TV miniseries review: The Living and the Dead (2016), directed by Alice Troughton and Samuel Donovan
Do not cross the hayfield, the hayfield, the hayfield …
tl;dr: Spirits, scenery porn, haunting folk music, period drama, wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff, I LOVE IT!
It’s the 1890s and after the death of his mother, psychologist Nathan Appleby (Colin Morgan) with wife Charlotte (Charlotte Spencer) return to Shepzoy in Somerset to take over the newly inherited family estate. Neither of them have run a farm before, but they’re willing to give it a go, especially since it employs most of the local villagers. Nathan’s profession, which he thought he left behind in London, is soon called back into action when Harriet Denning (Tallulah Rose Haddon), daughter of the local vicar (Nicholas Woodeson), has strange fits. It’s almost as if she’s … possessed. This possible connection with the supernatural draws Nathan’s interest, for a variety of reasons. Is there a way the living and the dead can communicate with each other?
Also starring Malcolm Storry as Gideon Langtree, Kerrie Hayes as housemaid and hedgewitch Gwen Pearce, Elizabeth Berrington as Maud Hare, Chloe Pirrie as Lara, Joel Gillman as Jack Langtree, and Marianne Oldham as Mary Denning.
Let’s start with the music, because one of the first things you encounter in a TV show is the theme tune. The Living and the Dead uses a centuries folk song called The Lyke-Wake Dirge. Or, as the soundtrack makers, The Insects, say: “The song has pagan pre-Christian origins and tells of the soul’s travels on its way from earth to purgatory.”
If that rendition doesn’t send chills down your spine, you’re probably not in the right mindset for this show.
There are more excellent songs, so if you like the show, you can treat yourself to the soundtrack straight from the makers by buying the album as a digital download. #MoneyWellSpent
Second: the scenery porn! Nature and the seasons changing, Shepzoy, the hayfields, the countryside … Everything looks absolutely stunning, especially if you’re into things like nature and old buildings. You can almost smell the earth and the hay and feel the autumn mist on your skin.
Third: It’s a period drama with period costumes! This is obviously a selling point, even if the Victorians saw to it that cravats fell out of fashion.
Fourth, and really it should have been higher on the list, but IT’S A SHOW ABOUT GHOSTS AND SPIRITS (win!) AND IT’S ACTUALLY PROPERLY SPOOKY (double win!). Being a, hrm, paranormality nerd, I’m picky about these things, and for the most part find stories about haunting spirits unconvincing. (Yeah, yeah, whatever, each to their own and all that. 😛 ) Episode five in particular made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, because it was super creepy. It wasn’t just about cheap scares and “hah, made you jump!” but setting an eerie mood, which I think was done very well. Every episode was very well done, even if the last one was, uh, weird. (Let’s just say the ending can be summed up as “How did … what … but … huh? That’s not … whuuut?!” whereas the epilogue was more of a “*gasp* CLIFFHANGER!” and now, knowing the BBC have decided not to make a series two, we’ll never find out what the hell happened. Boo!)
Fifth, and this was the most surprising part, wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff. I won’t go into detail (because spoilers), but I really wasn’t expecting anything along those lines. You could say the end of the first episode went from “I’m really liking this” to “I’m really lik—wait, WHAT just happened?! NEXT EPISODE NOW! NEED TO KNOW MORE!” Fortunately, the BBC had decided to put the whole box set on BBC iPlayer so I could bingewatch it at my leisure AND then watch it every Tuesday night when it was on live.
Sixth, the actors themselves deserve a mention. Enjoyed the lot of them. Very intrigued by Colin Morgan’s beard as well. (He really rocks that beard.) Merlin has matured into a very handsome fellow and a fine actor to boot! The characters played are sympathetic (for the most part), each with their flaws, and feel very human as a result – even when they’re in the middle of very supernatural goings-on. Nathan is probably the trickiest character to pinpoint whether he’s sympathetic or not, because he does take a turn for the worse – and poor Charlotte has to try and sort it all out, while also having a farm to look after. Charlotte rocks – not a beard, though, she just rocks in general.
It’s bittersweet that when I finally decide to sit down and write about the show and look up stuff for it, I find out that it’s been cancelled. In a way, the six episodes (due to be broadcast in the USA right about now) are self-contained as a story anyway, and you could argue that it’s better left alone considering the actual ending, because the ending was final, and you’d have to try and explain too much of the timey-wimey stuff if you were to continue. This is why that amazingly intriguing epilogue is such a downer in retrospect, because now we’ll never find out what actually happened at Shepzoy House. At least Nathan looked as baffled about it as the TV-viewing audience, eh?
So – to sum up: The Living and the Dead was fucking amazeballs and I wanted to see more of it, but it’s not to be. Will console myself with the soundtrack and at some point get the DVD. The first and last series was spooky and gorgeous to behold, and I’m sad there won’t be any more of it.
5 out of 5 cursed mill ponds.