The Living and the Dead (and the lack of a sense of place)

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,every night and allFire and sleet and Candle-lightand Christ receive thy soul”

It’s sung with a certain ominous hamminess – it’s fine. But, and this is a big but, the actual first verse (and forgive the phonetics) are

“This ane night, this ane night,every night and awle:    Fire and Fleet and Candle-lightand Christ recieve thy Sawle.”

Again, I open myself to charges of pickiness here- but the Lyke Wake Dirge is a song with a particular pedigree; it’s a northern song written in Yorkshire dialect, and recount the soul’s journey through purgatory and clearly has Catholic undertones. Yet The Living and the Dead makes great play of being set in Somerset. It’s a cracking song, but it’s completely decontextualized in as the title song. So, what about the other music used in the series? We hear The Brave Ploughboy – perfectly common folk song collected in the 19thcentury – no problem with that one. We also hear the tune of Bold Sir Rylas, again fine. But then it starts to get problematic- She Moves through Fair, an incredibly well known (indeed a little hackneyed) Irish song first collected in the early 20th century, then I am Stretched on Your Grave, another well-known Irish folk song, covered by many including Kate Rusby and Sinéad O  Connor – and crucially, the words and the tune were only combined from separate sources in the 1970s. 

Hopefully, you are getting my drift now- the music is cobbled together from old folk standbys which no doubt lurk somewhere side by side on Now That’s What I Call Folk Music 1. There is no sense of shaping or selecting the sound track; instead it feels that it’s a selection of folk standards that have been thrown together by people with no real engagement with folk music or the specific Somerset setting. This is a real shame, because Somerset has no shortage of its own excellently recorded folk tradition. Indeed, it was in Hambridge in Somerset that Cecil Sharpe recorded his first folk song “in the wild” – the Seeds of Love – from the gardener John England.  There has been no shortage of subsequent collection and research into the musical tradition of the county, I’d single out the work of Yvette Staelens and her Somerset Folk Map here.

This is all well and good; I admit I’m a folk music geek, and I’m probably hard to please. I’m admittedly perhaps not the target audience for the soundtrack. But what about other aspects of the programme’s mise en scene. As I noted above, the programme claims to be set in a specific part of the country, Somerset. The name of the village where it is set is Shepzoy  – and full marks here. That –zoy suffix is a genuine localised Somerset place-name element. It’s found in place-names such as Westonzoyland, Middlezoy  and Chedzoy. These are all found in the lower reaches of the River Parrett to the north-east of Langport. This is in the heart of the Somerset Levels – a distinct low-lying watery district characterised by many drainage ditches and channels, peat beds and wetlands. It’s an eery and unsettling landscape in its own right. Yet, none of this materialises on the programme. Instead, the landscape views (and there are lots of them) seem to be of rolling good quality wheat growing countryside – nary a fen or bog in view! Indeed, one episode a coal mine plays a part; although not well known, there was a Somerset coalfield, but this was well away from the levels and up in the north of the county. Once again, despite an attempt to localise the programme and embed it into a particular pays, it comes over as slightly tone deaf, managing to miss out detail, and not engaging with the reality of the human and physical landscape it claims to occupy. It is, in fact, filmed in South Gloucestershire, a very different landscape.

Now, not only am I a folk music geek, I am an archaeologist with an interest in historic landscapes- so not only not a good audience, potentially, the worst possible audience. I admit, I am probably being overly pedantic here- I am sure there are other things I could worry away at too (would a labour force as late as the 1890s been shocked by the introduction of a steam plough? ).

But I think the underlying lesson for me is that a good folk-horror needs to be genuinely sedimented into its landscape. Folk-horror as a genre arises out of a particularly English tradition of ghost story  and more broadly fantasy writing- figures such as MR James, Tom Rolt, R and Alan Garner are key here. In their writing, the stories are clearly situated in real, specific locations – drawing on existing exterior traditions and myths. MR James’ Burnstow in “Oh Whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad” is clearly based on Aldburgh or another small town on the Suffolk Coast. The landscape described in A Warning to the Curious is again clearly located in Suffolk. In other cases, he uses real locations-  St Bertrand de Comminges and Viborg – carefully slipping the plot lines into the interstices of real historical events and real people. The ghost stories of Rolt clearly draw on his knowledge of industrial archaeology and canals (for a good example read his ‘Bosworth Summit Pound’). Garner’s work which is situated more on the fantasy side of things than the supernatural, despite having some horrific elements within them, also has an incredibly strong sense of place. The brooding summit of Mow Cop (Cheshire) looms over the lives of the cast of Red Shift, whilst the plot of The Owl Service traces a plot drawn from the Mabinogion in a clearly described central Welsh location. In all cases, Garner, James and Rolt, these writers have researched deeply into the traditions, landscapes and practices about which they right. Their writing is organic and situated and it would be hard to transpose the stories to other contexts without losing something important.

This interest in particular places, the folding of chronology and presencing of the past and the central importance of specific places and landscapes, for me, lodges this British folk horror/fantasy tradition firmly into the English Neo-Romantic movement, which springs from a particular sensibility that sees the past as something that it perpetually immanent in the present, particularly in rural contexts. In some ways, this taps into the notion of the ‘archaeological imagination’ as described by Michael Shanks, who describes it as the urge

“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.

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1

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  1. It may be some time before I get a chance to watch this, as I'm on the \”wrong side of the Pond\” and all. However …… Wikipedia informs me that this is by Ashley Pharoah (not a spelling mistake on my part) and Matthew Graham the fellas behind Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. Would you say that those shows were better in their choices of music to evoke a particular time and place? (I'm genuinely curious.)


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