Marchlands Review: Smells Like Tween Spirit

MARCHLANDS: Thursday 3rd February, ITV1, 9pm ALERT ME

Things estate agents never tell you before you pay the deposit: that the neighbours have a small marijuana farm, that the foundations are caving in and the fact that the malevolent spirit of an 8 year-old girl is haunting your new crib.

Excellent ITV dramas are usually rarer than stress-free house moves, but I found the first episode of Marchlands both subtly gripping and skilfully layered. The premise is a three-way time-shift, which cleverly portrays day-to-day life in a house situated in the English countryside during the 60s, 80s and the present day. The first time-shift to clock in are the austere and joyless Bowens. You can’t really blame them for being s bit joyless, after all, their daughter Alice has just drowned in heart-breaking circumstances. Or has she? Her mother suspects something sinister is at work, which it probably is if Marchlands makes good on this promising start.

A tortured soul, young Mrs Bowen serves to illustrate that although the hippies were tearing up the rule book in some quarters during this period, other areas of society remained woefully archaic and stiff-upper lippish. This atmosphere is augmented brilliantly by both the crushingly dour colour schemes and also the fact that – in the customary way – no one will listen to Mrs Bowen when she insists that ‘Alice was a good girl!’ and the verdict of accidental death doesn’t add up.

Alice may have been a good girl during the 60s, but she certainly wasn’t a couple of decades later. In 1987 the unseen spirit has befriended young Amy Maynard and starts flooding bathrooms and drowning cats willy-nilly. Alex Kingston and Dean Andrews provide some nice comic touches as her parents, but the light-humour is soon replaced by angst as they struggle to find out what’s going on with their daughter and her imaginary friend. As such, Amy becomes another of the house’s inhabitants to struggle on alone in the face of everyone’s scepticism, although her family are a little more understanding than the Bowens who order Ruth to do her ‘Catholic duty’ and get over the death of her child back in 1968. The brings us to the present day and the arrival of a young pregnant couple who soon uncover signs that their new house isn’t all that it seems.

Executing a premise like this well can’t have been an easy job, but producers make it look simple and create an engaging narrative that is based upon some finely written and instantly tangible characters. Writer Stephen Greenhorn (a man with Doctor Who on his CV) accomplishes this by creating recurring characters and by splicing all three stories together with great poise. We aren’t stuck with stretching lumps of any, but at the same time the flitting between each narrative isn’t too fast to hinder enjoyment. A promising start.