have you ever seen anything you can’t explain?” Nathan Appleby asks the local priest in a Somerset valley. “Never,” comes the reply.
That’s the kind of attitude that Nathan (Colin Morgan) brings with him to the rural farm he’s just inherited. A pioneering psychologist from London, he’s a man who believes in mind over matter. But things, inevitably, start to go wrong and supernatural occurrences begin to occur. The priest’s daughter appears to be possessed by a man who terrorised the village decades ago. A young boy, Charlie, makes friends with children nobody else can see. And another, Peter, hears voices telling him to make a sacrifice.
The village turns to Nathan for help and he soon finds himself set up as a sort of Victorian ghostbuster, a role of which his wife, Charlotte (Charlotte Spencer), doesn’t overly approve. She, too, shares his forward-thinking take on life; in public, the pair may behave like custom dictates, but in private, they act like a contemporary husband and wife, joking, flirting and sharing authority and respect.
That contrast between old and new lies at the heart of The Living and the Dead. Aiming to “see the skull beneath the skin of English pastoral”, Life on Mars creator Ashley Pharaoh roots his spooky goings-on in the natural world around the Applebys. Memories of those lost years before are awakened by the detonation of the earth to make way for a tramline, while spirits are as likely to be seen in the form of bugs on crops as they are in people’s bedrooms at night. As Charlotte tries to modernise the farm with a new plough, the human cost is not just employment, but life too – it’s no coincidence that the most chilling events happen in the golden sunlit fields rather than shady hallways and corridors.
Alice Troughton directs these opening episodes with a sense of the eerie rather than the explicit; things lurk in the corner of our eyes, rather than jump out full in our faces, which reinforces the claustrophobic feel of the isolated community. There is beauty galore, but all things bright gradually darken, as Nathan’s investigation takes us deeper in the unnatural – and time passes from summer to autumn.
Colin Morgan is marvellous in the lead, moving from upbeat and confident in science to clouded and increasingly uncertain about everything. He sports a waistcoat and beard like he’s been doing it for years – it’s hard to believe this weary figure was playing Merlin on the BBC only a few years ago. Combined with his recent turn in Humans, it shows just how versatile the actor has become, and just how good he is at playing trouble men. Charlotte Spencer matches him every step of the way, as her optimistic, enterprising spirit – complete with tomboy hat – is weighed down by the strain on their marriage. Their chemistry together underpins the whole story, reinforcing the balance between the present and history, especially as her cutting-edge skills as a photographer become more and more relevant to the plot.
A montage of them preparing for a funeral in one episode is gorgeously edited, as they assemble the period garb that makes them such a convincing Victorian couple. The music, too, compliments the stunning countryside visuals, from singer Liz Fraser and traditional songs such as The Reaper’s Ghost to Nathan singing “The Ploughboy” over a church hymn during a memorial service.
It’s these kind of moments that give The Living and the Dead the weight to venture into scarier territory, making sure we’re invested enough in the world for it to be unsettling when it’s disrupted by apparitions from beyond the veil – apparitions that, more often than not, are grounded in very real phenomena, from people speaking in strange voices to boys knocking on doors to talk to their mothers. There’s no Exorcist-style projectile vomiting here. It’s the characters (and cast) that make the rest of it creepy.
As Nathan’s investigations continue, we discover that he has his own grief to deal with, which lies at the heart of his unspoken suspicion that the afterlife really might exist. The show grows into a cycle of emotional and spiritual catharsis to solve the paranormal crises, which paves the way for a reconciliation between Nathan’s visions and his own inner torment. But the mystery lies in what form that reconciliation will take. He tells his first patient that he believes, above all, in an open mind – and, as the shadows draw in on the Applebys’ creaky house, a glimpse of a book of light (that repeatedly appears in people’s ghostly drawings) suggests that maybe there is a rational explanation for everything that he’s seeing. The Life on Mars writer doesn’t show his hand immediately, but there’s a hint that just as people can be haunted by the past, so too, can history be haunted by the present. The result feels like more than your conventional ghost story. There are things that go bump in the night, yes, but there’s a bigger picture looming just out of sight. And that’s an unnerving thought indeed.
The Living and the Dead is available on BritBox, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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Photo: BBC / Robert Viglasky