Midwinter of the Spirit is a great blend of serious acting and a truly potty script

It turns out that rural Herefordshire is a veritable hotbed of satanic activity.

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Exorcists don’t half make me snigger. I stopped taking such things seriously when I was still at school, after a born-again associate of mine claimed to have seen Satan in my next-door neighbour’s bedroom (the next-door neighbour was playing a record backwards in an effort to hear an occult message the band was said to have recorded clandestinely on it). When I asked him what form Satan had taken – did he have a big red tail, or a set of antlers on his head? – he looked at me in astonished disdain. Apparently, Satan is quite a subtle creature, which is perhaps why only certain people see him, and only in certain suburban bedrooms. Happily, my associate’s father was a professor of theology. I imagine they had a good talk about it all later, over a cup of tea and the Gospel of St John.

ITV’s new exorcist drama serial (Wed­nesdays, ITV, 9pm) which is based on the Merrily Watkins series of books by Phil Rickman – no, me neither – is not subtle at all. The devil is pretty obvious when he appears, whether he takes the form of a dying paedophile (even his nurses get the shivers) or a mural on a cellar wall (lots of antlers). In addition, the viewer always has plenty of warning that he’s about to pounce. As soon as Merrily starts muttering, “Christ be with me,” under her breath, you can be certain he’s only five seconds away, max. Not, of course, that a simple mention of Our Lord is likely to do her much good here. In spite of the crucifixes that litter practically every shot, Satan remains on the prowl. I can only assume that, because he’s just as 21st-century
as the rest us, the iconography of Christianity is well and truly wasted on him.

Merrily Watkins (Anna Maxwell Martin) is a widowed vicar and mother-of-one who has recently been chosen by her bishop to work as his diocesan “exorcist”. Is she up to it? Her tutor in all things “deliverance”, the Rev Huw Owen (David Threlfall), isn’t convinced. It is, he says, challenging work spotting the kind of “entities” in which even most of those who profess to be Christians do not believe these days. But then, as she’s about to find out, some entities are louder than others: a few even come sporting neon lights that proclaim their dastardliness. Days later, a couple of coppers, seeking her “expertise”, lead her into a wood and show her a man who has been crucified. What does she think? Unnerved as she is, somehow she resists the temptation to say: “I think it’s pretty obvious this man has been murdered by a psychopath, don’t you?” Such forbearance. Anyone would think she was a Christian.

It turns out that rural Herefordshire, for this is where we are, is a veritable hotbed of satanic activity – and everyone seems to know it, judging by the number of emergency calls Watkins receives in the dead of night. She’s busier than Domino’s Pizza. Having taken Canon Dobbs (David Sterne), her predecessor as exorcist, for a bit of a sexist – in the vestry, he is apt to ignore her – she now realises his silence has altogether more sinister causes. Dobbs, by the way, is a fluent and enthusiastic speaker of Latin who sleeps in a bed so determinedly ecclesiastical, it appears to have been fashioned from a medieval rood screen. He also likes to listen to what sounded to me like “Onward, Christian Soldiers” as sung by Aled Jones and a bunch of Oompa-Loompas.

The stars of Midwinter of the Spirit (it sounds like an Islington gastropub) are certainly taking it seriously. Maxwell Martin’s signature drawl is now so self-consciously monotonous, it registers almost no emotion at all (a problem in a drama that is meant to be S-C-A-R-Y). And Threlfall was so keen to prepare properly for his role that he spent 90 minutes on Skype with a real-life exorcist, or so I read in the Radio Times. In the end, such actorly varnish only underlines the script’s abiding pottiness. De profundis, o Domine! How did such a batty throwback of a serial ever come to be made? 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 24 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left