cast: Alex Kingston, Dean Andrews, Shelley Conn, Jodie Whittaker, and Tessa Peake-Jones

creator: David Schulner

245 minutes (15) 2011
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
ITV DVD Region 2

RATING: 2/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Marchlands 1960s

Marchlands 1980s

Marchlands today

In the introduction to a selection of M.R. James’ ghost stories published by the Folio society in 1973, the legendary TV dramatist Nigel Kneale argued for an essentially Freudian interpretation of James’ work that sees in stories such as Oh, Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad an attempt to come to terms with the tensions between James’ inner desires and his public life as a noted Cambridge mediaevalist. In truth, the reality of James’ life resists the flat-footed Freudianism of adaptations such as Jonathan Miller’s famous Whistle, And I’ll Come To You (1968), but Kneale’s instincts remain fundamentally sound. There is a deep kinship between the ghost story and the psychoanalytic process; in that both are fundamentally concerned with unearthing things that would much rather remain buried.

Ghost stories generally begin with an unusual event; a mysterious figure, a slamming door or inexplicable sounds in the night. When the protagonist of the story encounters these unusual events they are (for reasons of their own) obliged to investigate them. The process of investigation is primarily historical; the protagonist delves into the hidden past until they uncover some long-buried traumatic event – a death, a suicide, or some great crime against the laws of God and man. When the protagonist uncovers this traumatic event, he confronts it and so brings it out into the open, forcing the trauma to manifest itself to human eyes. The kinship between the ghost story and the therapeutic process is central to Marchlands. Written by former Desperate Housewives producer David Schulner, and Doctor Who alumnus Stephen Greenhorn, Marchlands is a ghost story that spans three different time periods and three troubled families.

In 1968, Marchlands house is a gloomy place. Painted in drab colours and oppressively under-lit, the house exists under a cloud of guilt and misery created by the death of a little girl named Alice. Though time may have passed since the tragedy, Alice’s mother Ruth (Jodie Whittaker) continues to feel guilty for losing her daughter. These feelings of guilt are in no way helped by the fact that Ruth’s husband reacted to the death by shutting down emotionally while his parents sit in quiet judgement of Ruth’s abject failure as a wife and mother. This being the 1960s, there is no sharing of burdens or talk of counselling, there is only condemnation and simmering resentment amidst smoking and dreary colour schemes.

In 1987, Marchlands house is initially a much brighter place, inhabited by a young family including a little girl and a teenaged son. The house glows with innocent banter and unquestioned love until the little girl starts acting strangely. It turns out that she has an imaginary friend, and that this imaginary friend (whose name is Alice) is making the little girl miserable. As the little girl’s parents move from psychiatrists to priests in an attempt to fix their daughter, the household starts to tear itself apart seemingly unaware that the real problem lies not with the little girl but with the older son.

In 2010, a young couple move into Marchlands. Having been brought up in the area before moving away, Paul has decided to return to his hometown in order to build a business and a home for the daughter he is expecting with his partner Nisha (Shelley Conn). However, upon moving into Marchlands, the couple uncover an old mural and decide to name their daughter after the little girl in the mural: Alice. Once this decision is made, things start to go wrong. Nisha starts seeing things and Paul starts to spend time away from home as he struggles to build up his business while rekindling the bond he once had with a local girl.

Those who approach Marchlands expecting a traditional Jamesian ghost story are destined for disappointment. Marchlands is not scary, or creepy, or even particularly tense, and the few supernatural set-pieces the series does contain are fiercely derivative and quite poorly implemented by two writers and a director who are clearly incapable of moving beyond the increasingly shop-worn genre ornaments of dead pets and ghostly dripping water.

Indeed, while she may appear in every episode, ghostly Alice is really nothing more than a symbolic representation of the traumas affecting the different families; Alice does not cause unhappiness and discord, she embodies them. In truth, Marchlands’ supernatural elements are really nothing more than a hook as this series is very much the ordinary story of ordinary folk struggling to deal with the impact of traumatic events in their pasts. Because Marchlands is not really a ghost story, it would be completely unfair for me to criticise its lack of tension and derivative imagery, so I am going to criticise its terrible writing and direction instead!

With over four hours of screen time to fill and with the supernatural relegated to the status of symbolic motif, Marchlands had all the time it needed to fully unpack each of its characters and all of their family problems. However, once this is done, one cannot hope but feel horribly disappointed, as Schulner’s characters reveal themselves to be far too thin to support the amount of time devoted to them.

The root of the problem is that, while Marchlands is the story of three families, Schulner and Greenhorn do not really know how to write women. For example, the series features Doctor Who’s Alex ‘River Song’ Kingston but, having lured Kingston from the clutches of the BBC, Schulner and Greenhorn give her nothing to work with other than an unpleasantly shrill maternal presence who spends all of her time doing the washing-up and growling about the need to take the kids to see the doctor.

Shelley Conn also finds herself languishing in a directionless reactive role, as Nisha spends five episodes cooing over a baby and getting het-up over the possibility of her partner playing away from home. Nor does the stereotyping end when Greenhorn’s script turns its attentions to the 1960s, as Whittaker’s Ruth comes across as wet and pathetically lacking in agency; while Tessa Peake-Jones’ evil mother-in-law juts her chin and scowls as the voice of social disapproval… Whether a harpy or a delicate flower, Schulner and Greenhorn’s women are nothing more than insultingly crude pastiches of womanhood created by men who clearly need to spend more time with real women…

The casual sexism and stupidity of Marchlands’ depiction of women is made all the more evident by the fact that the men in the series tend to possess a good deal of charm, albeit of a decidedly shallow variety; Jamie Thomas King’s Paul is conflicted and confused, Dennis Lawson’s Robert is conflicted but mostly silent, Dean Andrews’ Eddie is conflicted but understanding and Elliot Ashburn’s Mark is conflicted and stoic. Conflict is at the centre of the men in the series because Schulner and Greenhorn clearly understand that inner turmoil fuels dramatic tension, but despite having hours and hours in which to lay bare the souls of their men, Schulner and Greenhorn never manage to make them feel real because they never manage to anchor their inner conflict in the need to make a choice between two undesirable ends. Sure, they flirt with the possibility of leaving their significant others! Sure, they gnash their teeth and pull at their hair! But, at the end of the day, none of these characters possesses enough depth to make their choices seem either meaningful or interesting.

As a collection of crude stereotypes and empty shirts endlessly hog the stage, each of Marchlands’ 245 minutes feels like a nail slowly being driven into the lid of one’s coffin. James Kent’s uninspired direction and Stephen Greenhorn’s gassy and aimless scripting of David Schulner’s original story (a story that formed the basis for a US TV pilot developed but wisely not picked up by America’s Fox network) make for a mini-series that drags itself along like a wounded wildebeest. Plot points are not only telegraphed but take what feels like months to amble into view before collapsing in an affectless heap at the viewer’s feet and, to make things worse, the plot does not even make sense as Alice’s death turns out not to have been anyone’s fault in the first place.

The direction is also uninspiring in that careless and lazy way that most ITV dramas seem to have in common. Marchlands is not really all that concerned with being creepy but there are times when the plot does call for some element of tension or dread, and James Kent’s lack of vision means that he fumbles the ball every time it is passed to him.

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Some attempt was also made to make the house look genuinely different in each of its different timeframes but aside from changing the wallpaper and varying the lighting, Kent runs out of ideas quite quickly. There is even one hilarious shot where Alex Kingston is (again) doing the washing up and they try to make the room look warm by sticking an orange lamp just out of shot where the sink should be, but rather than blending with the rest of the light in the room, the lamp is both too close to Kingston and way too orange and so it looks like she’s washing up the contents of the briefcase from Pulp Fiction.

What is most infuriating about Marchlands is that the basic format works. Over the course of two series and nearly 20 hours, Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom (1994), and The Kingdom II (1997), told the story of a haunted hospital where the ghost served principally as a catalyst for the unravelling of a number of different lives and a number of different relationships. While ultimately better directed and unwilling to quite so comprehensively disown the supernatural elements of its own story, The Kingdom’s strength ultimately lies in the possession of a talented cast grappling with a collection of compelling and colourful characters. While The Kingdom reeks of real life, Marchlands stinks only of stupidity and waste.