We’re really getting into the spirit of things with Ashley Pharoah’s new Victorian ghost story for the Beeb.
New BBC drama The Living And The Dead is “Thomas Hardy with ghosts”, as creator Ashley Pharoah tells Richard Edwards
“Most ghost stories are short,” says Ashley Pharoah, creator of BBC One’s spooky new drama The Living And The Dead.
“It’s, ‘Oh my god, there’s a ghost!’ End of story. So when the head of drama at BBC Wales said, ‘What about doing a Victorian ghost series?’ I was a little bit lukewarm! How do you come back every week and do that? Do they want Jack the Ripper? Foggy London streets? In winter?”
The fact you’re reading this means it shouldn't be a huge surprise that Pharoah, one of the brains behind Life On Mars and Ashes To
Ashes, worked out a way around the problem. “I was about to say no,” he continues, “then I thought, what if we flipped the tropes and did it in midsummer, in the countryside at the time when the Industrial Revolution came and changed everything, when Darwin was essentially saying that God was dead. Then tell the stories about the place I’m from, the West Country, in an interesting new genre which I hadn’t done before. That got me excited. By the time I got home from lunch I’d phoned the head of drama back and said, ‘Okay, Thomas Hardy with ghosts!’”
Moving to the country
The Living And The Dead is based in rural Somerset in 1894. Chief protagonist Nathan Appleby (Merlin and Humans star Colin Morgan) is a young, London-based psychologist who returns to his family home, Shepzoy House, to take over running the estate with his wife Charlotte (Glue and Stonemouth’s Charlotte Spencer). Country life proves a huge contrast to their cosmopolitan lives in the capital – the farm is still run as it would have
been hundreds of years earlier, the lives of its numerous labourers as-yet untouched by the rise of machines. In such an environment, the introduction of steam-powered labour aids and new technology like the camera were always bound to make waves.
“I’ve always been fascinated by that time,” explains Pharoah. “To get your head around a way of life that really hadn’t changed for centuries, then in about a decade it changed completely. That’s why I find the reverend character [in the show] interesting. He’s an intelligent educated man who’s just read Darwin – but what does that do to your headspace?
“I wanted to get a sense that everything is changing. People were obsessed with the afterlife and the occult and mesmerism and mediums. Photography was starting to take off, and you could record people’s voices. Some of the stuff I googled is horrific. When people died, they dressed them up in their clothes and propped them up and took photos. There were dead babies dressed up in finery. They used to record people’s voices and put them beside graves for a time. The Victorians were weird about death, so it’s an incredible time to look at within this genre.”
Nathan is the Scully in a world of Mulders, a man of science whose world view is forcibly shifted through the series. In episode one, for example, he encounters a girl who’s going through an even more extreme personality shift than your average teenager. It couldn’t have anything to do with the malevolent spirit of a recently deceased local criminal, could it?
“Nathan’s our scepticism,” says Pharoah. “I thought the idea of making this guy a psychologist in London was interesting. It was a new science to study, and the people that were being presented to that new science were often people that had had their heads fucked by people obsessed with the occult. That seems a really interesting character to take on a journey. In episode one he’s a complete sceptic, but even by the end of that story he’s thinking, ‘Shit, what did I see?’ By the end of episode six, he has gone completely barking. He’s seeing things that are just too terrible.”
In fact, says Pharoah, the initially rational Nathan (who’s lost his first wife and child by the time we meet him in the story) is actually the thread pulling together all the disparate spooks going bump in the night.
“There are stories of the week,” he explains, “but as the series goes on it becomes clear that each story is about Nathan Appleby. His personality seems to be generating them. The hardest thing was turning them all into a series.
Each ghost story couldn’t be a standalone story – it had to echo and wrap itself around our series arc. You could just drop in and watch episode four and you’d understand it, but [if you’ve watched it all] you’d understand it a lot more because you’d know why that certain ghost story is where it is.”
Finding the audience
Primetime BBC One is well known for its period drama. It’s less well-known, however, for its bone-chilling horror – a fact Pharoah and the team behind the show were well aware of. “You do have to think about that normal BBC One audience who wouldn’t naturally go to watch Nina Forever,” he laughs. “We have to realise we’re not making it for a horror audience, though we’re really hoping that some of those people that wouldn’t normally watch BBC One will come and have a look – that’s down to us, really, to grab them.
“We’re very conscious that we’re not making a movie. You can’t go in horror guns blazing because that leaves you nowhere else to go. How would you come back next week? So the word we used on set rather than horror, was eerie. MR James is not that explicit, and that kind of moodiness is what we tried to get, certainly in the first two or three episodes. If you point a camera at a beautiful wheatfield on a lovely July day, that’s a really pretty image. If you let that shot stay a bit beyond its welcome and stick a few crows on the soundtrack, we enter into eerie.”
As for that Victorian setting, don’t expect a prim-and-proper period drama. The whole point is that the characters should feel modern – and behave as they would now.
“I didn’t want BBC period speak to get between the characters and the audience,” says Pharoah. “And also, I went back and read a lot of Thomas Hardy, which was set in that period. His dialogue feels incredibly modern. If you look at a page of Hardy it’s not period speak. And I wanted it to be very clear. I wanted a marriage that’s as modern and sexy as I could get away with in a period drama. So although Nathan and Charlotte behave as they would when they’re working, when the last servant goes home at night and the doors are locked, they have a very modern relationship.” If there’s one thing in The Living And The
Dead that is supposed to feel old, however, it’s the house. Casting the building meant looking at “about 50 houses”, before settling on Horton Court, a National Trust property in South Gloucestershire. “It hasn’t been lived in for 20 years, so it’s literally falling apart,” explains Pharoah. “It’s on its own, there’s no traffic, and it had this pond next to it, which in my mind I wanted. The National Trust had so little money that the roof was falling off, and there literally were bats in the attic – there still are. Within reason they said we could do what we want. It was completely perfect casting for us.”
Not least because Horton Court appears to have some hauntings of its own.
“We were working on an episode and I said to the sound engineer, ‘What’s that noise?’ Pharoah recalls. “He said, ‘That is an actual haunting.’ Just out of interest he’d left his sound equipment running all night when we’d all gone home, and he recorded these really weird noises – they sounded like human voices and he’s used them in the mix.
“And there were a few other weird things that happened. The oddest one, they were filming at two in the morning and they heard the telephone going. Everyone got grumpy and wanted to go home and they’re looking for this phone but couldn’t find it. The next day they said they hadn’t had a phone line in there since the 1950s. I don’t think of myself as particularly susceptible to that stuff, but I wouldn’t have hung around there on my own late at night!”
The Living And The Dead comes to BBC One in June.
The Victorians were weird about death, so it's an incredible time to look at within this genre
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