Wednesday, 22 June 2016

The Living and the Dead - Episode 1

The title is the only dull thing about it. This new BBC series has the following synopsis.

'A brilliant young couple inherit the farm and are determined to start a new life together. But their presence in this isolated corner of England starts to unleash strange, unsettling and dangerous supernatural phenomena that will start to threaten their marriage.'

This doesn't state a few very important points. Firstly, we're in Victorian England, rural Somerset to be precise, in the age when steam power is still relatively new but photography is well-established and both psychology and Spiritualism are capturing the public's imagination. Light is provided by the sun in the daytime and candles or lamps at night. This is significant because director Alice Troughton makes excellent use of light and shade, offering a number of deeply Gothic images but also scenes of rural life - especially ploughing and harvesting - that recall adaptations of Hardy novels. (There's even a character called Bathsheba.)

The West Country, as usual, steps up to the plate and looks marvellous and the characters created by Ashley Pharaoh and Matthew Graham are convincingly diverse and interesting. The young couple at the heart of the drama, Nathan and Charlotte, are 'modern' Victorians in that they are allowed to have sexytime fun and act more or less as equals. This is not unbelievable, given what we know about many formidable Victorian ladies.

Indeed, after the first few minutes I thought to myself 'Aha! This is Thomas Hardy meets M.R. James', I soon adjusted this to 'The Exorcist written by Hardy', when an apparently possessed (or insane) teenage girl moves centre stage. All very interesting, and the central question - is Harriet, the vicar's daughter, really possessed? - is interesting enough. But then, midway through part one, there's a blink-and-you-miss-it moment in a churchyard that throws open other possibilities. And, sure enough, the first episode ends with a revelation that made me think 'Aha! Nigel Kneale!'

This is a good-looking and intelligent show with a lot going for it. There are moments of genuine, if understated, horror, and some splendid set pieces, not least the midsummer bonfire ceremony that sets it firmly slap-bang in the folk horror tradition. Of course over six episodes it may fail and disappoint. But I doubt it on the basis of this confident opener. And the entire run is now available to watch as a BBC Box Set on the iPlayer.

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