The Living And The Dead Spoiler-Free Preview
Okay, so it’s a period drama and there’s scything. But sorry, Colin Morgan fans, no shirtless shots for you here.
Well, not in the first episode at least, which is all BUZZ has seen so far. The entire six episodes of The Living And The Dead go live on the new online BBC Three tomorrow (through the BBC iPlayer) and the series will air on BBC One from 28 June, but it’s difficult to work out from this first episode quite how good the ongoing series might be. On the other hand, there are enough intriguing hooks to make sure we’ll be checking out episode two as soon as it’s available. Not least of which is one very peculiar – almost meta – moment almost exactly half way through the premiere, which no one in the episode comments on, but which will have viewers going, “Huh?” Well, the ones that don’t simply think it’s a just a blooper anyway. It hints that there’s something bigger going on here than is obvious in this opener.
Without giving too much away, it’s a supernatural tale, set at the arse end of the Victorian era when the industrial revolution is making its mark on the countryside. Anyone who’s ever read Tess Of The D’Ubervilles will find the way the rural workers distrust the new steam-powered machinery that’s taking over their work very familiar. The show also has fun with other new-fangled technology: wax recording cylinders and cameras.
While there are hints that the supernatural elements and the new technology will dovetail more in future episodes, this opening instalment plays more like a traditional Wilkie Collins-style period ghost story with early adopter trimmings. However, “period” and “psychological ghost story” are two things the Beeb do well, so even if it a conveyor belt of tropes at times, it never looks less than gorgeous, with lush cinematography and camerawork, and is impeccably acted.
Having said the casting of Colin Morgan is a little bit of misstep. Nothing wrong with his acting, for sure – he’s maturing into a fine Ben Whishaw clone. But he’s supposed to be a man who’s been married twice, lost a child by his first wife, and has had an acclaimed career in psychology. Trouble is, Colin Morgan still looks about 20! But if you can look past that, his character, Nathan, is a fascinating twist on the “sceptical scientist adventurer”. His wife, Charlotte (Charlotte Spencer) is great too; she comes over at first like a ridiculously over optimistic free sprit, far too much in love with occasionally plodding husband, but the cracks start to show as the episode progresses. And the cracks make her interesting. Well, that, a very fetching military hat.
Although a lot of the spooky suspense devices are very familiar (and much of the supernatural plot, to be honest) it is stylishly directed for maximum chill effect by Alice Troughton and there’s some interesting Peaky Blinders-ish use of music.
So this is a solid, though hardly jawdropping, opening episode. There are hints the series will start revealing its unique selling points in future episodes, but such elements are low key here: the link with technology, that moment of oddness, a slight hint of The Wicker Man in the locals. You can’t help wondering why The Living And The Dead doesn’t want to play its hand early, though. Even if a show’s designed to binge watch, if it’s a new show, the audience will use episode one as a taster – you’re not going to commit to five more hours if the first one didn’t grab you. And with The Living And Dead we can’t help thinking that while some may notice the subtle ways in which it’s offering something new, others may just think, “I’ve seen all this before.”