Supernatural drama The Living And The Dead promises to darken summer nights on BBC One
Somerset 1894. When a pioneering Victorian psychologist and his vivacious young wife are brought back to the family estate after the death of his mother, he is soon faced with one disturbing case after another.
Are all these strange events linked merely by coincidence, or is there something more sinister - more supernatural - going on at Shepzoy?
Executive Producer Ashley Pharoah says: “Point a camera at a field of wheat on an English summer’s day. What do you see? A blue sky over yellow crop. A soft breeze moving the wheat like an inland sea. The murmur of a bee. It’s pretty. It’s comforting, nostalgic. But let’s leave the camera running. Keep our attention fixed on that same landscape.
“Perhaps a cloud slides across the sun, slowly darkening the yellow. Or a stronger gust of wind makes the branches in the trees grind. A crow caws. Now the English landscape can feel unsettling, a place drenched in a history that includes war and death and unhappiness. Eerie, that’s the word.
“And that was the starting place for The Living And The Dead, to see the skull beneath the skin of English pastoral.”
The series is set in an isolated Somerset valley in 1894, a place where the implications of the industrial revolution are still being keenly felt, a place where centuries of living a certain way of life are coming abruptly to an end. Into this place comes Nathan Appleby and his young wife, Charlotte. Nathan charming, intelligent, is a brilliant London psychologist, a pioneer in that new science. Many of his troubled patients come to him as a result of that Victorian obsession with death and the afterlife, damaged by mesmerism, mediums, Ouija boards, automatic writing.
Nathan is a man of science, and believes that everything has a rational explanation. Charlotte Appleby is his vivacious, independent wife, herself something of a pioneer as a leading society photographer in London. When they inherit the run-down farm of Shepzoy House, none of their friends expect them to actually go and live there and learn to be farmers, but the Applebys have lived there for generations and his sense of duty and belonging is powerful.
Ashley continues: “Story by story, episode by episode, Nathan’s belief in science is undermined and finally shattered: one of the children on the farm is haunted by the ghosts of mining boys who died a generation ago; a haunted mill; a murder victim; a demonic visitation from Civil War ghosts. As summer moves through harvest to autumn and then winter, the stories get darker and nastier, until the entire community is involved and threatened.
“It’s that something glimpsed out of the corner of your eye. That sigh in your ear. It’s the worm in a cider apple. The maggots in the dead deer. The sound of a crow on a summer’s day.”
We caught up with star Colin Morgan. . .
Tell us about your character, Nathan Appleby
Nathan is very much a man who has suffered and been through a lot.
He is adamant that he is going to solve his problems, be that through people, through his work as a psychologist or, as he ends up doing, confronting himself by moving to the house that he grew up in.
Why does he return to Shepzoy House?
He’s not only coming back to inherit the estate, he is reawakening everything that is related to it: his son died there, his mother died there, his wife almost certainly died there too. For him to come back and to try and make a life there is hard.
Describe the relationship between him and Charlotte.
The relationship between Nathan and Charlotte is very much the centre of the drama - it’s the heart and soul of it. They are two people desperately in love and desperately looking for happiness. They can’t possibly comprehend what they are about to take on, or what is going to take on them. What awaits them in Shepzoy, the house that Nathan grew up in, is a cask of the unknown and a fair amount of horror, which is both dramatic and difficult for them to overcome. But essentially it’s a story about a couple whose relationship is put to the test.
Is Nathan torn between the scientific and supernatural?
He has been educated his whole life to believe that aspects of the supernatural are aspects of the mind, they are delusions that can be very much explained scientifically. To start to see things that challenge that belief is very, very unsettling for him. Nathan begins to experience things both through the locals and himself that put him to the test and force him to really tread the line between the scientific and the supernatural.
What impact does that have on Nathan?
When more and more people are coming to him, and he starts experiencing things himself, he becomes enraptured in the world, very obsessed and very internal. It digs up his demons and one of them is his dead son Gabriel.
What was it like filming?
It is a dark series and it was a very challenging but fun shoot. It was very creative and collaborative. We were lucky to be working with such fantastic scripts, which were genuinely very engaging to read. The joy of getting to do projects that are close to your heart and that you feel very passionate and driven about is that when you are on the set filming, you do catch yourself thinking, ‘We’re actually doing it.’
What can viewers expect?
The Living And The Dead is a blend of horror, love, supernatural, relationships, life, death, losses, grievances, joy.
The Living And The Dead is on Tuesday at 9pm on BBC One.