Much has been made recently of how far the BBC is, or should try to be ‘distinctive’ in this current era of endless commercial channels and online platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Along with Anthony Horowitz’s current cop show ‘New Blood’, ‘The Living and the Dead’ represents a new and interesting experiment by the corporation to try the Netflix model for itself, releasing content as a complete boxset weeks prior to it airing in the traditional weekly format on TV, to allow for so-called ‘binge viewing’. As far as this reviewer is concerned, they couldn’t have chosen a better series for the project. Because ‘The Living and the Dead’ is pure class from start to finish, wholly deserving of being devoured all at once (or in this reviewer’s case, 2 episodes a night over 3 days).
In the late 1800s, psychologist Nathan Appleby is drawn home to the family farm after the death of his mother. Together with his devoted wife Charlotte, he sets about making the farm a truly successful enterprise, planning to have a railway built over the land to enable the village’s access to greater markets. But there is something at work in the local area, something dark and unknowable, and soon Nathan, already haunted by the drowning of his young son Gabriel, finds himself confronted by eerie visions and apparitions, most troublingly of all a mysterious woman carrying a ‘book of light’.
‘The Living and the Dead’ is a fine English ghost story, evoking the best classic horror fiction, and having been marketed very much as one in all of the trailers and promotional material beforehand. But coming from the mind of ‘Life on Mars’ co-creator Ashley Pharoah, who also pens the first two episodes, the series pleasingly subverts expectations beyond this already-compelling premise, and a fantastic twist at the conclusion of episode 1 sets the story off in a whole other direction, allowing the modern audience to be simultaneously more aware than, and yet just as confused as the 1890s characters. The series is beautifully constructed, falling neatly into neither an episodic or serial category. Although carrying a definite ‘story of the week’ component, events, even from these standalone stories, carry through into subsequent episodes, with the guest protagonists of episode 1 in particular happily remaining significant through the rest of the series, the village and local residents far too connected for a ‘Midsomer Murders’-style disappearance once their stories are concluded. All of the guest tales are engaging fables in their own right, while also tying together and forming part of a greater whole as the underlying mystery of the series unfolds over six hours.
The writing team complement each other excellently, Pharoah launching the series with an opener that manages to capture the perfect balance between action and contemplation, setting the show up as a thinking man’s ghost story. But it’s eclipsed by his magnificent episode 2, which proves to be arguably the most emotional of the series, and, in this reviewer’s opinion, boasts the best of the standalone stories. Its denouement in particular is both brave and heart-wrenching.
Simon Tyrrell picks up the baton admirably with episode 3, another well-constructed standalone, but it’s his work on the finale that truly stands out, a low-key, sparse hour of television, especially coming hot on the heels of the dynamic episode 5, but one that works a treat in its noticeable change of pace, bringing to mind the similarly low-key finale of the BBC’s ‘Merlin’ in its concentration on the central characters and their relationship, to the exclusion of almost all else.
Robert Murphy’s episode 4 is perhaps the nearest the series has to a weak link, though in a series this high-quality, that’s hardly damning. If the pace and structure sometimes feels a little off or repetitive here, it’s more than made up for by the premise, which culminates in possibly the best (and again, brave) standalone denouement of the 6 episodes. Peter McKenna, meanwhile, contributes something truly raw and exciting in episode 5, in many ways the most blood-curdling of the six, and one which provides some of the very best individual moments of the series.
The direction, too, is top-class, Alice Troughton crafting a rich, philosophical, believable world with the first three episodes, full of beautiful, atmospheric shots of the village and farmland, and genuinely spine-tingling moments with the various apparitions that haunt Nathan (episode 2 especially raises some definite goosebumps). The directorial switchover to Sam Donovan from episode 4 onwards, however, is noticeable. This is both a good and bad thing. On one hand, it injects a fresh energy and momentum into the series as it builds towards its climax, paying off most spectacularly in the brilliant episode 5. On the other hand, there’s a subtle but definite sense of continuity loss for this reviewer, as the world of the village, the farm, even the house, feels visually just that bit different from what was previously established. For many viewers, it’s doubtful this would prove a problem. For me, though, bothered as I was by the sense of a lost visual continuity in, for example, the ‘Harry Potter’ films, it grated a little. But only a little.
What a cast. Again, the word ‘class’ immediately springs to mind, as the actors here have to be among the finest working in British television, rivalling even the terrific ensemble put together for the BBC’s ‘Dickensian’. This reviewer cannot praise highly enough fellow Northern Irishman Colin Morgan. Long overdue a leading role following the conclusion of ‘Merlin’, he is extraordinary here, by turns a loving husband and benevolent employer, while barely restraining deep-rooted grief for his dead son, and grappling with a genuine struggle over what to believe about the phenomena haunting his village. There is an edge to Morgan’s performance here, something this reviewer hasn’t quite seen in any of his previous roles, and by episode 6, this culminates in a superb character study of a man driven to the very brink. Morgan has expressed in promotional interviews his pleasure at getting to take the character almost to the point of villainy by the end, and his relish is clear to see throughout the final episode. His confrontation with Charlotte in the kitchen towards the end, as she contemplates joining him forever in his desolation, is the Armagh-born actor at his very best.
Charlotte Spencer, as loyal wife Charlotte, is a true discovery. Managing to portray both an utterly devoted spouse and an independent spirit, she imbues the part with sheer charm, making her namesake a thoroughly engaging personality full of fun and a zest for life, while also keeping a practical head and knowing what needs to be done for the farm and her relationship’s health and survival. Right from the opening moments of episode 1 post-credits, we are given a snapshot of a vibrant, devoted, fully-in-love couple, ensuring the viewer roots for them and their happiness as the series unfolds, and making her devastation in the finale as Nathan drifts into madness keenly felt by the audience. One gets the sense throughout that Spencer hugely enjoyed the part, and this reviewer hopes to see her on screen again sooner rather than later.
Morgan and Spencer are leant wonderful support by a rich array of minor characters and guest stars. Kerrie Hayes is a warm, likeable, often witty presence as housemaid Gwen, afforded some punch-the-air moments in her support of her employees, particularly in episode 4 (and, very refreshingly, the character gets to be a sexual being without any sense of judgment or punishment all too common in period drama). Nicholas Woodeson as Denning is the local priest we would all like to have, the moral centre of the show, while also exhibiting compassion and understanding, and, in the end, an open mind to the phenomena plaguing the village. Next to Morgan’s Nathan, he’s the second most compelling study of a character changed and altered by extraordinary events occurring around him, and Woodeson’s primal scream at the sight of one particular horror in episode 5 may very well be the best, rawest moment of the entire series. Tallulah Haddon, as Denning’s daughter Harriet, gets to show the best of her talent as the victim of possession in episode 1, creating a sinister, gravelly-voiced villain not unlike Linda Blair in The Exorcist- no bad comparison. David Oakes, meanwhile, as local landowner William Payne, pours on the charm as Charlotte’s admirer, portraying a convincing rival love interest as Nathan slips into insanity- though not without fascinating glimpses of a less honourable side in the finale.
Robert Emms, as Peter, brilliant earlier in the year in series 2 of ‘Happy Valley’, creates another engrossing portrait of a loner driven into darkness in episode 3, while the excellent Elizabeth Berrington (so chilling in her recent stint in ‘Doctors’), gets to shine as his mother Maud in both that story, and the terrifying episode 5 (even if, in a significant grievance for this reviewer that feels like a continuity error, Peter remains frustratingly absent in the wake of her final, startling fate). Elsewhere, Malcolm Storry is another fine presence as farmhand Gideon, initially distrusting of Charlotte’s managerial position over the farm, but building up a touching, subtle respect for her as the series progresses.
To say too much about Chloe Pirrie’s character would be to spoil a major component of the series, but suffice to say Pirrie does fantastic work in episode 6 as a woman haunted by demons of her own, and driven to find a way to escape them, while Fiona O’Shaughnessy, as episode 4’s Martha, gives a quietly fascinating performance as a repressed schoolteacher, her final speech during the episode’s denouement making sense of what seemed like a somewhat off-kilter portrayal previously, and moving the audience as her particular burden becomes clear.
Rounding out the cast are some excellent younger actors too, not least Isaac Andrews as episode 2’s Charlie, and Arthur Bateman as Gabriel, responsible for some heart-in-mouth moments in the finale as he menaces Pirrie’s Lara and her young child.
‘The Living and the Dead’ would have worked as a one-off series, unfolding with all the beauty and patience of a classic ghost novel, particularly when viewed in short succession as its release on iPlayer allowed, but the final scene of episode 6 all but guarantees it will return, provided the BBC don’t make an unforgiveable decision to cancel it. Morgan is the beating heart of the show, a worthy, fantastically-crafted drama for him to finally become a leading man in again, but the talents of Spencer, Troughton, Donovan and Pharoah, along with the supporting cast, would also be greatly missed by this reviewer if it doesn’t return. It simply has to. In the vein of all the best ghost stories, it’s a show that stays with you.
Atmospheric and scary, but with a huge heart, ‘The Living and the Dead’ displays the best of its leading man’s talent, while nurturing a rich supporting cast, and fantastic writing and directing talent.