Talk of the devil

24 September 2015

1:00 PM

24 September 2015

1:00 PM

For years, Ian Fleming was famously self-deprecating about the James Bond books. (‘I have a rule of not looking back,’ he once said. ‘Otherwise I’d wonder, “How could I write such piffle?”’) Towards the end of his life, though, he finally produced an essay in their defence — proudly pointing out, among other things, that however fantastical the plots may become, they’re always carefully rooted in a world recognisable as our own.

Of course, this is not something that can necessarily be said of all the Bond films — but it certainly applies to ITV’s new three-part thriller Midwinter of the Spirit (Wednesday), based on the novel by Phil Rickman. It also explains why the programme already feels so promising.

The main character is Merrily Watkins, played by Anna Maxwell-Martin: an actress so good that she even made Esther Summerson in the BBC’s Bleak House seem appealing rather than infuriatingly pious. Recently widowed, Merrily lives with her stroppy teenage daughter and can often be seen driving her Volvo estate around the bypasses of Herefordshire. She’s also a vicar — but one, like Adam Smallbone in Rev, whose regular-person status is constantly emphasised, not least by the fact she sometimes smokes. (Oddly in our anti-tobacco era, television is increasingly using a fondness for cigarettes as a humanising signifier.)

But, along with her general parish duties, Merrily is now being trained in the rather more specialised area of exorcism — or ‘deliverance ministry’ as the church has apparently rebranded it. The urbane local bishop wants ‘a new kind of deliverance’, more in keeping with contemporary attitudes. He’s therefore keen for Merrily to replace the old-school figure of Canon Dobbs, with his Latin chanting and unmistakable resemblance to Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future.

Even in the training sessions, the programme’s blend of the fantastical and the recognisable stayed firmly in place. The down-to-earth instructor stressed that most cases of ‘possession’ were purely psychological. He also mixed his more metaphysical utterances with modern office jargon, explaining that ‘deliverance requires a wide skill set’ — before joining Merrily outside for a fag. (He’s human too, you see.)

Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for her skill set to be tested. Hearing of her new position as the diocese’s ‘deliverance consultant’, the police called her in for a rare case of crucifixion — complete with crown of thorns — in the local woods. A man dying in hospital was emanating such pure evil that the nurses were scared to go near him. Canon Dobbs had become even more bonkers than ever. And could it be that her daughter’s new friend is not entirely without satanic links of her own?

Faced with this material, the programme-makers could easily have opted for either camp or melodrama. Instead, the tone strikes a perfect balance: serious, but never too earnest or self-conscious — and with the horror-movie stuff proving properly scary, while still neatly combined with the familiar and domestic. Given Merrily’s likability (and doubts about her own competence) the plot is not just intriguing but also emotionally engaging. We may not yet know how or if the Devil is involved — but one thing does already seem clear: that Midwinter of the Spirit is an ambitious, and so far distinctly satisfying attempt to create what might be called Middle-England Gothic.

Elsewhere on ITV, meanwhile, the network’s extravagant celebrations of its 60th anniversary continue. Amid the more high-profile shows is the quietly charming Britain as Seen on ITV (Mondays) — which simply presents a selection of well-chosen archive clips about national life, with a linking commentary that’s understandably amused but almost never sneering.

In this week’s episode the theme was games and pastimes — which duly plunged back to the days when blokes with eccentric hobbies were a television staple, and we were never far from the next local news item about a middle-aged man with a large train set. Happily, the theme also allowed for some clips from the ever-reliable Indoor League, the 1970s series featuring ferociously contested pub games and presented by Fred Trueman with a pint, a pipe and a deep commitment to brown clothing.

As it turned out, I’d remembered Fred’s plucky stabs at showing enthusiasm quite well — but had forgotten that the games themselves were given the full TV-commentary treatment. ‘Alan Brown is really rubbing it in now,’ yelled the voice-over during a disappointingly one-sided match of shove ha’penny. ‘That’s a flopper!’ confirmed another when the contestant knocked down all nine indoor skittles.

Even so, the finest clip of the lot came from 1960 when a spookily posh woman in a mad hat did her best to get excited about a 24-hour rock’n’roll dance marathon — and to demonstrate her knowledge of youth slang. ‘Dig this,’ she began in her impeccably clipped tones. ‘These cats belong to the Riverside Youth Centre in Leamington Spa.’

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