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

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“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

No good ever came of sit­ting on the grave of some­one who died trag­i­cally.

There was some­thing off about this Neigh­bour­hood Watch meet­ing, if he could only put his fin­ger on it…

Char­lotte Spencer plays Nathan's wife, Char­lotte Ap­pleby.

"You know, I re­ally pre­ferred you with­out the beard."

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