So ITV’s Marchlands time-hopping ghostly mini-series came to an end this week, and left me … Puzzled. Not because the story wasn’t clear – in fact, quite the reverse. (Some mild spoilers ahoy, for those who haven’t seen all the episodes yet.)
But let’s start with the positives: how nice and refreshing to see a prime time series that isn’t about cops or docs, and which tries to do something different and does it at least reasonably successfully (as opposed to, say, the BBC’s Outcasts sci-fi flop: and even that still mostly concentrated on the cops on an alien world.) It’s the latest in a strong run of drama from ITV, something I had once given up all hope for in these days of continuing Britain’s-Got-X-Factor-on-ice tedium. Instead ITV should be praised for putting a huge amount of investment in drama, from Downton Abbey to franchised efforts like Law and Order: UK and for really delivering some class work along the way.
Marchlands was incredibly well directed and designed – the three time periods of the 1960s, 1980s and current day were impeccably recreated and evoked so there was no question of which era we were in at any time. The writing skilfully twisted the narrative of the three strands so that they connected and sparked themes across the years. And the acting was top notch all round, with reliably excellent turns from the likes of top pros Denis Lawson, Alex Kingston and Anne Reid as well as from new faces such as Jodie Whittaker and Jamie Thomas King, with some consistently good juvenile turns from all the child actors as well. If I were to single anyone out, then I was particularly struck by Dean Andrews – someone I never took to in Life on Mars but who was terrifically warm and natural here – and also Tessa Peake-Jones, once Del Boy’s cheery wife in Only Fools and Horses … but here expertly transformed into the absolute chilly essence of everyone’s nightmare of a 1960s mother-in-law.
So there was a lot to admire in this series. It’s just that, when it came down to it, I wasn’t entirely sure what the final result was, or what the series was trying to do. It was initially promoted as a ghost story chiller, but as the series wound on it seemed that the ghost was almost a red herring and a bit of an irrelevance, a way of generating some suspense and a cliffhanger when needed, a plot contrivance to link the years together but never really contributing to the substance of the story (or rather, stories.) There was the potential murder-mystery of the 60s Alice’s death, but this too turned out to have less to it than had been hinted at, the solution easily guessed and finally confirmed to be just a dreadful but straightforward tragic accident. And the cross-time narrative was simply a way of spicing up what proved, ultimately, to be three separate-but-linked family relationship dramas. It never had any real clever use for the multiple-time set-up and failed to cross-fertilise the time strands in any inventive or imaginative way that a writer like Steven Moffat, for example, would have devised.
In the end it proved to be a solid piece of work exceptionally well made, but less than the sum of its parts and rather a disappointing anti-climax after so much expert foreplay. I never really worked out what it was trying to be; and I suspect that the series itself never really quite knew either, or had the self-confidence to make the choice.