tue 11/05/2021

Marchlands, ITV1 | reviews, news & interviews

Marchlands, ITV1

Marchlands, ITV1

A shaggy ghost story that could do with cutting back on the clichés

A young girl runs in slow motion through the woods, the cameraman in hot pursuit: this is only the opening seconds of ITV1’s new drama series, and already I was wondering to what degree this new five-parter was going to test my cliché tolerance level. But fortunately Marchlands pulled itself together and settled down to spend most of its first hour just letting us get to know the three families who had lived in the Marchlands house over the four previous decades.

Via a series of inventive dissolves we were moved with seamless ease from 1968 to 1987 to 2010, and quickly made aware that the running girl was the daughter of the 1968 family and had died in tragic circumstances, yet she was clearly still a presence in 1987 and 2010. You didn’t have to be clairvoyant to work out that at some point the latter two families were going to have their cosy little worlds disrupted by some spoilt child of a ghost, presumably miffed that her life had been curtailed at such an early age.

Yet the ghost story that has five hours in which to spread out its scares has a huge advantage over the 90-minute feature film: the makers can crank up the tension by emphasising the domestic normality of someone, say, just climbing a flight of stairs or opening a nursery door, while teasingly – to begin with, anyway - introducing the supernatural elements in the subtlest of ways. And to a degree that’s exactly what Marchlands started out doing. So that when Helen’s washing machine misbehaved just after she’d torn up a drawing daughter Amy had done of her “imaginary friend” Alice, it was a genuinely creepy moment.

But then the supernatural alert light went up to red, and the first humdinger of a cliché made its appearance. Amy’s father gave her a cat for promising not to talk to her imaginary friend any more. As soon as I set eyes on that cuddly little moggy, I knew it wasn’t long for this world. And sure enough, just before the credits rolled we saw its stiff body floating in the pond. “Alice didn’t mean to do it,” Amy told her parents - presumably empathising with her imaginary friend, who had been forced by the writer to be so pet-drowningly predictable.

Then there are the second-degree clichés, such as the mysterious mural behind the wallpaper, the accidental (though not accidental) fall from a stepladder, and the fact that the ghost girl is called Alice. (I wonder how many mysterious Alices there have been since Lewis Carroll’s template?) Also, the anachronism can be as irritating as the cliché: it’s highly unlikely that any lower-middle-class family in 1968 had orange juice with their breakfast.

But perhaps I’m being a little harsh: genre fiction does have its hard-and-fast rules. The first of these is to give the fans what they want while also occasionally taking them by surprise. So, on the plus side it was novel and effective to have much of the action take place in bright daylight; the dialogue was on the whole fresh and naturalistic, and there was enough in episode one to make me curious about what happens next. For example, what connects the three families living in the three different time strands? In 2010, Mark has started to behave suspiciously, and his pregnant partner Nisha has suggested that if their child is a girl they should call her Alice (sweet Jesus, what is she thinking?!). In 1968, Paul seems to be blaming Ruth for the death of their daughter, and in 1987 there’s that stiff cat in the pond, implying much worse is to come.

Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage managed to put the wind up me in under two hours, BBC Three’s Being Human somehow manages it while simultaneously being laugh-out-loud funny, but we’ll just have to wait and see if, in the end, Marchlands delivers the kinds of scares that its length gives it the time to luxuriate in. Or if it just turns out to be a slightly spooky shaggy dog story. However, a cast list that includes Alex Kingston, Jamie Thomas King (Mad Men, The Tudors) and Dean Andrews (Ashes to Ashes, Life on Mars) gives one hope. And things do pick up a little in episode two.

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