The BBC’s series The Living And The Dead seemed to be one of the more overt explorations of some of the themes of folk horror and the spectres and patterns beneath the land that I have seen in mainstream broadcast drama in recent times.
It also had an underlying sense of the schisming, fracturing, crossing over and fragmenting of time, in a manner that brought to mind both Sapphire & Steel and some more hauntological concerns.
This was not all that unsurprising when I read that The Living And The Dead was co-created by Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes writers/co-creator Ashley Pharaoh, both of which series were almost like a mainstream take on hauntology and which dealt with travelling and possible portals through the fabric of time.
In a further interconnected Mathew Graham also wrote the script for the Radio 4 adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape, which as part of its subject matter deals with the layering, resonance and travelling through time of past events.
The plot/premise of the series? Below is some of the accompanying text from the DVD release:
“…set in rural England in the 1890s… Nathan Appleby, a pioneering psychologist, inherits Shepzoy House in a beautiful but isolated Somerset valley… he decides to make a new life for himself and his… wife, Charlotte… soon the idyll is compromised by strange and disturbing occurrences that all seem to inexplicably swirl around the increasingly troubled Nathan. Is he being haunted? Why? And by whom?”
Although a treat for the eyes in many ways, at times I found The Living And The Dead difficult in that it lacked a certain lived in texture which seems prevalent in British science fiction, fantasy and period drama television.
This coupled with the self-contained mystery-to-be-solved nature of each episode (after about the second or third of which I was thinking “Well, I expect I’d be planning on leaving the village about now”) threw me off course with the series somewhat when I first watched it but I thought it was an interesting and intriguing take on its themes in the way that it explored preternatural events and the clash and interaction between the old ways and the new, folk/supernatural beliefs and modern scientific thought within a rural setting.
Some of the imagery used in the series put me in mind of Benjamin Stone’s photographs of British folkloric customs, which I suppose is not that surprising considering it was set around a similar time as when he was travelling the country photographing such things.
While some of the folkloric hooded figures from the series made me think of the found photographs of halloween in previous eras that Ossian Brown collected in his book The Haunted Air, particularly in spirit (pardon my unintended pun) if not precisely in terms of aesthetics.
One aspect of the show which was of particular interest was the music, which was by The Insects and in the first episode the traditional folk song was sung in a rare modern appearance by former Cocteau Twin member Elizabeth Fraser. Something of an additional treat indeed.
Also, the introductory credits featured excerpts from Stan Brakhage’s experimental film from 1963 Mothlight, which was in a previous AVT Guide and in which layers of natural detritus and insects were filmed without the use of a camera but rather he “…pressed them between two strips of 16mm splicing tape. The resulting assemblage was then contact printed at a lab to allow projection in a cinema. The objects chosen were required to be thin and translucent, to permit the passage of light.”
In a further intertwining and interconnecting with rurally set fantastical worlds, as I have said previously around these parts, Mothlight was a direct influence on a dream sequence in The Duke Of Burgundy…
Elsewhere Elizabeth Fraser also sings a brief excerpt from the traditional folk song The Lover’s Song, which is a variant of the night-visiting ballad The Grey Cock and which involves a young woman who has passed from the mortal realm visiting her lover.
When she is asked where here sheets and maids are, she replies:
“The clay it is my bed, my dearest dear,” she said,
“The shroud is my white Holland sheet.
And the worms and creeping things are my servants, dear,” she said,
“That wait upon me whilst I am asleep.”
It could be seen as belonging to a strand of folk music that could well be considered folk horror but that was created before that phrase existed
(The filing of this song alongside Forest’s Graveyard, Mr Fox and Comus may well be appropriate, although they belong to 1970s folk explorations rather than traditional folk.)
The soundtrack also features a version of A Lyke Wake Dirge, as once taken into the pop charts by Steeleye Span, which according to Wikipedia is:
“…a traditional English song that tells of the soul’s travel, and the hazards it faces, on its way from earth to purgatory. Though the song is from the Christian era and features references to Christianity much of the symbolism is thought to be of heathen origin.”
So nothing of folk horror-esque concern there then.
The version in The Living And The Dead is not so much Steeleye Span-esque but rather if you imagine a contemporary take on the fringes of mid-80s goth and a touch of Nick Cave in years gone by you may be heading in the right direction.
And finally on the soundtrack is a version of traditional harvest supper folk song The Brave Ploughboy.
The version sung by The Watersons features these lyrics:
“So early in the morning to harrow, plough, and sow
And with a gentle cast, me boys, we’ll give the corn a throw
Which makes the valleys thick to stand
With corn to fill the reaper’s hand
All this, you well may understand, comes from the ploughing boy.”
Well, I rest my case in terms of pre folk horror folk horror-esque folk music in terms of the soundtracks themes and intertwinings.
(File Under: Cathode Ray & Cinematic Explorations, Radiowave Resonations & Audiological Investigations)
The Living And The Dead trailer
A Lyke Wake Dirge
The Reaper’s Ghost
(Although it does not seem to be widely available and I don’t think it is available on a physical format, The Insects soundtrack to the series is available to download at their site.)