I’ve been watching the new BBC folk-horror production TheLiving and the Dead for the last month – it’s good; decent production values, often beautifully filmed, just this side of histrionic and tipping its hat to the ancestors (Wicker Man etc). I enjoy it, and I’ll watch the whole series. It’s just that something doesn’t quite sit right with me- I can’t seem to give myself over to it properly, and I’ve been struggling to work out why. It was watching last week’s episode, involving a blight on the wheat harvest that I finally started to twig why it wasn’t working for me. Enlightenment came when a song was played over a scene of the harvest. The song was a version of Reaper’s Ghost written in the 1930s by the US songwriter and musician RichardDyer-Bennet. My first reaction was “...but it’s not a pigging hayfield!” It was a wheat field – they are not the same thing at all. Hay is grass cut for fodder to feed animals; the scene was showing reapers harvesting wheat. Different crops, different times of year, different purposes. Now I’ll put my hands up and admit that it’s probably me being really petty – and that the point of the song was to give a suitably menacing ambience to the scene. Yet, it pointed to a bigger problem- that starts with the music, but is embedded in much of the rest of the programme.
Let’s start with the music – the title song is a version of the Lyke Wyke Dirge done by Bristol-based outfit The Insects. Again, a song with suitably menacing lyrics
“This one night, this one night,Fire and sleet and Candle-light
“This ane night, this ane night,Fire and Fleet and Candle-light
“To recreate the world behind the ruin in the land, to reanimate the people behind the sherd of antique pottery, a fragment of the past… a creative impulse and faculty at the heart of archaeology, but also embedded in many cultural dispositions, discourses and institutions commonly associated with modernity. The archaeological imagination is rooted in a sensibility, a pervasive set of attitudes toward traces and remains, towards memory, time and temporality, the fabric of history” (Michael Shanks 2012 The Archaeological Imagination, 25).
It’s the emphasis on the fragment, the ruin and the trace that is reflected in the Neo-Romantic tradition – the ruins drawn by John Piper, the rural and industrial scenes of Ravilious, the aerial fieldscapes of Peter Lanyon. No matter how abstract, no matter how surrealist, they arise out of specific landscapes and monuments. It is easy to see then, how ghost stories and tales of supernatural key into this tradition. There is nothing that presences the past more clearly and explicity than the appearance of a ghost.
So to bring slightly rambling post back to the beginning, for me the failure of The Living and the Dead is in its’ failure to root itself into a real landscape and tradition. It misses an opportunity to engage with the real traditions and landscape of Somerset, something I would argue that would have given it more depth, more heft, and would, like all good folk-horror, allowed to linger and perhaps seep out into reality. There is an absence where there ought to be a real place. It’s this lack of attention to detail that ultimately disappoints. It’s fast –food folk horror, it meets a craving, but fails to sustain.