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The Living and the Dead, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

The Living and the Dead, BBC One

The Living and the Dead, BBC One

Enlightenment battles superstition in this new historical chiller

Whistle and I'll come to you, my lad: Colin Morgan as Nathan Appleby

This new series by Ashley Pharoah is dramatically different from his previous efforts in Ashes to Ashes and Life on Mars, though he still likes travelling though time. His method here was to saw off chunks of Far From the Madding Crowd, stir in some shavings from Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, and then, having donned protective clothing, to squirt in a distillation of The Exorcist. All that remained was to stand clear and watch the concoction explode.

The story so far: it's 1894, and Nathan Appleby (Colin Morgan), a man at the cutting edge of the new-fangled science of psychology, has returned to his family home in Shepzoy in Somerset, where his mother is seriously ill. At his side is his wife Charlotte (Charlotte Spencer, pictured below with Morgan), a frisky young thing who has been making a name for herself as a society photographer in London.

Shepzoy is a place where death walks behind you and the past is ever-present

By contrast to the modish concerns of the Metropolis – then, as now, a distant planet to further-flung parts of the country – the Appleby estate is an unspoiled time capsule where stoical and superstitious locals till the land, plough the fields, scythe the corn and then all go down the pub for a few pints of Old Muckspreader. Thanks to some expansive and atmospheric cinematography, which has been allotted plenty of space to capture glorious sunsets, crops rustling in the breeze and rolling acres of wood and field, the Somerset ambience is powerfully established.

When Nathan's mother dies, and he and Charlotte decide to leave London and try to make a go of running the financially challenged estate, ancient rural ritual and the eternal cycle of the seasons square up against cutting-edge notions of science and rationality. One of the first scenes we saw at the Appleby house was a ceremony to mark the Solstice, where the locals marched with lighted torches to ignite a giant bonfire, conjuring echoes of that pagan classic The Wicker Man. Out in the fields, they make scarecrows by hanging dead crows on a cross.

As night follows day, Nathan was soon reaching for his psychology textbooks to probe into the case of an adolescent girl, Harriet Denning (Tallulah Haddon), who was seemingly possessed by evil spirits. Or one particular evil spirit, that of a certain Abel North, remembered with a shudder by some of the farmhands. "He's in hell, if the Devil will have him," remarked old Gideon (Malcolm Storry). One recalled how, when drunk, he'd boasted of killing a girl from a local workhouse.

The possession scenes were creepily effective, Harriet becoming positively toxic with menace as the vile North took control. More shocking, from Nathan's point of view, was the way she also mimicked the voice of his dead son Gabriel, whose lingering presence has haunted his father ever since his death by drowning. The discovery of some hidden wax cylinders containing crackly recordings of North's and Gabriel's voices helped to blur together primitive superstition with primitive, and perhaps unreliable, technology.

Nathan, recently returned from a conference on psychological trauma in Vienna, lives by logic, reason and science, but evidently his empirical approach is going to be tested to its limits by a variety of sinister occurrences and apparitions throughout the six parts of The Living and the Dead. Shepzoy is a place where death walks behind you, and the past is ever-present. If you used to like those MR James ghost stories, this is one for you. 

The locals marched with lighted torches to ignite a giant bonfire, conjuring echoes of that pagan classic 'The Wicker Man'

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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