This week, and each week following, I will be covering each episode of the BBC series ‘The Living and the Dead’ which premiered on their iPlayer service recently. This first episode review is brief and acts as an overview of the major characters. The following entries will be more in-depth when covering the later episodes.
So let’s be introduced to the series and meet our cast of central characters!
Nathan Appleby and his wife return to his farming community hometown as he inherited his family’s estate, farm and the workforce attached to it. When he arrives ghosts begin to harm the townsfolk and its up to him to solve the mystery. Are the ghosts real or just figments of the superstitious people’s minds? will he be able to explain the spooky going ons with his professional skills in the budding field of psychology?
Part ghost detective series, part ‘the old ways were better’ cozy Sunday afternoon TV visuals’ similar to Larkrise to Candleford and part ‘the times they are achanging’ industrial revolution on an agricultural farm drama. It alternates in tone between Victorian ghost story and the aforementioned rural life drama tones very successfully though I wish it was one or the other to be honest. Overall it seems to be about the prevalence of the Spiritualist movement which became more and more popular towards the end of the Nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth.
From the minds that brought you Ashes to Ashes… so there is a twist which was obvious at the end of the first episode. He is investigating ghosts but he himself, or someone else, is seen as a ghost by modern-day people. So it’s a bit like the Nicole Kidman film The Others. Except for the most part the series doesn’t seem to want to make up its mind whether it embraces if the ghosts are real or if they are just figments of people’s imagination until the last episode where it turns into ‘I hate the mentally ill’ and there is explicitly at least one ghost whose existence is unquestionably real. Oh and the last-minute ‘twist’ which you see coming a mile away – in fact I guessed it even before watching tone minute of the series though, if they do another series, it sets up some interesting possibilities.
I will only cover a few of the major recurring characters here as there are so many names and such it is easy to get lost. Suffice to say many characters, though reoccurring in later episodes, only play significant roles in one episode and support roles in others if at all.
Nathan Appleby: Colin Morgan
Merlin grew a beard and got a deeper voice. A psychiatrist whose come back home to his inherited farm lands after his parents deaths. A man of science who contrasts the Reverend Denning who is a man of faith. Is his faith in science unshakeable or will something arise which makes him question reality? A generic protagonist who offers little beyond reacting to events until his ‘twist’ towards the end and then he crumbles into some overwrought acting by someone’s idea of how the mentally ill behave rather than a more natural portrayal.
Charlotte Appleby: Charlotte Spencer
Nathan’s Wife and amateur photographer, which was an exceptionally expensive pastime for the era, who takes over the running of the farm while he… um… that’s a good question. If he wasn’t playing skeptical occult detective what would he be doing? She tends to order the servants about a bit and is not good at making the babies apparently at the start. She is trying to update the farming practises but meets opposition because ‘they havent updated their farming practises since the Roman days’ as she says in episode 2. Is she truly a loving wife or just over compensating? A generic ‘I want to be both a modern woman and a mother’ character, as required by BBC mandate to avoid complaints, set in a time period where such behaviour would be very unusual. Her efforts in running the farm made her come across like a pale imitation of Bathsheba Everdene from Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel Far from the Madding Crowd. Perhaps it is hinted she takes inspiration from the novel and tries to become the character but realises the difference between fiction and reality (which of course gets challenged by the existence of ghosts and other matters in the town). Then again maybe I am giving them too much credit considering some of the characterisation in the series.
They are one of those couples so into each other you figure there is a massive bust up on the horizon (oh how true this is) or they are simple-minded. Both are presented as very comfortable in enforcing class rules where their orders are followed without question. They also embody the generations disparaging view that as middle class people they are superior in all ways due to their formal education unlike their workers who rely on passed down skills, knowledge and folk practices. Their workers are little more than biblically named drone to do as they bid. This elitism extends as far as in episode 3 where Charlotte, whose only knowledge of farming is from her books and not personal experience, gets to dictate when they do the harvesting unchallenged. Of course the workers grumble about it down the pub but the fact they accept their lot in life is true to the mentality of the time until issues mount up over the run of the 6 episode series and many flee.
Matthew Denning: Nicholas Woodeson
The reverend of the local parish who lives with his wife and daughter. The foil to Nathan’s quasi-man of science during the series. In the first episode we see Nathan help his daughter and throughout the series he act as Nathan’s counterpoint. The Vicar Denning and his possessed daughter. He becomes a sort of Captain Haddock/Dr Watson like foil to Nathan. He gets his big scene in episode 5. Is his faith unshakeable? In a community where many old folk beliefs are still practised does he hold that much power?
Harriet Denning: Tallulah Haddon
The reverend Denning’s daughter who is possessed in the first episode of the series and serves the role of an unintentional clairvoyant. An ingenue who has a face that reminds me of the Engineers from the film Prometheus. When possessed she does a funny gravelly voice. If you know of the Conjuring 2 and the real life Enfield Poltergeist it was based on then you know the voice. It is not at all scary.
Gwen Pearce: Kerrie Hayes
Maid/house keeper/lady in waiting to Charlotte who ‘speaks with a regional accent so is working class’ stereotype. Yes marm, no marm, three bags full marm. I would die for you if you asked marn. Cops off with an intinerant worker at the end of episode 1 and again a bit later in the series. Otherwise she just says ‘Yes Mam’ to all Charlotte’s wishes and appeases her constantly while acting as all but her personal valet. The only time this image is broken is episode 4 when she is handing a rifle in a comfortable manner suggesting she has had a life long access to it but it’s never explained. IT comes across like an action movie star suddenly forced into a Victorian setting which is quite jarring. She is also a hedge witch. You see hints of it early on but it doesn’t come into play until the last episode or so. Is she a faithful servant or maybe the real power holder in the community as she is in the role of the traditional ‘wise woman’ practising folk remedies the community still believes in. Kerrie Hayes reminds me of Natalie Dormer.
Gideon Langtree: Malcolm Storry
The foreman of the workers. Old fashioned and faithful. He tends to be the go to character to show the old practises of harvest and such often acting as the voice of the workforce to his masters and as the voice of his masters to the workforce. A west country haywain stereotype who is more a narrative device, if that, than a satisfying character in and of himself. He reminds me of James Cromwell’s role as Farmer Hoggett in the film Babe.
Lara: Chloe Pirrie
Mystery character I can’t comment on without spoiling the series for you. Suffice to say once you see her its obvious what the twist of the series is upon sight. I am not sure what the creators were thinking showing her in the first episode as she probably should have only appeared in the last episode or so. But this is by the people who did Life On Mars so you know there will be some twist and I am guessing they were forced by producers or something to have a hook in the first episode to bring people back. She reminds me of the actor Kevin Sussman who plays Stuart Bloom, the comic book shop owner, from the comedy series The Big Bang Theory.
The field workers and village folk – West country ‘ooh arr ain’t got much o that book learning’ stereotypes. Don’t like progress and the changes from ‘the old ways’ both in cultural and work practises. A superstitious lot – but when there are ghosts and such it’s not a negative thing although the show makers obviously focus on the middle class leads. They ain’t much for change. Their the sort of ‘happy in servitude’ character’s Leo Tolstoy would have loved to write about. A few are named and play roles in various episodes but most are interchangeable.
Victim of the episode:
1) Harriet Dennings: possessed by the ghost of a man who wasn’t baptised. She swears a lot and acts out. Relevance to the overarching series plot: Drew a stick figure woman in red on the wall just like Nathan’s dead son did.
BBC’s Episode 1 Description: “Supernatural drama series. Pioneering psychologist Nathan is faced with a disturbing and eerie case – a young girl manifesting terrible voices.”
I began writing notes and it devolved into a West Country’s accent. I would apologise but it makes the review more authentic. Just like that Chinese microwave meal you bought down the supermarket last week.
The opening reminds me of the work of Kyle Cooper who did the opening to Se7en and many other films. We see flashes of images and items that may, or may not, be relevant to the series overarching storyline. Its meant to set the tone and I feel is very successful in achieving this.
It’s the 1890s and we are in the rural West country of England. Nathan Appleby has a wife who is an amateur photographer. A very expensive hobby which means we definitely will at some point get some spirit photography during the series. They inherit a farmhouse and its land from his dead parents.
Charlotte, his wife, brings in one of them there new fangled steam engine things what does plowing without horses. needless to say staff dunst like it and its gets broken. Wuz it the staff, wuz it dem ghosts or wuz it just a fickle piece of rubbish? (… It’s never said but presumably its just a poor piece of equipment and there is no one around to fix it. Later in the series it apparently got stuck in some marshland and sank.)
but ahm getting head of ‘self. He is what you call a psychologist and this be heady way before their time stuff as its science only just now curring to people exists. There’s girl Harriet. Reverend’s daughter, and she got possessed by ghost o man who ain’t been baptised by his own priest father he weren’t. Things dus happen and servant girl Gwen has it up gainst tree with yearly field worker what says ‘see ya next year; and she replies ‘aye n even if ahm married’. Saucy cow that she is.
Well Nathan he done go an hypnotises girl Harriet and goes down tut river and has her own father baptise the ghost out o her. and that’s end of first episode.
E bye gum lad these reviews will be far longer and ain’t gonna be in this here accent from now on…
As Tolstoy said “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The Applebys are far too happy. It comes across as so overwrought you assume they are both lying but the end of the series suggests that no they really do feel this way. There is of course an issue which arises but it never felt like it was unrepairable until the denouement of the last episode – and please don’t think I couldn’t recognise a gradual escalation if it were presented but this is all too forced and unnaturally paced. The conflict seems very forced as Nathan continually makes clear how he is a man of science, in contrast to Denning who is present for these scenes specifically to be his foil as the local reverend, but we see Nathan completely shift in manner once the ghost of his son is present later on.
I think, having seen the whole series, Denning and his daughter Harriet could be far more interesting protagonists than the Applebys if they were developed more. Yes there is conflict during the series for the Appleby couple to overcome but many of the side characters who are part of the community seem more compelling. Charlie’s families (episode 2 and the first scene of episode 3) and the Hare family (Episode 3 and recurring) are far more interesting than the Applebys but are quickly sidelined for more panning shots for dark houses and tense looking people. Perhaps the Applebys are written to be bland protagonists so we project ourselves onto them but I feel this fails and so they go through the motions when there are characters with far more potential. Instead these characters get ‘ghost of the week’ episode issues which the Applebys resolve with varying levels of success and are soon returned to the background. This series would have been far stronger as an ensemble piece with no definitive central protagonists it feels.
The first episode comes across as if it were the standalone pilot and they should have removed the twist of the modern day person at the end for the released version. It’s a good stand alone episode and certainly, excluding the time dedicated to introducing the Applebys as our main characters, this is a nice ghost story in the classic mould.
More tomorrow hopefully but if not then be assured it will be uploaded the following day.
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