THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, 1.5 (TV Review)

BBC One – 26th July 2016 – 9pm

Written by: Peter McKenna

Series created by: Ashley Pharoah

Directed by: Sam Donovan 


 

CHAOS BEFORE CLARITY

Following last week’s leftfield cliffhanger, this penultimate episode in Ashley Pharaoh’s chilling period mini-series intensifies the “supernormal” activity, but does away with the story of the week template in favour of a more all-inclusive village-wide assembly of incidents.

It is All Hallows Eve in Shepzoy, and the farming community and out-of-town railway workers are uniting to mark the pagan tradition with typically folksy gusto. The date also marks the anniversary of the All Hallows Massacre, which centuries earlier saw the sword-slashing Roundheads ride on Shepzoy, hunting and gutting all in their way, “the ground sodden with blood…” Lovely.

It is gruesome visions of this historic bloodbath which this week manifest themselves to the fearful villagers, with the city-dwelling railway engineers driven out by the superstitious hauntings, after “townie” Smith (Harry Peacock) is terrified by the ghost of a hanging victim in the copse.

Maud Hare (1.3’s Elizabeth Berrington), meanwhile, is growing increasing concerned about living side-by-side with evil, as the mark of a noose grows more pronounced around her neck, and Nathan Appleby (Colin Morgan) is so consumed by his belief in the presence of his dead son and glimpses of a woman in a red coat carrying a book full of moving pictures, that he drags poor Harriet Denning (1.1’s Tallulah Haddon) back into the hot seat for another session of doctorly hypnosis.

“They’re coming for you, Nathan, they’re coming for you.”

Harriet’s father, village priest Father Denning (Nicholas Woodeson), is furious at Nathan’s ungodly meddling in the occult, until the whole village witnesses both a blazing tree which leaves no ash and a spirit army of Roundheads charging translucently through the forest. Reluctantly, he agrees to an exorcism, but Nathan is less than keen when his pregnant wife, Charlotte (Charlotte Spencer), reveals some startling evidence in the background of one of her photographs…

The hauntings intensify, the visions more frequent and the truth harder to ascertain in episode five of The Living And The Dead. A lot occurs in this busy hour of drama without the plot ever really progressing or the mystery becoming any clearer. Colin Morgan expertly portrays a spiral into insanity, while Peter McKenna’s screenplay is an effective exercise in tone and atmosphere. I suspect we are in for a spectacular finale next week, but if you aren’t binge-watching this as a boxset and catching it in weekly instalments then this is less satisfying as a standalone story, with no palpable beginning, middle or end.

CR@B’s Claw Score: 3 stars

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