Midwinter of the Spirit, ITV
Hunted, Channel 4
The Secret Rules of Modern Living, BBC4
I pulled down all the shutters, turned off the lights and sat very close to my TV before watching Midwinter of the Spirit. It had been billed as being a little bit scary – a new drama about exorcisms and the occult, oh my! – and I quite fancied being a little bit scared.
Well, it would at least be novel – what, in truth, is there that’s genuinely spooky on modern television? There are shocks, yes, and plenty of gore – most episodes of Game of Thrones end with you metaphorically scraping your jaw up from the carpet as your favourite character literally does the same. But where are the truly horrible imaginings, the conceptual mind-melters and the indelible images that lead to the night sweats and the heebie-jeebies? A few months ago Sky showed a really quite good three-part drama called The Enfield Haunting about a real life case of a supposed poltergeist. It was exquisitely made, well acted and the scenes in which the furniture moved chimed perfectly with my recurring flat-pack nightmare. And yet the scariest thing was Tim Spall’s weight loss. There have been several other attempts to spook us – last year’s Remember Me, with Michael Palin, 2012’s The Secret of Crickley Hall, with Suranne Jones – but I remain to be convinced that TV drama can ever properly chill the blood.
That’s not to say that Midwinter of the Spirit didn’t give it a damn good try. It told the story of Merrily Watkins (Anna Maxwell Martin), a priest and trainee exorcist, brought in by the police to work on a brutal, ritualistic murder in her new parish. The previous local priest had lost his mind in the face of some ineffable evil that was emanating from a wizened old child abuser currently on life support on a hospital ward. Merrily, who had just graduated from exorcist school under the tutelage of one of those troubled old men who warned her not to tarry in the spirit world, soon found herself tarrying in the spirit world.
The first hurdle for any of this something-wicked-this-way-comes type of thing is of course suspension of disbelief. I call it the phooey test – the minute something rankles, be it in the dialogue or the action, that has you tossing your head back and saying, ‘This is whack, I wonder if there’s something about immigrants on Channel 5 this week?’ then the game is up. Midwinter of the Spirit was unimpeachable in this regard. Credit should go to the director Richard Clark and his sound department for creating, and then maintaining an atmosphere of festering unease. Credit too to scriptwriter Stephen Volk – where this story is going, what we’re expected to think, was left unclear at the end of episode one. Dramas spread over several weeks habitually opt for whopping great pointers and tacky lures between episodes. Midwinter of the Spirit was disturbing because it offered neither.
Anna Maxwell Martin as Merrily Watkins was also terrific, remaining believable as a woman of faith even as unbelievable scenarios whirled around her. Maxwell Martin managed to keep the otherworldly commendably worldly. Indeed, Midwinter of the Spirit would have been an interesting drama even without the spooky topping – Merrily’s relationship with her teenage daughter, for example, was beautifully drawn and played.
But it was never quite properly scary. It’s probably pointless to complain about ad breaks half a century after the founding of commercial television, but I mentioned the importance of atmosphere in horror and there’s nothing that quite kills the buzz like cutting from a crucified corpse to a 3 for 2 on avocados. It’s doubtless a futile objection but a valid one in this age of binge watching. Midwinter of the Spirit was great – it will be greater when it comes out on boxset.
Just because TV drama lacks the power to make the flesh creep, that’s not to say there’s not plenty of anxiety and dread to be had on television if you know where to find it. Hunted on Channel 4 reached its halfway stage this week and it’s turned out to be a very modern horror story. On the one hand it’s a simple, brilliantly effective reality show: 15 contestants have to disappear; a group of former detectives sat behind banks of screens have to track them down. But on the other hand, it’s a parable. It’s 15 Winston Smiths taking on The Party. It’s free will vs thraldom. It’s Dr Ricky Allen, an instant folk hero these last few weeks because he had managed to evade capture for more than a fortnight, saying, “No matter how much you spy on somebody you can’t get in to their head.” (Ricky was spotted on CCTV mere minutes after this eloquent observation and captured half an hour later.)
Hunted, I would posit, is about as close to unnerving as you’ll find on TV at the moment, because it plays on the primal fear that we’re not in control of our own lives. Big Brother is watching you, quite literally these days via CCTV, but he also has access to your phone records and if that doesn’t work then Automatic Number Plate recognition should do it. The spookiest thing that ever happens to me at the moment is when my phone or computer seems to know what I want before I do – there is a new spirit world out there, but you don’t need a Ouija board to find it: it’s in Silicon Valley.
Which was why The Secret Rules of Modern Living, Marcus du Sautoy’s exploration of algorithms on BBC4, was actually the scariest programme of all this week, even though it was meant to enlighten, not disturb. As with most elucidations of the power of technology it began simply but ended ominously – algorithms are everywhere in our lives, an invisible hand, as du Sautoy put it, that have now become self-adapting organisms. They know you better than you know yourself. That primal fear I mentioned about not being in control of your own life? You’re not. It makes Number 6’s famous assertion from The Prisoner that he is not a number, he is a free man seem both naive and inaccurate – he is a series of numbers. Scared? You should be.
Also published in The Telegraph Review