THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, 1.1 (TV Review)

BBC 1 – 28th June 2016 – 9pm

Written by: Ashley Pharoah

Directed by: Alice Troughton


 

SHAKEN TO THE CAW

The Beeb boldly takes a leaf out of Netflix’s binge-watching (e-)book with the box set debut of its latest six part drama series on iPlayer, ahead of episode one’s terrestrial premiere on the flagship terrestrial channel tonight.

With a foot still firmly rooted in the fantasy field, Colin “Merlin” Morgan (most recently seen briefly in The Huntsman sequel) leads the cast as forward thinking psychologist Nathan Appleby in this Somerset-set Victorian period drama which explores the tension between life’s extremes: the past and the future, tradition and revolution, rural and urban, adolescence and adulthood, the occult and science, ignorance and knowledge, and – as the title makes abundantly clear – the living and the dead.

“An exciting but very, very awkward phase…”

In this opening chapter, London-living Nathan and his caring second wife, Charlotte (Charlotte Spencer), inherit Nathan’s family farm, Shepzoy House, and move back to the country after his mother’s passing during the Summer solstice celebrations. How will the rigid and resistant household – led by farmhand John (Steve Aaaaaaaah! Oram) – react to this new beginning, with the young generation of Appleby’s determined to modernise the operation and turn the farm’s fortunes around?

The series’ strong theme is so deeply ingrained as to be almost overwhelming, especially when Nathan’s pioneering expertise is called upon to deal with the vicar’s child, Harriet Denning (Tallulah Haddon), who is morphing from a “dream daughter” into a remote and troubled young woman with a disturbing tendency to talk in a gruff manly voice. Is her mind being warped by the “dangerous” books she is reading; is she frightened by her own sexuality into creating a splintered alter ego; or is she possessed by the spirit of dead down and out, Abel North (David Sterne)?

“Fresh fruit waiting to be plucked…”

With the locale and musical score provided a folksy, Wicker Man-esque atmosphere (further aided by flickering candle-light and shadows highlighting a sense of otherness), The Living and the Dead is more successful in conjuring a slow, macabre air of tension and dread than it is at shocking set-pieces. Tallulah Haddon’s competence at creepy impressions is chillingly unnerving – particularly when she starts needling at Nathan’s tragic past – while John’s ominous fate is filmed in too delicate a manner to leave an impact.

I was fully expecting this scene-setting first hour to do little more than establish the characters and arching themes, so was mighty surprised when Nathan resolves Harriet’s case. Clearly future instalments will see the psychologist tackle other instances of supernatural manifestation, while his haunting past continues to plague his present state of mind. If episode two can continue just as expertly in its tension-ramping storytelling, then The Living and the Dead will continue to mesmerise – but it could perhaps do with taking its foot off the thematic throttle a bit; subtly over transparency will see this spooky series soar.

CR@B’s Claw Score: 4 stars

UPSTART CROW, 1.1 – “Star Crossed Lovers” (TV Review)

Upstart Crow. Will Shakespeare (David Mitchell). Copyright: BBC.BBC Two – 10pm – Monday 9th May 2016
Written by: Ben Elton
Directed by: Matt Lipsey


 

MAN BEHAVING BARDLY

Comic legend Ben Elton returns to familiar ground with this six part historical sitcom set in Tudor times. Horrible Histories’ Bill meets Blackadder in this farcical and fictionalised look at what “really” inspired William Shakespeare’s most renowned works, broadcast to celebrate what would have been the Bard’s 400th birthday.

In Monday’s opening episode, it is 1592 and rising playwright Bill (Peep Show’s David Mitchell) has had some stage success with his royal dramas (the Henrys), but is struggling to branch out into romance with his first draft of Romeo & Julian (“it’s a working title”) lacking a potent conclusion.

When his rival, “Master of Revels” Robert Green (Friday Night Dinner’s Mark Heap) demands our writerly protagonist babysit his lovelorn student nephew Florian (Kieran Hodgson) or have his play licence revoked, Bill has no option but to reluctantly agree. Will young toff Florian’s randy ways prove Bill’s undoing, or just the muse he requires to complete his unfinished work?

Upstart Crow. Image shows from L to R: Kempe (Spencer Jones), Bottom (Rob Rouse), Florian (Kieran Hodgson), Burbage (Steve Speirs), Condell (Dominic Coleman). Copyright: BBC.

Filmed in front of a live studio audience with some rather intrusive laughter signposting the punchlines, Upstart Crow is a tonally multifarious beast which takes its time to settle into a comfortable rhythm. The stagey, claustrophobic sets and high gag rate recall the hit BBC sitcoms of yesteryear, however these historical characters are gifted very modern, agitated demeanours – promoting female equality and moaning about the cheapness of knock-off brands, for instance – even when speaking in their olde worlde tongue.

“Bechambered hugger-tugger”

This is undoubtedly to make what many today believe to be highfalutin English literature palatable for a less-inclined twenty-first century audience (many jokes are made from Bill’s family failing to get the gist of his “flowery” dialogue without “lengthy explanation and copious footnotes”), but a couple of lazy anachronisms (“Master Bater”, “wankington”) sneak in simply because they raise an impish titter – as does the word “roistering” which is the only blatant case of Blackadder recycling (even if the plot veers close when a corpse is involved).

Bill strongly believes that “theatre should be challenging,” which makes Upstart Crow’s occasional reliance upon cheap laughs (“strum my lute”) all the more obvious. Thankfully in a script as replete with materials as this, a couple of awkward and cringey duds can be forgiven, as can its tongue-in-cheek potshots at its iconic source material (126 sonnets being written from Bill to a young boy… “it was platonic!”).

The bulk of the action is set in Bill’s London digs with chambermaid Kate (Gemma Whelan) and illiterate Baldrick-alike dogsbody Bottom (Rob Rouse) often unknowingly providing the Bard with vital plot assistance. But “Star Crossed Lovers” is framed by scenes set in Bill’s Stratford-upon-Avon homestead. The calibre of the actors in these brief bookends (Harry Enfield, Paula Wilcox, Liza Tarbuck) implies that their roles will be expanded in later episodes – and on the merits of this scene-establishing debut I’m willing to return next week to see if that is the case.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars