According to the folks at ITV, Marchlands is a “really original concept” blending “relationship drama with an atmospheric ghost story”. One would have to argue that the concept is far from original (didn’t The Sixth Sense do the same thing back in the late ‘90s?) and, judging from this first episode, it’s more “relationship” than “ghost” story.
With an ensemble cast led by Alex Kingston (Doctor Who, ER), Jodie Whittaker (Cranford) and Shelley Conn (Mistresses), Marchlands tells the story of three different families living in the same house in 1968, 1987 and present day. The families are linked by the spirit of a young girl, Alice; the ’60s family’s daughter who drowned in mysterious circumstances.
Adapted by Doctor Who writer Stephen Greenhorn (‘The Lazarus Experiment’, ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’) from a rejected US pilot, there are some very familiar psychological-horror tropes on display – children in touch with dead, a “scary” old house with eerie noises and paintings to match – evoking ’70s horror such as Don’t Look Now and The Omen. It’s an exercise in the uncanny which doesn’t quite engage fully, as this opener to this five-part series focuses on the inter-personal relationships of the main characters rather than the supernatural force which supposedly links them.
It’s an impressive cast, with Dean Andrews (returning to the ’80s following Ashes To Ashes) and Denis Lawson (Criminal Justice) stoutly supporting the trio of female leads, though with little flair, it has to be said. Even the normally enigmatic and beguiling Kingston is somewhat flat here (and lumbered with a rather dubious accent).
And this is the main problem with Marchlands - style. The direction and editing may be tight, easily flowing from era to era, but the monochrome of the present day and the sixties overcome the colour of the scenes from the eighties, which actually have the hazy feel and look of a seventies summer.
The “ghost story” is also overpowered by the soapy nature of the families, which is mundane and unremarkable. By falling between these two genres, Marchlands meanders rather slowly through familiar territory with only satisfactory results. Hopefully future episodes will rely less on the domestic drama (or lack of) and indulge the supernatural element a bit more.
Airs at 9pm on Thursday 3rd February 2011 on ITV1.