THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, 1.3 (TV Review)

BBC 1 – 12th July 2016 – 9pm

Written by: Simon Tyrrell

Series created by: Ashley Pharaoh

Directed by: Alice Troughton


 

DUCKING THE HARE

“You will reap what has been sown.”

Harvest time is upon Shepzoy and tension is in the fields, perfectly encapsulated in the sombre folk song which riffs and repeats during key scenes in this eerie third episode of the BBC’s Tuesday night period drama. New Farm Manager Charlotte Appleby (Charlotte Spencer) is apprehensive about her first reaping being a success, while her psychologist husband Nathan (Colin Morgan) is suffering from insomnia following the death of tragic Charlie last week.

There is once more an episodic feel to proceedings with Charlie’s grieving mother (Pooky Quesnel) departing her home to make way for a new supernatural case file. This arrives in the twitchy form of nervous and highly-strung Peter Hare (Peter Emms), who is disturbed by voices and visions of a woman persuading him to sacrifice his mother, Maud (Elizabeth Berrington), to guarantee the wheat will not perish.

References to the reverend’s daughter and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from the deceased John (Steve Oram) from the opening episode do begin to paint proceedings into a larger panoramic portrait, so too a climatic tease to the return of Nathan’s haunted past next week, but this also works successfully as a gripping one hour supernatural adventure.

“We must evolve and embrace the new.”

Incoming episode scribe Simon Tyrrell successfully incorporates creator Ashley Pharaoh’s ever-present theme of tradition vs. progress, with the old-school farmworkers fearful of a cursed crop and looking for a witchly scapegoat to string up when an infestation of “black devils” swarms the sheaths. Can the new mistress “break the spell” with some scientific pest control, or will nature further dampen their spirits?

With more hallucinations and yet another night time wander, The Living and the Dead does veer perilously close to overusing its stock terror tropes, but the expanding story, weekly mysteries, eerie air and character’s convictions more than make up for the shadow of familiarity. Episode 1.3 is a strong and spooky, measured and moody addition to a prime portfolio.

CR@B’s Claw Score: 4 stars

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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

Aaaaaaaah! (Blu-ray Review)

18 – 79mins – 2014


 

MONKEYING AROUND

With a title which handily doubles up as a review of the film, Aaaaaaaah! is the uncompromising brainchild of Sightseers star Steve Oram, who writes, directs and stars in this lo-fi quasi-horror satire on what would happen if man’s innate nature rose to the fore. The Mighty Boosh’s Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt, as well as a glut of other familiar faces, all pop up along the way to shed their dignity and go bananas in publicity-boosting roles.

Filmed in 2014 but only seeing release via the “Frightfest Presents” banner this past January, it’s not difficult to see why this brave/experimental cult status-destined statement on society struggled to find a distributor: even at a brisk 79 minutes it is a trying and perplexing watch.

Set in a surreal alternative universe (or it could be a post-apocalypse dystopia, this is never established) where humans have devolved to tree-humping, shit-slinging, ape-like savages, yet still wear clothes, drive cars, watch TV and live in houses, the film doesn’t take long to boggle your perception of reality, with alpha-male Smith (Oram) pissing on a wedding photo of his wife, before his beta, Keith (Fielding’s frequent collaborator Tom Meeten), obediently wipes his dick.

With dialogue completely replaced by primal grunts, we are forced to gawp in bewilderment at the often disgusting behaviour of these recognised faces, with Toyah Wilcox (seriously!) gamely dry-humping a cabinet, sticking her head in a microwave and being unceremoniously pelted with the dinner she has just made for her animalistic beau (Green Wing’s Julian Rhind-Tutt).

Violent, vulgar and often explicitly sexual (monkey’s masturbate a lot, see), this isn’t for the squeamish, easily offended or swiftly bored. Society is debased through acts of uncouth depravity (thieving, infidelity, abuse, gang war), but for all its perceived immorality, it’s all thoughtless and done without malice, simply to scoff, sleep, sex and survive – there are no ape expectations here.

With this outlandish scenario expanded beyond the everyday family dynamic to showcase examples of this society’s idea of sitcoms, cartoons, cookery shows (if you thought Nigella flaunted her cleavage, you ain’t seen nothing yet!) and video games, Aaaaaaaah! is a complete vision, but distractingly inconsistent. So mankind has evolved enough to make toilets and cutlery, yet people still shit on the kitchen floor and eat like savages? Likewise, how is it that cocaine exists as a recreational drug if people don’t know how to use it?

Props to Steve Oram for seeing his surreal concept through, it’s certainly a unique and unpredictable experience – not to mention a frightful prospect – and it marks him out as a filmmaker to look out for. However, as a piece of entertainment, his divisive debut feature is just too frustratingly uncanny to be devoured in one sitting – or maybe I’m just too much of a Neanderthal to appreciate it?

CR@B Verdict: 2 stars