Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Is The Living and the Dead "Thomas Hardy with Ghosts"?

Proving that ghost stories aren’t just for Christmas, the BBC deviated from the broadcasting mantra that spine-chilling shows are best served up on a cold winter’s night by including The Living and the Dead in the summer schedule for 2016.

Nathan Appleby, played by Colin Morgan.
Set in 1894, the series centres around troubled psychologist, Nathan Appleby, whose interest in the paranormal stems from the untimely death of his first wife and their young son. Episode one opens with Appleby returning to his ancestral home of Shepzoy in Somerset to visit his ailing mother. When she dies Nathan and his new wife Charlotte decide to leave London behind for good to start a new life running the estate they have inherited. 

Filmed on location at Horton Court in Gloucestershire, the 16th Century National Trust property provides a suitably eerie setting for a ghost story with its dimly lit corridors and creaking floorboards. So far, so Gothic. However, scenes filmed out in the bright summer sunlight can be every bit as unsettling for the viewer. Cue lingering shots of crows circling the expansive corn fields.

The series definitely has a filmic quality to it and the cinematography of The Living and the Dead combines elements of the typically Gothic setting Misha Kavka outlines in her study ‘The Gothic on Film’ (2002), such as ‘heavy built wooden doors that close without human aid’ and ‘high, arched or leaded windows that cast lingering shadows’, with the extremes of light and dark and unusual camera angles which she also identifies as Gothic. [1]

Shepzoy Manor, Horton Court in Gloucestershire
The Living and the Dead draws heavily on local history, folk tales, rural traditions and superstitions, and the village preparations for a Midsummer’s Eve bonfire bring The Wickerman (1973) to mind. True to form, the young couple haven’t been in Shepzoy long before supernatural events disrupt the rural idyll – starting with the possession of the vicar’s daughter by the spirit of an evil man who died without being baptised. Appleby is duly drawn in to investigate, but this is not a series where the supernatural is explained by his psychological insight. Acting against claims that the girl is mentally disturbed, hormonal, or merely staging an elaborate hoax, he treats her demon as a ‘real’ entity who wants something – in this case, a baptism.

The show’s writer, Ashley Pharoah has billed the series as “Thomas Hardy with ghosts”[2] and the debt to Hardy is not only evident in the rural landscape and focus on country life, but also in the female lead. The character of Charlotte Appleby has clearly been inspired by Bathsheba Everdeen in the way in which she is determined to make a success of the estate, and she tackles the typically male role of farm manager with the same vivacity as Hardy’s heroine in Far from the Madding Crowd (1874). As a professional photographer by trade, Charlotte represents modernity in the face of tradition and is instrumental in bringing about technological advancement in an isolated community which the Industrial Revolution has passed by.

However, the farm machinery she purchases to increase efficiency is not embraced by her workers, and is later sabotaged. Plans to bring a railway line to Shepzoy, which would enable their goods to reach market faster, are also thwarted. The age-old rhythms of country life are disrupted by new technology, and disturbing land when you don’t know what lies beneath is never a good idea! The Gothic trope of the past resurfacing is repeatedly called upon, perhaps most literally when a young boy is haunted by the ghosts of five orphans when tests on the land unwittingly disturb an old tin mine where they had been left to suffocate years before.

Thomas Hardy is not someone who automatically springs to mind when discussing the Gothic, and despite him having penned stories such as ‘The Withered Arm’ (1888) his links to the genre have not generated a huge amount of critical attention. The idea of adding ghosts to the Hardy aesthetic for The Living and the Dead raises the question of how Gothic is Pharoah’s source material? Hardy certainly knows how to make a heroine suffer without recourse for ghouls or ghosts, and then there are his thematic concerns with origins, ancestry, illegitimacy and fate to consider. To pose Sheffield Gothic’s favourite question (and theme of our meetings this semester), but is it Gothic? 

A Laodicean; or, The Castle of the De Stanceys (1880-1) is an example of a Hardy novel heavily influenced by the conventions of the Gothic Romance. David W. Jarrett identifies the work as ‘a deliberate and comprehensive reworking of the Gothic romance’ and notes how it ‘attempts to bring the machinery of the old romance into the world of Victorian scientific “progress.”’[3] In respect of technological advancement, A Laodicean has much in common with The Living and the Dead.

In the novel Paula Power inherits the castle purchased by her industrialist father from the De Stancey family. Paula is torn between tradition and modernity and the clash between the new world and the old is dramatized in her confusion regarding whether she is more attracted to George Somerset, the architect she has employed to modernise the crumbling castle, or Captain De Stancey, the impoverished scion of the estate who presents Paula with a romanticised vision of aristocratic lineage.

Photography plays a pivotal role in the plot as William Dare, an amateur photographer who is the illegitimate son of De Stancey, manipulates an image of Somerset so that he appears as a dissolute drunkard. The aim, of course, is to promote his father in Paula’s affections with the hope that the De Stanceys will regain the family estate. In The Living and the Dead photography is also important, but not because of its potential to mislead. In this case photographs can reveal truths not perceived by the human eye. Thus Charlotte, the voice of rationality and scientific progress, is forced to re-evaluate her beliefs when she captures an image of Nathan’s dead son on camera.

Charlotte Appleby, played by Charlotte Spencer.
Whilst The Living and the Dead is not the kind of series to give you sleepless nights (that is unless you are of a very nervous disposition), there are a few jump scares as the camera cuts and you spot a face in a mirror or a figure looking in through a window. Where the series is particularly successful is the way in which it questions the nature of ghosts and hauntings by subverting the idea that they are traces or echoes of the past. Pharoah has basically taken the traditional Gothic tropes that we’re all familiar with and then added an unexpected twist.

Without wanting to give too much away, the series raises the possibility that you can be haunted by the future as well as the past. Is that haunting or time travel? You decide. To use a Hardy coinage, the final episode ends on a cliffhanger, but the BBC have said that they do not intend to commission another series – then again, they said that about Ripper Street and that’s still going.

[1] Misha Kavka, (2002). ‘The Gothic on Screen’ in J.E. Hogel (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 209-229.

[2] Ashley Pharoah quoted by Neil Armstrong in The Telegraph [28/06/16]: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/tv/2016/06/28/the-living-and-the-dead-is-thomas-hardy-with-ghosts--and-time-tr/Telegraph article

[3] David W. Jarrett, (1974), ‘Hawthorne and Hardy as Modern Romancers’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 4, pp. 458-471. 

Hannah 'Malingering' Moss is a PhD researcher on perceptions of architecture in the 18th Century Gothic novel at the University of Sheffield and is the giddy madness at the core of Sheffield Gothic. She enjoys long walks beneath circling crows, disrupting tin mines and checking her photos for children's ghosts. Rebel.

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