Charlotte Spencer and Colin Morgan as the Applebys (Robert Viglasky/BBC)
WARNING: Contains spoilers!
Last night the BBC’s original six-part series, The Living and the Dead, reached its grand finale. Dubbed “Thomas Hardy with ghosts” by its creator, Ashley Pharaoh, the show – set in 1894 – saw a seemingly sleepy village in rural Somerset haunted by restless spirits from the past and faces from the future. With a plotline that turned on the uneasy tensions between science and the supernatural at the fin de siècle, I was curious from the outset. And while the series veered from the spine-chilling to the ludicrous, its slowly unfolding plotline kept me hooked. With a dearth of decent drama on this summer (save for the BBC’s brilliant adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent), this proved pretty compelling.
The show’s lead characters are Nathan Appleby, a former London psychologist (played by Colin Morgan, best known for Merlin), and his wife Charlotte, a society photographer who turns her hand to farm management (portrayed by Charlotte Spencer). At first, their relationship is playful and insouciant, a welcome rejoinder to those who suspect Victorian couples were uniformly prudish and cold in their private lives. Yet the Applebys are also plagued by the mysterious death of Nathan’s son from his first marriage and their frustrated efforts to conceive. Their marriage becomes increasingly fraught as Nathan is steadily more obsessed by his spectral visions and his desire to reconnect with his lost son, while Charlotte struggles to keep him invested in the present and the baby developing in her womb. Morgan and Spencer were a joy to watch, each retaining the audience’s sympathies to the shattering end.
In the series opener, the couple arrive in the village of Shepzoy, in Somerset – a place where they are on both the inside and out. The house, its estate and the farm are where Nathan grew up, and his inheritance, but their modish ways clash with the rural community. Nathan and Charlotte bear all the hallmarks of the metropolis and modernity – pioneers in their respective fields of psychology and photography. But their approaches to the supernatural are increasingly distant. The show’s ghostly visitations are seen as vestiges of superstition and something pagan, but are also very much rooted in the late Victorian vogue for spiritualism. Nathan places the vicar’s daughter in a trance to communicate with the dead and uses a Ouija board to try to communicate with his son. If any viewers were surprised by how readily Nathan flirts with the supernatural, it bears remembering that this was a decade in which the medically trained Arthur Conan Doyle joined the Society for Psychical Research and indulged in a spot of table-rapping. Among Shepzoy’s local community, however, Nathan is less a spiritual pioneer, developing instead a reputation as someone who can raise the dead.
The show delighted in exploring the clashes, or intersections, between science and the supernatural. Voices from beyond the grave are heard on a phonograph; faces from the past appear in newly developed photographs; and Nathan uses the psychedelic power of mushrooms to reach a new level of consciousness in which he may commune with the dead. (A standout scene for me, in which Morgan plumbed Hamlet-esque levels of melancholy madness.) In a blog post for The Conversation, Melissa Dickson discusses how the show draws out Victorian anxieties about scientific and supernatural phenomena and explores some of its literary forebears.
Genre-wise, The Living and the Dead was a delightful mishmash of Victorian Gothic and contemporary science fiction, plundering a range of other literary and cinematic styles in between. Pharaoh is a self-proclaimed Hardy fan, who adapted Under the Greenwood Tree for the small screen a few years ago. Charlotte, with her unabashed modernity, independence, and pragmatic approach to rural life, self-consciously recalls Bathsheba Everdene from Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1874). The show’s cinematography was also reminiscent of the naturalistic qualities of the recent film adaptation (directed by Thomas Vinterberg, 2015). Pharaoh is probably better known for his work on Life on Mars (2006-7) and Ashes to Ashes (2008-10) though and the final episodes of The Living and the Dead were awash with some of the elements fans had grown to love in these earlier shows. The hero’s turn from amiable everyman to frenetic outsider, his efforts to reach out and make contact with ‘the other side’, and his suicidal yearnings all chimed with the experiences of Sam Tyler.
The Living and the Dead was perhaps a little more uneven in tone, since its mind-bending approach to time-travel only became apparent as the series progressed (or perhaps unravelled). Those hoping for a straightforward Victorian ghost story might have been disappointed when the twenty-first century began to intervene, when a present-day psychiatric patient allegedly suffering postnatal depression tries to force her way into Nathan’s timeline.
For me the episode that seemed perhaps most off-kilter was the penultimate one when all hell broke loose in Shepzoy, with the vicar, farm hands, and Charlotte herself all encountering ghostly visions. From spectral images in a photograph to a burning tree, visions of hanging bodies and blood running through the woodland, this episode had it all. Finally Nathan’s experiences seemed to be vindicated, only for him to sabotage the vicar’s makeshift exorcism in order to maintain contact with his departed son. Perhaps the apocalyptic outpouring of this episode was simply a plot device to drive away his workers and bring out his own ambivalent response to the ghosts, leaving Nathan utterly isolated for the final episode. (In which all the ghosts of the previous week had miraculously disappeared, save for said creepy child.)
Yet the whole series was also a wonderful and affectionate pastiche of the ‘ghost story’ genre, offering something for everyone in terms of hauntings, with hints of demonic possession, creepy child ghosts straight out of The Turn of the Screw (1898), and even a whole spectral legion, which brought to my mind the myth of the Roman soldiers said to haunt the Treasurer’s House in York. Meanwhile, the village’s fondness for participating in creepy rural rites also seemed to recall more recent horror, such as the original Wicker Man movie (1973).
Each episode functioned as a standalone mystery while also acting as a piece of the puzzle in a much broader narrative arc. Suspense-wise, I felt each story hit the mark but there was never much explanation of how or why one village was the centre of so much paranormal activity – and contemporary violence. As well as revenants from the past, there were plenty of ghoulish goings-on in 1894, from a schoolteacher murdering the object of her affections in the woods (and then being haunted by her spirit) to the attempted drowning of a possibly schizophrenic young man. Were these actions propelled by some sort of demonic energy bubbling below the fields?
The finale provided some much-needed narrative closure, reuniting Nathan and Charlotte, bringing the clash between past and present to a head, and tying up all those niggling loose ends (the mysterious bright light in the forest finally confirmed as the headlights of Lara’s yellow car). But it also raised some tantalising questions. When the farm workers unearthed said car from the murky marshes on Nathan’s estate, the unsettling temporal shifts suddenly seemed all the more discombobulating. Then, just as Nathan and Charlotte’s wedded bliss appeared restored, there was a jaw-drop ending when our protagonist woke up in the middle of the night and found an early twentieth-century séance being conducted in his living room. In one of those rewind/rewatch moments, Nathan was asked by a partygoer how he murdered his wife. As my mother and I turned to each other to mouth “which wife?”, the closing credits rolled.
I’m not sure what the hell was happening for half of it, but The Living and the Dead was pretty riveting television all the same. The mind-bending aspect seemed part and parcel of what Pharaoh had planned. When the series first launched, he told the Telegraph he’d been “thinking a lot about what hauntings actually are. Are they echoes from the past or something else?” The way in which the series ruminated on the nature of the supernatural seemed to capture something of the curiosity of nineteenth-century spiritualists and scientists.