The Living And The Dead Series One REVIEW
For the finale
For the rest
Airing on BBC iPlayer (BBC One from 28 June)
Creator: Ashley Pharoah
Directors: Alice Troughton, Sam Donovan
One thing’s for sure: it’s worth sticking with The Living And The Dead for its final, frustratingly weird episode. Sure, it only answers about half the questions you’ve got about what the hell’s been going on; plus it raises a while load more, then ends almost begging for a second season. On the other hand, if there isn’t a second season it’ll stand as one of the great enigmatic final episodes of all time, alongside The Prisoner’s and Quantum Leap’s (but not Lost’s which did give a lot of answers but they were all bobbins). It’s the kind of thing you need to get on a forum and argue the hell out of.
The series itself is far from perfect, but it does show a refreshing willingness to at least try to do something different with a familiar genre – the Victorian ghost story, with themes of faith versus science. Perhaps, as we suggested in our earlier preview, it did itself a disservice by not focussing on those differences a little earlier, but at least when it did embrace them, it ran with them. Big time.
There’s also the slight nagging feeling that there wasn’t quite enough of story here to warrant six episodes; or conversely that six episodes was too short. The series couldn’t quite make its mind up if it was a mini-series or a case-of-the-week show. Shorter, it could have been tightened up and pacier; longer and it would have had to have decided what it’s weekly formula was. Instead it fell between two stools.
But mostly, The Living And The Dead was a success. The underlying story was an enticing mystery, with those glimpses of present day working as the perfect hook to draw you back for the next episode. The weekly stories – if a little stodgy at times – always boasted some striking visuals and spooky moments. The theme of technology invaded the rustic ideal gave the period setting an edginess that sometimes these cosy 19th century supernatural tales lack.
It was impeccably directed. Perhaps Alice Troughton in the first three episodes captured an earthy, ethereal, force-of-nature feel to the supernatural elements better than Sam Donovan’s more on-the-nose approach, but both gave us some gorgeous imagery, tight pacing and tense set-pieces. This was a great, and often unusual looking show, with an extraordinary soundscape too; not just in terms of bold musical choices but the use of sound effects and unnerving background white noise too. The noise of aircraft engines or a car turning up in the Victorian countryside was often more striking than the sight.
There was a solid cast too. Charlotte Appleby (Charlotte Spencer) was like a loveable ball of energy as a woman ahead of her time trying to make her mark in male world. You can’t help thinking that, in the real world at that time, she would have had things considerably more difficult but she’s so front loaded with cheery optimism it’s just possible she could have managed a farm on charm and self-belief alone.
She needed to be strong, because her husband’s falling apart. And here we have one of the series’ other main problems – Nathan. It’s not Colin Morgan’s fault. He’s proven time and time again what a superb actor he is, and when he goes into full-on bonkers mode in the final episode he is utterly magnificent. But before that he seems to be flailing a bit with a sketchily-written character. Nathan doesn’t so much descend into madness, as trip over his own shoe-laces into it.
There’s a nice twist going on with Nathan but the scripts don’t capitalise on it. He’s the man of science who starts losing his faith… in science. That runs counter to the trope we usually get with the Victorian scientist adventurer who derides the supernatural. Nathan so desperately wants to believe his son can come back to him that he becomes the healer who cannot heal himself; or, in this case, the psychologist who doesn’t realise he’s losing his marbles.
And that’s great. Or it could be. Sadly, the show doesn’t take full advantage. Nathan instead seems pretty fine for four episodes then just suddenly goes fruit loop. Now, it’s only to be expected that a proper English Victorian gentleman wouldn’t talk about his feelings, so the transformation would be quite sudden. But in a TV series it’d be nice to have a little more foreshadowing than a line or two from his wife about a sadness within him, or whatever. Because with a more mapped-out approach to his descent we’re sure Morgan could have done wonders with the role. Instead, he does his best to flesh out a character who’s remarkably difficult to empathise with. (Though he did have some very nice jumpers that made him look like a 1960s geography lecturer and a coat that made him look like 1990s arts student. Maybe they, like the car, travelled back through time…?)
Overall, though, despite a lack of focus on occasion, The Living And The Dead was well worth sticking with. It certainly brought something fresh to the genre and had one hell of a pay-off. Even if that pay-off left you wanting even more pay-off.
Hey, it’s always best to leave ’em wanting more.