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Scott Brewster, Review of The Living and the Dead (dir. Alice Troughton and Sam Donovan, writers Ashley Pharoah, Simon Tyrell and Robert Murphy, BBC, 2016)

2016 September 27
by lucinda matthews-jones

Scott Brewster is Reader in Modern English Literature at University of Lincoln. He is co-editor (with Luke Thurston) of The Routledge Handbook to the Ghost Story (Routledge, 2017).

Ashley Pharoah is perhaps best known for Life on Mars (2006-7) and Ashes to Ashes (2008-10). The shows gradually disclosed traumatic experience through a startling mix of police procedural, psychological disturbance, time travel, and highly self-aware recreations of the recent past that happily accommodated anachronisms. His new six-part series, The Living and the Dead (some episodes are co-written with Simon Tyrell and Robert Murphy), transports many of these elements into a ghost story located in rural Somerset in 1894. It exploits an array of late Victorian concerns and staple features of the supernatural tale: spiritualism, hypnosis, spirit photography, the new woman, dissident sexual desires, a curious clergyman and, at its heart, an anguished physician who flits between science and the occult. Yet the show deals with ghosts from the future as well as from the past. It is set in Shepzoy, a remote, fictional village largely bypassed by the Victorian age. This anachronistic community is an appropriate location for the disturbances in the fabric of time that take place, with figures from our present day, and the English Civil War, appearing in the meticulously-recreated period setting.

Nathan Appleby, played by Colin Morgan

Nathan Appleby, played by Colin Morgan

The central protagonist is Nathan Appleby – played by Colin Morgan, of Merlin fame, so no stranger to magic and the otherworldly – a psychologist who returns to Shepzoy with his second wife Charlotte (a subtly captivating performance by Charlotte Spencer) to restore the fortunes of the family estate in the face of agricultural recession, as his mother lies dying. Nathan and Charlotte are Gothic interlopers who bring the ‘curse’ of change to this remote community, whether it is through Nathan’s pioneering work on the mind, or Charlotte’s photography and faith in technological innovation. Nathan has recently been invited to Vienna to give a talk on psychological trauma (no prizes for guessing who might be in the audience), while Charlotte introduces new machinery when she becomes farm manager and counters crop pests with hard science. They both agree that a railway should be built across the estate to safeguard their finances. Increasingly, however, the modern mingles with the ancient in the lives of these determined futurists. Nathan’s homecoming coincides with the summer solstice bonfire; the head of the Appleby household always lights the fire, and Nathan would seem to represent illumination against the dark. Yet he also seems to understand the old world; he leads the singing of a ploughing song, rather than a hymn, at the funeral of a farm-worker killed by his plough. Charlotte, too, drifts back in time, and turns to herbal potions concocted by her loyal maid, Gwen, to help conceive a child. The uneasy co-existence of new and old is suggested by our first sight of Nathan, where a sepia photograph of him standing in a wheat field gradually transforms into a live shot.

In its conception, the series owes clear debts to the past. In an interview with The Telegraph, Pharoah has acknowledged the influence on The Living and the Dead of ‘touchstones’ such as the BBC adaptations of M. R. James’s ghost tales in the nineteen-seventies, and that strand of British folk horror epitomised by Witchfinder General (1968). Other cinematic traces are visible: the animal masks worn by some villagers in episode five recall Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), while the traumatic memory of a drowned child and a mysterious, red-coated figure echo Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). Yet the strongest stimulus is later nineteenth century literature. Pharoah observes in the Telegraph interview that ‘Thomas Hardy with ghosts – that was my elevator pitch’ (28/6/16). He previously adapted Under the Greenwood Tree, and this production vividly captures the seasonal rhythms, agrarian traditions and insistent pulse of dread so familiar in Hardy’s novels.

Farm Workers in Episode 3

Farm Workers in Episode 3

For all the faithful evocation of farm work and folk traditions, however, the series unsettles any heritage-drama assumptions, and the viewer can never bask in the warm colours of the English summer and early autumn. The Midsummer Eve celebrations at the end of episode three offer a premature sense of festive reconciliation, as Nathan’s dead son Gabriel returns to watch the revelry. Similarly, the reassuring continuity represented by the harvest offering in the next episode is undermined as the produce soon becomes maggot-infested. Visually, we are distracted by unsettlingly lifelike scarecrows in the fields, gloomy woodland, half-open doors and, typically for the television ghost story, shadowy or indistinct figures glimpsed at the edge of the frame. Several episodes play with the concept of spirit photography, and this places Charlotte, rather than Nathan, as the medium who communes with spirits. The interior design in Horton Court, a National Trust property that has featured in Wolf Hall and Poldark, deploys dark swirling wallpaper, sombre drapes, book-lined studies, and multiple mirrors and doorways to frame and distort perspective, and imply Nathan’s transformation from benevolent feudal master to distracted, spirit-haunted recluse.

For Nathan, the return to the family home unearths a painful past; as the lugubrious but trusty farmhand Gideon observes, ‘what lies beneath should be left beneath’, but Nathan remains in a state of what Freud would have termed incomplete mourning. Gabriel was sent to Shepzoy to be raised by his grandmother after the death of Nathan’s first wife, and it is here that the boy drowned in a pond. During what he calls this ‘strange summer’, Nathan has a growing number of encounters with the supernatural, and he becomes increasingly obsessed with contacting his son after he hears his voice on a phonograph cylinder. As a result, many villagers come to believe that Nathan can see and raise the dead. In truth, everyone becomes a ghost seer. At Charlotte’s prompting, Nathan attempts to cure various haunted members of the community by returning to his ‘magic psychology’. Nathan treats these cases through an embryonic talking cure that lies at the fringes of official medicine, and his authority as healer in Shepzoy seems to derive primarily from his status as landowner rather than from his professional credentials. His patients are sensitive, vulnerable figures with unfulfilled aspirations (educational or sexual), and they mirror the ghosts that perturb the community, including the unbaptized, a herbalist drowned as a witch in the 1860s, and child miners abandoned in an Appleby mine.

Charlotte Appleby, played by Charlotte Spencer

Charlotte Appleby, played by Charlotte Spencer

Many of the living and the dead in the series are outsiders, at odds with their own time, and cannot reconcile themselves to change, or to personal loss. Reverend Denning, Nathan’s occasional confidant, counsels that we must embrace the new and the old, but the spectral visitations that beset the village severely test his faith. His daughter Harriet is permitted to read the ‘unsuitable’ books of Ibsen, Zola, Darwin, but despite – or because of – this progressive attitude, Nathan has to cure her of spirit possession with an impromptu baptism. Denning is subsequently forced to attempt an exorcism on All Hallows’ Eve to rid the village of ghostly Roundhead soldiers, who appear to be re-enacting a massacre in Shepzoy during the Civil War. His ritual is forestalled by Nathan, who fears that Gabriel’s spirit will also be banished, and Denning is stricken by visions of villagers hanging from trees. This scene reanimates the violent discontinuities of English history that challenge the ideas of improvement and progress espoused by Nathan and Charlotte, and also graphically illustrates an insistent, disconcerting demand for sacrifice that underlies the narrative.

The Living and the Dead follows previous television ghost stories that show the contemporary period – the viewer’s own time – invading or haunting the present time of the narrative. Such stories speak of how the past influences the present, but also suggest how a glimpse of the future, however misunderstood, can shape our present actions. In the first episode, Nathan sees a jet vapour trail in the first episode, then encounters what we surmise is a modern-day ghost-hunter, who we finally learn is Lara, his great-great granddaughter. In later episodes, Nathan is almost run down by Lara’s car, he sees ‘a book of light’ (Lara’s tablet) that other ghost-seers like Harriet and Gabriel have witnessed, and the final episode opens with Lara with her baby in a contemporary hospital, and suffering from the persistent visions of a dead child that drove her mother to suicide. This is perhaps the most telling connection of all the temporal disruptions. Nathan’s theories on traumatic memory anticipate our current appreciation of how family traumas and ‘ghosts’ (loss, abuse, silences) can be passed on through different generations, and how in Lara’s case this haunting can be medically contained. A recurrent refrain of the show relates to the lies and evasions perpetuated within families and communities, but there is little sense from the final episode that we are now enlightened. Despite PTSD diagnoses and an extensive therapy industry, how we might heal or alleviate psychological damage, right a past wrong or achieve a form of closure remains an open question for us. The Living and the Dead offers no comforting resolution: the contemporary survivor, Lara, must make the ultimate sacrifice to ease her ancestor’s pain. The final scene of the series, which anticipates further ghostly visitations and shocking revelations for Nathan, suggests that the wounds of the past have not healed (and also, more prosaically, hints at a second series). The hauntings of Shepzoy may cast a keen eye on the Victorian culture of mourning, but equally they may highlight our own ways of deflecting or denying loss.

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