Marchlands

A new supernatural drama brings back memories of the 1980s.

I've come late to Marchlands (Thursdays, ITV1, 9pm): by the time you read this, episode three will have been screened. At first, I resisted because I couldn't see how an ITV series about a haunted house starring Alex Kingston, late of ER, and that annoying woman (Shelley Conn) from the egregious Mistresses could possibly be any good. But then I noticed that people were talking about it: specifically, two women who were sitting behind me on the 38 bus. Earwigging this conversation cheered me up no end.

It was just like the good old days, when people lapped up terrestrial television, even truly terrible stuff such as Howards' Way and The House of Elliott. They kept saying things like, “I think she was abused!" and "It was probably the grandad!" One of them even clicked her tongue, which is the aural equivalent of rubbing one's hands in glee. So I thought I'd join in. When I got off the bus, I detoured via the supermarket, where I picked up a few retro biscuits (I was after mint Viscounts); I knew in my water that Marchlands would demand some pretty serious confectionery.

Did it live up to my expectations? Yes, totally. You can see what's coming a mile off and the scary bits - a light bulb wobbling, a child's swing eerily moving back and forth, unaided - are not going to have you hiding behind your Beano. But the mood of the thing is adorable. This is brushed-cotton television: cosy, old-fashioned and peculiarly British. Because the action takes place in the same house but in three different time periods - 1968, 1987 and 2010 - there are also some pleasing historical touches.

In 1968, people smoke a lot, even in the doctor's consulting room and at breakfast. In 1987, they listen to their Walkmans and watch loads of soaps. And in 2010, they are . . . well, all minimalist and smug. My, how we have evolved.

By the end of part three, the ache I could feel for 1987, the year before I went to university, a year of bus shelters and cider bottles (the kids in Marchlands are into bus shelters and cider bottles, too), was so powerful that I almost - emphasis on the word "almost" - downloaded some T'Pau on iTunes.

But I digress. Marchlands is a big Edwardian Arts and Crafts house, set deep in woodland somewhere in Yorkshire. There's a lot of bracken and, beyond that, a lake called Black Tarn. Creepy! In 1968, the ghost of a little girl, Alice, who drowned in mysterious circumstances, is haunting her grief-stricken mother, Ruth Bowen (Jodie Whittaker). In 1987, she is haunting the young daughter of the house's new residents, Helen and Eddie Maynard (Alex Kingston and Dean Andrews).

And in 2010? Yes, the poor, clammy thing is still there, attempting to drive Nisha (Shelley Conn) and her husband, Mark (Elliot Cowan), who grew up in a nearby village, nuts. Only now, there's a twist: Ruth (played as an older woman by the excellent Anne Reid) has turned up and is working as Nisha's nanny.

At this point, one has several questions. What does the deaf woman who is Nisha's and Mark's neighbour know? Why are Mark and his old friend Scott so shifty? And why has Ruth come back like some weird, cardigan-wearing homing pigeon? More pressingly, I would like to know if Denis Lawson (who plays Alice's supposedly mild-mannered grandfather) can do any accent other than his native Scots. OK, I'm taking the mickey.

But, in truth, it's all marvellous fun - the creaking doors, the messages written on steamy mirrors, Dean Andrews's dumbstruck expression and his bright-blue dad jeans. And the way the serial's writer, Stephen Greenhorn, swings between his three periods is surprisingly slick, given that the plot feels so decrepit. Is there a twist on the way? I don't know. Twenty-first-century drama decrees that ghosts don't exist, insisting that they are the product of troubled minds. So far, this ghost feels pretty real to me and I relish that. In these pinched times, when people are staying at home with their televisions a lot more, it is pleasing to be able to indulge in such supernatural silliness. Woo! Woo-woo! Rattle those chains, Mr Greenhorn, rattle those chains.