Why Dead Still should be your next box set
Brendon Connelly | On 26, Jul 2020
The Brits seem to have a particular taste for murder as light entertainment. That apparently peaked in the 19th century, when penny dreadfuls were peddled on the streets and Sherlock Holmes first captured the national imagination. This cultural predisposition cemented the popularity of both Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock – the nation’s all-time most successful novelist and filmmaker.
Even today, murder mysteries are a mainstay of our TV schedules – most revealingly, in the daytime line-up of BBC One. The national taste has evolved somewhat: our fictional murders are very often framed nostalgically now, even cosily. Devotees of such murder mysteries on the small screen, of which this writer is one of the most committed, know where to look for the mother lode: one end of the seam surfaces at BritBox and the other at Acorn TV. Each of these channels is marketed as being peculiarly British in content – google “Acorn TV” and you’ll see straplines like “Streaming British TV”. Perhaps it was inevitable that these services are deeply saturated with murder and mystery.
Indeed, count out the content on Acorn and you’ll see that, in truth, the balance might be tipped a little more in favour of murder than it is British shows, per se: there’s Australia’s Mr and Mrs Murder, for example, Denmark’s Sommerdahl Murders and France’s Balthazar. Now we can add to the international roster Ireland’s Dead Still, an original commission co-produced by Acorn – and, as such, a good barometer of what exactly the channel is looking for.
The pitch for Dead Still could easily lend itself to a cosy, nostalgic story, and at first, you might think that’s what you’re dealing with. Brock Blennerhasset (Michael Smiley) is a memorial photographer in 1880s Dublin, making his money from taking photographs of the deceased. This, of course, brings him into proximity with the recently deceased, which alone could be enough to kick-start a thousand mystery stories. It’s a good hook.
But Dead Still evolves across the series. From a first episode that is relatively comfy, somewhat gentler in its comedy, and more episodic in its construction, the audience is taken towards a season-closing sixth episode that is totally concerned with the bigger, series-spanning story arc that has come into focus. It’s more brutal in its murders and violence, and even sharper in its character conflict and black comedy.
We are shown how Blennerhasset’s service provides for those who were unable to get photographs taken of their lost loved ones during life – it’s a very specific set-up, placing Dead Still at a specific moment in Ireland’s cultural history, when photography was well-known and desirable but by no means ubiquitous or even generally accessible. This context alone would be enough to make the series intriguing, and the sense of time-and-place that the showmakers have conjured up, even on their modest budget, ensures that we’re always curious about what might be around the next corner in a very compelling world.
Alongside Smiley’s stoical, repressed Blennerhasset is a cast that includes: Eileen O’Higgins as his niece, Nancy, an aspiring actress; Kerr Logan as Molloy, a gravedigger-turned-photographic assistant; and Aidan O’Hare as Regan, the obligatory “main cop” and occasional foil for our other leads. Sadly, Nancy’s story thread is often a little wobbly, and seems to have been stitched straight through the series’ least plausible, most generic plot points.
Further down the cast list are some superb scene-stealers, with Peter Campion – Logan’s sometime co-star in London Irish – typically brilliant as a character who is at once charismatic and odiously off-putting, and Aoife Duffin as Regan’s immediately disarming wife and unofficial reasoning partner.
The early episodes have pretty clear mystery-of-the-week plots even as they move us forward through the whole arc. These subplots concern missing photographs, a ghostly child, even a fake séance – the Victorian taste for death has been well enhanced by secondary flavours of the period’s obsession with the supernatural and spiritualism. The show never forgets its premise, however, and very concrete, all-too real ideas of photographing the dead become increasingly central.
Dead Still manages a collage of successes, with great bits of character work, some brilliantly black humour, the odd nifty plot twist, and moments that wrestle with bigger themes. These stand out against the less successful scenes and sequences – not least because the underwhelming portions are happily outnumbered. Ultimately, the greatest success is that the central conceit is not just a way in or a setting; it’s the very premise of the show, emotionally and thematically, and something the showmakers are keen to investigate and comment on.
Going into Dead Still you might expect a few laughs, a bit of mystery fun and some good times with a likeable cast but you should be pleasantly surprised that there is considerably more beneath the surface. There’s a real suggestion that a second season could be on the way and, judging from this always-ambitious first run, that could be something very special.
Dead Still is available on Acorn TV, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription or £49.99 annual subscription. Acorn TV is available on Roku, Fire TV, Android, iOS and Apple TV devices, as well as Amazon Prime Video Channels.