An inscription on the grave of one of the children who died in the Aberfan disaster of October 21st, 1966
No grave could contain him.
He will always be young
in the classroom
waving an answer
like a greeting.
Buried alive –
alive he is
by the river
skimming stones down
the path of the sun.
When the tumour on the hillside
burst and the black blood
of coal drowned him,
he ran forever
with his sheepdog leaping
for sticks, tumbling together
in windblown abandon.
I gulp back tears
because of a notion of manliness.
After the October rain
the slag-heap sagged
its greedy coalowner’s belly.
He drew a picture of a wren,
his favourite bird for fraility
and determination. His eyes gleamed
as gorse-flowers do now
above the village.
His scream was stopped mid-flight.
Black and blemished
with the hill’s sickness
he must have been,
like a child collier
dragged out of one of Bute’s mines –
a limp statistic.
There he is, climbing a tree,
mimicking an ape, calling out names
at classmates. Laughs springing
down the slope. My wife hears them
her ears attuned as a ewe’s in lambing,
and I try to foster the inscription,
away from its stubborn stone.
by Mike Jenkins
from Empire of Smoke
Not so Fun facts: This poem refers to the Aberfan disaster the catastrophic collapse of a collieryspoil tip at 9.15 am on 21 October 1966. The tip had been created on a mountain slope above the Welsh village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil and overlaid a natural spring. A period of heavy rain led to a build-up of water within the tip which caused it to suddenly slide downhill as a slurry, killing 116 children and 28 adults as it engulfed the local junior school and other buildings. The tip was the responsibility of the National Coal Board (NCB), and the subsequent inquiry placed the blame for the disaster on the organisation and nine named employees.
I’ve been to the town and it’s still a very quiet place to this day as a generation of the community was lost in that disaster. Where the junior school once stood there is now a memorial garden.
BBC episode 2 description: “When a little boy is disturbed by terrifying visions Nathan must do everything he can to protect him. But Nathan has been having visions of his own.”
Nathan Appleby: Colin Morgan
Charlotte Appleby: Charlotte Spencer
Matthew Denning: Nicholas Woodeson
Gwen Pearce: Kerrie Hayes
Gideon Langtree: Malcolm Storry
Charlie Thatcher: Isaac Andrews
Ebenezer Alsop: Michael Byrne
Smith: Harry Peacock
Agnes Thatcher: Pooky Quesnel
Harriet Denning: Tallulah Haddon
Simon Merrifield: Ben Fox
Bathsheba Thatcher: Amber Fernee
Mr Woolford: Rupert Procter
Jack Langtree: Joel Gilman
Mary Denning: Marianne Oldham
Producer: Eliza Mellor
Director: Alice Troughton
Writer: Ashley Pharoah
Victims of the Episode:
Charlie and by extension his mother in 1894 with a penitent Ebenezer. The ghost boys who died in the unsafe mining conditions back in the days of Nathan’s grandfather.
I end up going into West Country mode again during this account of events…
Charlotte notes she hasn’t conceived yet but wants Nathan’s baby. More sitting in fields admiring the scenery and the workers complaining about changes like the surveyors blowing massive holes in nearby fields to see if an aqueduct can be put through the area. A boy named Charlie sees ghosts so he talks to him.
Then later a modern-day ghost car rushes towards him on a lane after the boy has disappeared. FORESHADOWING (In a very heavy-handed way). So everyone goes searching for him. After some spooky music he finds Charlie and brings him home. the boy swears calling them all Bastards and liars. His mother says he ain’t like that he ain’t. So they go and talk about him in the corridor. He was worried bout the changes he is she insists. Next day Charlotte has more ideas how to progress the farm – husband he does and goes tells her be the new farm manager she should. I reckon she likes the idea. Be a right Bathsheba she will. Then there’s bloke wandering in the field and back to the boy in his bed. Has the boy show him, with use of tin soldiers, how the ghost boys did circle him.
There’s gathering of workers as Charlotte, with Gwen in tow, does tell thems she is the new farm manager so she is. Maid/valet/henchwoman Gwen does back her up when there is silence gainst her. Charlotte does admit she got lot to learn. Will be ‘first there in morning and last to leave’ if and she does say so herself. Silence. Says theres a lot of preparation for the harvest needs doing and does walk away laving them to it. As they walk away Gwen says that went well.
Workers aint best pleased. ‘Off to hell in a handcart’ one does say.
Nathan does interview boy’s mother. Says can’t be no secrets if he’s to be helping. They goes to her house and reveal Charlie’s real mother did ‘fall into low company’. Brings out a lock of the woman’s hair that she done kept locked in a safe. Took boy in as her own and got letter from the real mother explain all if n when he wants it. Nathan says she done fine job and will know when time is right to tell him. Aye is foreshadowing boy will find out very soon.
A scream and Charlie boy is stood in the field covered in red clay what does looks like blood. The old guy from before is stood on a tree and wandering the field where he do find workers eating their lunch. One of the workers finds entrance to something. Nathan is teaching boy how to shoot a rifle. Admits he thought he would be teaching his own son. Charlie says he liked Gabriel and they used to play together. They has bonding but boy points the gun at him. Nathan tells him put it down. Charlie fires the gun as he has seen Gabriel stood by the lake where he did drown. Then he runs away. Old guy recites names and walks to the house. Ominous I dare say n all.
Down the pub reverend Denning reckons the boy is playing up pretending about seeing Gabriel. Nathan reckons Gabriel is trying to be in touch as Denning’s daughter Harriet drew a drawing like one his son did on the wall in the last episode and all that. Workers be chatting doing traditional stuff. The old guy comes at Charlotte with a scythe swinging it at her. Cut back to Nathan and Denning as a worker runs in to get him.
Next thing we be back with the boy Charlie and his mother. asks if she’s his mother. She finds it odd as he was told he don’t belong to the village and all. She tells him it’s where he belongs.
Nathan’s wife Charlotte is fine. Said the old man is confused but Nathan is enraged and wants to be giving the man a talking to so he does. The old man is cryptic and all talking of voices drawing him back because of the Appleby mine where he done work as a wee lad. Weren’t good place to be working. Turns out the dead boys be his workmates what died in them mines as boys back then and been haunting it ever since.
Meanwhile the ghosts call on Charlie as he lies in bed. He ain’t liking it.
Old man was the trapper and the boys were cart pushers. he was tasked with opening and closing the doors to let them through.
Charlie gets up and sees the tin soldiers. Five in a row. His mother’s asleep. His three sisters are sleeping in another room. They serve no purpose to the plot except to indicate how overburdened the mother is who took him in as well. A saint she is. Sees after a bit of night-time snooping the letter meant for him from his real mother. DRAMA BOMB!
Old man were an orphan. Left mine without permission and the mine collapsed. As the trapper he was meant to sound the alarm but he wasnt there to do it. Went to overseer, old man Appleby, who is Nathans grandfather. Calls on him for help. hears the boys screams for days til he don’t no more. ‘Only workhouse boys’, he reflects sadly. Orphans so what does it matter to other folk? But now he hears them again.
Next day Denning is going with Nathan down into the mine opening to find Charlie who has wandered off down into them. Land worker comments on the land swallowing them up. Charlotte orders people about to get supplies. She is leading her people like a natural leader – i.e. shouts at people to do things and does nothing herself.
Later, to the maid Gwen, Charlotte says Nathan was dashing young man dedicated to his work but when he stopped he was a sad bloke. When they first met and she vowed to love the sadness out of him. Wants children with him. Bring him that joy again. Maid says she’s sure she will. (So Charlotte is his second wife? This is a thread left open for the possibility of a second season so don’t expect any answers about this).
Down in the mine, which is very spacious considering they laboured the point it’s barely enough for a child to work in, Denning needs to stop a moment. They find stuff and Nathan vows to keep asking questions. This is meant to be heroic but its a bit too ‘made for the trailers’ in its bluntness.
The old man wanders the heathlands some more. Nathan finds the corpses of the boys huddled together. OH THE HUMANITY. The old man collapses above ground unable to breathe. Reverend Denning says some prayers over the mummified corpses of the boys as Nathan ventures onwards. He finds Charlie almost immediately. However the ground is settling overhead and a worker suggests they evacuate. Charlotte defiantly takes exception saying she will judge if its something to worry about or not! No basic scientifically recordable events like gravity, soil density and other factors will. The entrance, under the immense weight of third act drama pressure, collapses. Nathan and Denning hear a croaky voice further in the mines so go to investigate it. Oh wait no they got out alive as this was the entrance. Denning first and then after a dramatic pause Nathan carrying Charlie who is unconscious. So that was a bit pointless. The mother begins to cry in the distance so Charlie, we assume, is dead? The old man says Charlie’s name so I guess he is also suddenly dead. The ghosts apparently claimed them out of the blue with no lead up. That’s lazy writing. DIABLO EX MACHINA!DRAMA CONVENIENCE!
Then Nathan gives a morbid account of seeing his son, Gabriel, die in the lake. Feels he has failed Charlie too now. It’s all about him obviously not the bereaved family or clearing up and burying the old man. He didn’t want to believe there were ghosts (which considering the previous episode’s events makes it a bit suspicious and he’s denying it out of spite when he has already seen evidence). Wife reassures him ‘there are no ghosts there’s just you and me and [that he, Nathan] is alive. They embrace a moment before making out and starting the baby making process. If you saw Poldark its a bit like that. All sensual and such. All this while some reflective sad music plays and we see the dead boys walking arm in arm into the field fading away into history.
A decent episode with a few good moments and the cinematography is, as through the rest of the series, very strong. As it is the second one I am still giving them a chance but it feels uneven when trying to integrate the Applebys’ story arc with the otherwise episodic nature of the series. It has the most interesting side family of the series as we never learn anything about Charlie’s step sisters so there seems a lot more that could be done with this family but they are put on a cart at the start of the next episode fleeing the cursed community. On that point we are never really made to identify with the old man. His name is Ebenezer (get it? Like in A Christmas Carol – He’s an old man) but good luck knowing that from just watching the episode and not looking it up. Even now I am calling him ‘the old man’ as whatever name he is given is never stated or if so it is said inconsequentially in the middle of more important exposition or dialogue. He is more a narrative device than a man whose only purpose is to explain today’s ghost’s origin story. We don’t learn what he has been doing since running away all those years ago and might as well have been revealed to be a ghost to. In fact he is so inconsequential we are never reminded of him, or the events of this episode, later in the series.
I like it and wish the series stayed true to this episodic nature instead of its gradual descent into melodrama as they don’t make the continuity between episodes strong enough (people fleeing the town aside) but don’t make each episode a strong enough single narrative. Instead there is a lot of padding with the Applebys’ melodrama which for me became quickly tiresome as the early depiction of them made me dislike them so the later events just seem like an ironic karma. The ahead of her time woman becomes dependant on others once pregnant. The man of science descends into madness when he has an unquestionably encounter with a ghost from his own past.
The scythe scene is the only unquestionable issue I have with this episode. It feels like it is there as an advert break cliffhanger rather than part of a BBC drama being watched as a single, uninterrupted, piece. I understand there may have been foreign investment but the scene makes no sense. If the old man was seeking help why would he pick up the scythe at all? Because the workers earlier were not receptive to a strange old man muttering strange things when he emerged from the wilderness? Welcome to the rural, superstitious, town old friend you might remember you lived here and should have known how they would react.
There is a lack of internal logic to the series which often destroys my immersion. The 1894 workforce find an access point to the mines. Was this always present or are they implying the aqueduct works revealed it? If, at the end of the episode, Nathan and Denning were close enough to the entrance (and it is definitely the same access point they went down since everyone is there when they emerge out) to escape so quickly does that mean they completely missed Charlie by, I assume, turning to the left when they would have found him instantly if they turned right? That’s the only way I can explain the inconsistency with the amount of time they’re implied to be down there versus the almost instance it took for them to escape. What killed Charlie exactly? He was possibly weak from not eating yes but not injured in any way and was a healthy boy. Are they implying the ghost boys took his soul? Why, apart from drama, did Ebenezer die too? Just because he was an old man? Because he corrected his wrong by helping them be found? He was off wandering again over land so was he implied to be running away again?
I did like the poetic image of the young boys ghosts walking into the golden fields closing out the episode. Potential – that’s the word that comes to mind often with this series. If the scripts were more focused or more ensemble pieces then it could work but the way they do it comes across as the level of writing I expect from the Saturday evening adventure series like Merlin, Atlantis, Robin Hood and maybe even the Musketeers (which actually has had good writing throughout while balancing adventure and melodrama elements) not a big budget drama series from people as notable as the creators of Ashes To Ashes.
On a side note I am finding it hilarious that I have to go to the official website on the BBC to find the names of these episodes. THey actually give decent clips and galleries on there so go check it out if you like the look of the series.