TV review: The Living and The Dead, BBC One (3 stars)

TV review: The Living and The Dead

Supernatural period drama starring Colin Morgan and Charlotte Spencer

The BBC has a long history producing quality Victorian ghost stories, in particular the wonderful series A Ghost Story for Christmas, which became a festive tradition in the 70s. The Living and the Dead builds on that reputation, with a spooky period drama set in 1894.

After a death in the family, doctor Nathan Appleby (Merlin's Colin Morgan) and his photographer wife Charlotte (Charlotte Spencer) find themselves trapped running a rundown farm in Somerset. The obstinate locals resist their attempts to modernise. The local vicar comes calling, seeking help with his daughter Harriet (Tallulah Haddon), a teenage girl who appears to be losing her grip on reality. Nathan searches for a rational medical explanation: is she genuinely haunted, channelling the spirits of the dead, or simply suffering from multiple personality disorder?

Interestingly, the BBC is experimenting with the Netflix model. They've dabbled with early releases on iPlayer before with BBC 3 content, but never with such a high profile BBC One drama, and all episodes will be available as a boxset 11 days before it hits TV.

This meandering opening episode is a perfectly serviceable scene-setter, moodily depicting their dreary rural life. The highlight is the fantastic chemistry between Morgan and Spencer, whose relationship feels effortlessly real. The folksy soundtrack and country setting reminiscent of the pastoral horror of The Wicker Man.

The series was created and written by Ashley Pharoah, co-creator of the bizarre sci-fi/cop/fantasy mashup Life on Mars. The Living and The Dead is more sedate, trampling more obvious ground, drawing on several spooky clichés (faces suddenly appearing in mirrors, creepy Victorian dolls, dead children, etc.) but just when you think you've seen it all before, the closing seconds throw you a massive curve ball that will have you hooked.

The Living and The Dead is viewable on iPlayer from Fri 17 Jun then screens on BBC One, Tue 28 Jun.


1. James West19 Jun 2016, 5:48pm Report

I felt the mood and setting were perhaps more reminiscent of something like Blood on Satan's Claw or even The Turning of the Screw than The Wicker Man, still, definitely influenced by the folk horror tradition. Despite being a tad derivative, not bad as these things go. 3 stars is spot on.

2. Maureen Smith20 Jun 2016, 7:07pm Report

Is it suitable for children? I'm fine with spooky stuff, just not anything sexual?

3. Sally West20 Jun 2016, 9:26pm Report

I really enjoyed this first episode. Well acted, atmospheric and quite creepy! It reminded me in tone of The Turn of the Screw with overtones of Freudian angst and pastoral weirdness! Country folk are strange! What sets this apart from the usual Victorian ghost story is the pretext that the characters are being haunted by ghosts from the future - the scene where Colin Morgan's character looks up when he hears a strange sound only to see a jet stream above the country churchyard was quite startling! This is promising stuff and worth watching.

4. Marguerite Haston21 Jun 2016, 11:18pm Report

am i imagining it, or was our attention drawn to a rumbling in the sky during episode one, which appears to have come from the jet stream of a plane?? i am very confused....

5. Ali Rose26 Jun 2016, 2:37pm Report

I want to know if there will be a soundtrack available or at least a detailed track listing. I love folk music and some of the adaptations of songs are lovely and unusual.

6. redskelf3 Jul 2016, 7:53pm Report

What I don't understand is in episode 2, it transpires that there had been an historical mine collapse, deemed to be too expensive for the rescue of the five boys to be attempted, yet two men were able to walk in through several tunnels and find the boys' bodies, with apparently no trouble at all. I'm trying to get into it, but so far I would only give it two stars. It promises much and delivers little.

7. Hannah Webb7 Jul 2016, 7:33pm Report

Not predictable at all. Eerie and atmospheric. Answers some questions and creates more in every episode. Watch as a box set on BBC iplayer if you can't wait. Here's hoping there is another series. Four stars.

8. Louisa Moore22 Jul 2016, 12:09am Report

Oh dear...I wish I could see what the positive reviewers saw, but to me this is what happens when a writer comes up with a great premise but then has no idea what to do with it. I so wanted to like it, and the end of the first episode did look promising. But since then it's been cliche after unbelievable cliche. By the end of episode three I was actually cringing. I can't deny that it's stylish...but style without substance doesn't count for much. What originality it has is spread way too thin, and padded out with mildly creepy but hackneyed ghost stories and a few cheap jumps. I'd be interested in what that last scene of episode one was all about...I'm just not sure I care enough to stick it out in the hope of a satisfying conclusion.

9. victor laidlaw27 Jul 2016, 9:15pm Report

The first five episodes were creepy and it seemed that Nathan could see in to the future. But episode six was ludicrous,what on earth was that all about time travel? how could those back in 1894 be pulling a motor car from the ground and what happend to Nathan,s great, great granddaughters baby?. As for Nathan walking in on seance set in the future the mind boggles. Dont bother with another series.

10. Jaine Ross1 Aug 2016, 12:26pm Report

I think this could have been better as a 2 parter. The majority of episodes 2 - 5 could have been condensed to serve a better end. I dragged myself through to the end and ok it was a good general idea in the long run but! I get that the girl was seeing the dead and from the point where she died she could see the living of the past but how exactly did she see Nathan (alive) when she was alive thus causing a car accident that buried the car in the past?

Without the explanation of this plot element it makes no sense and makes me less likely to watch another series. A swing and a miss.....but oh so close.

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