One of the more exciting new items on the British TV schedule for Autumn 2015 was the announcement of ITV airing Midwinter of the Spirit, based on Phil Rickman’s novel of the same name, adapted by Stephen Volk.
Rickman’s stories involving a female cleric in an English backwater were long overdue for a screen treatment, combining that oh-so-British obsession with slow-paced murder mysteries and a general supernatural theme. Anchored by a memorable cast of characters and a slowly developing background story based on their personal lives.
So, just as Summer ended, ITV whisked us away to the Welsh border, and dropped us into a wealth of glorious landscape shots … after a gruesome crucifixion. Welcome to the world of Merrily Watkins, Diocesan Delivery Consultant – or, as the old folks would say, the Bishop’s favourite exorcist.
Episode 1 – Setting the Scene
The first surprise for me was that ITV did not choose the first book in the Merrily Watkins series (The Wine of Angels) for the screen treatment. Why that was the case is anybody’s guess, but this way we are left without a lot of background. On the other hand, we go to the juicy exorcist bit immediately. And have to catch up on Merrily’s story in bits and pieces.
Merrily Watkins, female Anglican priest (now a much more common idea than at the time Rickman wrote the book), has just finished a course on exorcism led by the slightly grizzled Huw Owens, when a victim of what looks like ritual sacrifice is found in the woods, some nurses have a very bad man dying in their ward, and the old exorcist Canon Dobbs goes as batty as a cathedral belfry. Add a teenage daughter on barely speaking terms, but acting as a magnet for even more eccentric folk, and you are in for a wild ride. Partially provided by the police team, led by a female detective. One of which is under the supervision of Lol Robinson, a social worker.
All this can be very confusing if you have not read the books, and some characters (let alone sub-plots) are missing, condensed, or relegated to minor walk-on parts – secretary Sophie, for instance, is gloriously in keeping with the book, but just flitting through. And the Bishop does not give off quite that Tony-Blair-vibe as he does in Rickman’s novel. But this is to be expected, getting 600 or so pages to fit into 135 or less TV minutes is quite a task.
So did ITV do a proper job? After the first episode, there are many open questions and unconnected threads, but most people would be prepared for this in a three-parter. And I have the feeling that they would be happy to switch on again the next week. Midwinter of the Spirit presented itself as accessible, yet mysterious enough to hold interest.
Anna Maxwell Martin as Merrily Watkins is believable; she comes across as properly awkward, not too glamorous, and on the verge of losing it at times. And a good move of ITV in these all too PC times to keep her smoking, as in the books, because it adds a bit of obvious fallibility. Also very much appreciated is David Threlfall as Huw Owens, scruffy yet still sort-of-likeable. Lol Robinson now, played by Ben Bailey Smith, is a minor problem – the social worker of mixed race seems to be a deviation from the books and does not quite gel with me yet. Because of the seemingly missing background story … as Phil Rickman rightly pointed out, Lol’s race was never actually mentioned in the books. And he is certainly portrayed as a vulnerable character.
Episode 2 – Problems Multiplying
So, after a quick recap, we were off into the second episode, or instalment, of Midwinter of the Spirit, again featuring some atmospheric landscape shots, a lot of darkness, and that slightly incongruous neon cross that seems to be installed in front of Merrily’s church (I am quite sure a neon cross was mentioned in Rickman’s novels, but in the context of a deranged, fundamentalist clergyman). And the problems begin to multiply, not the least addition being a desecrated church …
Added into the mix are Merrily’s daughter Jane falling in with a bad crowd, the Bishop making a very obvious pass on his exorcist, two more-or-less demonic presences popping up at inopportune moments (as if there ever were opportune ones), the friendly neighbourhood social worker turning sleuth and being branded a sex pest, some murmurings about a “Boy Bishop“, the unexplained death of Canon Dobbs, another clergyman having a final rest on railway tracks, some mystery surrounding local saint Thomas de Cantilupe, an a whole background cast of weird people.
Enough problems for Merrily … and a lot of problems for me.
While I was watching Midwinter of the Spirit, I grew more and more restless – and had to force myself to take it as a piece of TV drama, made for those who have not read Rickman’s book. And even less for those who have read and re-read all of Rickman’s books. Because the sprawling canvas on which Rickman works, with cross-references across his whole output, with elaborate background stories that often go into the minutest detail, and with a cast of thousands … has been reduced to a thumbnail-sized snapshot, featuring a high rate of compression. Which involves the dropping of whole sub-plots and background stories, the remodelling of some characters (Lol Robinson, while admirably portrayed by Ben Bailey Smith, is a major casualty in all this), and the almost complete absence of explanation. And I fear the latter will come back to bite the viewer in the last episode.
Does Midwinter of the Spirit still work as spooky TV drama? Yes, it does, mainly due to very atmospheric filming, and an excellent acting job by Anna Maxwell Martin, who goes from slightly harassed to definitely haunted in a few (not so easy) steps. And who may even go the way of two clerical colleagues, it is insinuated (with Huw being set up as partially antagonistic saviour)
Does Midwinter of the Spirit still work for the Phil Rickman fan? No, definitely not after two thirds of the allocated screen time, or at least not for me. Of course, some updates were necessary, but a lot of the spirit of the novel has been lost. And the depth is missing as well – whereas the book has you immersed in all sorts of (important) sub-plots, and historical as well as clerical background, this simply get’s lost in the translation to the small screen.
Now I am genuinely interested whether ITV will pull it off with the last instalment, getting everything to a satisfying conclusion. My fear being that some Deus Ex Machina showdown will be necessary.
Episode 3 – Straight to Hell?
So, seconds after the feel-good Great British Bake-Off finished with a very worthy winner on BBC, ITV went for the Great British Spook-Off with Midwinter of the Spirit … and brought the mini-series to a conclusion. Was it a satisfying conclusion? I don’t really think so.
Fair enough, they tried to wrap everything up nicely, but there were more sub-plots left open and unexplored than even the casual viewer would care for – two deaths never explained properly, for instance, just generally blamed on the guys with the black hats and satanic cowls. A bishop taking flight, more literally than in the book, making for a smashing, though not satisfying final. And then those scenes at the enthronement of the Boy Bishop (again not even with an attempt of explanation regarding this tradition) … let’s go for Halloween-style slasher, the ITV people must have thought.
All of which would have been forgiveable if, and only if, they just jarred with the Rickman-aficionado … but I watched the whole series with a one-person-control-group that did not read the novels, loves supernatural thrillers, has an insight into the dynamics that can stress clerical families. And she was, all in all, totally unimpressed by the series.
As a fan of Rickman’s books, I felt like a pressure cooker ready to blow at times … there was just too much deviation from the books to make it a decent offering, with the inevitable, but badly handled merging of characters being the start of the problems. And then there was poor Lol Robinson …
Who thought that making a pale neo-folk-musician with long black hair into a mixed-race social worker was a good idea? Presumably the same person who dumped all of Lol’s baggage (with which he’d never have been working on Rowenna’s case anyway), and decided that to have a bumbling do-gooder who brought absolutely nothing to the plot was better. Frankly, ITV should have scrapped the character, instead of making him this travesty (and, having said that, I think Ben Bailey Smith could have pulled of a Lol much nearer to the original).
The Final Verdict?
Okay, I am tempted to say “don’t touch it with a very long bargepole”, but that might be a bit too harsh … Midwinter of the Spirit has some very good moments, but overall it did not convince. Neither as straight horror, nor as a detective story, and even lacking in the “human drama” department due to much of the background missing. Which would be needed to get a feeling of what actually makes people tick. Here, we often got offered cardboard characters that were somehow based on Phil Rickman’s original Midwinter of the Spirit, but lost a lot in translation onto the small screen.
Maybe if the series had been extended to six episodes … but it wasn’t, and so we have to make to with what ITV has created. A hotch-potch that was neither here nor there, and that might find its friends, but will always infuriate those who are familiar with the series of books it was based on.
According to the BARB figures, 2.54 million viewers watched the first episode, the second episode brought less than 2.01 millions to the screen. We’ll see how many remained when the new figures are released … and we’ll see whether ITV will commission another Merrily Watkins story.
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