The Merrily Watkins series by Phil Rickman and Midwinter of the Spirit on TV – a personal reaction

***Warning: contains spoilers***

I make no bones about it, but I have an obsession. Since accidentally discovering the latest title in this series – The Magus of Hay – I went back to the beginning  (The Wine of Angels) and worked my way through all twelve books. Then I did it again. And again. And I’m not the only one – Phil’s Facebook group currently has 1814 members and we’re all equally enthralled by the ongoing story of single mother, vicar and exorcist Merrily Watkins. They’re supernatural crime dramas – an unusual mix of two genres which somehow mesh perfectly in Phil’s prose, in a world so carefully crafted it’s like a second home.

Set in the borderlands of Herefordshire and Wales, Merrily struggles to balance her duties to her parish, her ambivalent interest in the world of the paranormal, and her relationship with her pagan teenage daughter Jane, all the while walking the tightrope of political machinations in both the Diocese and the media. As a woman in a man’s world, and doing a job many see as frivolous, she tries to retain her integrity as well as develop her spirituality. Called in on occasion to help the police with their more unusual cases, her life is anything but ordinary. She’s utterly believable as a character, and makes the whole concept of an exorcist work for even the most sceptical of readers.

Surrounding her are a large cast who are all drawn with such deftness and vitality that you feel like you really know them. Feisty Jane, Merrily’s daughter and environmental activist, is definitely my alter ego! Lol Robinson, Merrily’s cautious lover, is a man locked in his own tormented past, and his efforts to move beyond this are moving indeed. Huw Owen, her exorcist mentor, is wonderfully irascible and ambivalent. Frannie Bliss is the tame, slightly maverick copper whose blood is 95% caffeine (I confess to being slightly in love with Frannie), and Annie Howe is his ambitious and hard-nosed boss, the antithesis of Merrily’s emotional centre. And Gomer Parry , the wild and wily old Welshman and proprietor of a plant hire company, is a brilliant creation – saving the day on his digger on more than one occasion! Everybody needs a Gomer in their life. When he confronted a killer in Lamp of the Wicked, I nearly had a panic attack.

The plots are labyrinthine with endless depths, which is why you can read them over and over again and find new strands that you didn’t see before. They deal with the depths of human nature in all its perversity, and the thread running through all of them is how belief affects human behaviour. Rickman portrays Christianity and Paganism with a real understanding, showing how belief can be both a strength and a weakness, a temptation to evil and a call to compassion. They are anything but sensationalist, treating religion with respect but at the same time exposing the hypocrisy and corruption that can lurk in the heart of any institution or individual.

Phil Rickman’s stories are intelligent and thought-provoking, as well as gripping, shocking and downright addictive. Both the sense of place and character in this series are so strong, it’s not surprising that his fans are so obsessive. He’s a fantastic writer and this series is exceptional – he’s made the cross-genre of supernatural crime entirely his own, and done it with both seriousness and style.

So – to the adaptation of the second novel in the series, Midwinter of the Spirit, which has just finished on ITV. Did it work? I agree with Phil here – a resounding yes.Midwinter

By its very nature a TV adaptation does adapt – and by that read change – a novel. It becomes the interpretation of a story by a new writer, in this case Stephen Volk. It’s never going to by a scene by scene, line by line, literal transcription of a novel into a visual form. What a good adaptation does, is take the essence of a story, re-work it into a new structure that fits a different, episodic, format, and hopefully give it a new life that can be enjoyed by those who both have read the book, and those who haven’t. There are constraints – of timing, budget – and these will affect how large the cast of characters can be, and which elements of the story are left out or reduced. It becomes a distinct piece of creation in its own right – a scion, related but independent. And in my opinion, Stephen Volk did a fantastic job, moulding Rickman’s original material into a gripping drama that captured the spirit of the novel whilst adding intriguing new layers.

David Threlfall as Huw Owen: he simply nailed it – took the character and embodied him fully. In the early scenes he was quite ambiguous – is he on Merrily’s side or not? And this reflects the novel, where the reader isn’t sure who is Merrily’s true ally, Huw or the Bishop.

Anna Maxwell Martin as Merrily was brilliant. She came across as nice but with an edge – she fights back, not in fact the “poodle” that others may think her to be. Her distress as the story unfolds is mesmerising – in the fight scene with Jane in episode two, when she falls to the floor moaning in distress, I felt it. Really felt it. A TV programme can’t get inside the heads of the characters in the same way as a novel, but the whole relationship with her daughter, Merrily’s whole back story, was communicated by the intensity of Anna’s performance.

Lol was re-imagined as a social worker, which makes perfect sense – in the book Lol trained in psychotherapy after his own experiences of the psychiatric system, and in Midwinter is looking after the disturbed Katherine Moon at the request of his psychiatrist, Dick Lyden. Making him a social worker meant that this complicated plot line could be simplified, and allowed Lol to be positioned both as someone who cares and tries to help but also has a legitimate role in the action. Random musician, to a new audience, just wouldn’t work in this regard. Lol is the character that I’ve struggled most to visualise in the novels, but Ben Bailey Smith captured his gentleness, his slight awkwardness, and his determination to do the right thing perfectly (and I think I’m just a little bit in love).

Nicholas Pinnock’s performance as Bishop Mick Hunter was intriguing. Knowing how the story pans out, I was disturbed to find myself really liking him in episode one. And the kiss in episode two…. now that made my skin crawl. But it could so easily be the start of a forbidden romance, and Merrily’s reaction – emotionless, numb – was spot on. Is it abusive, or not? Is she attracted to him? So wonderfully ambiguous. And in the finale, as Mick shows his true self, Pinnock was stunning. I don’t think I dared take a breath at all during that scene on the roof….

Cutting out the Katherine Moon / Dinedor Hill storyline allowed Volk to add an interesting touch of his own. Rowenna becomes the daughter of Denzil Joy, abused by the satanic group (there was no child abuse in the novel) and returning to Herefordshire to bear witness to her father’s death. The family dynamic is disturbed indeed, and contrasts with the dynamic of the Watkins’ family. Denzil and Sean are both dead, and both daughters grieve, while both mothers try to protect their daughters. Rowenna’s “grooming” of Jane becomes even more insidious in this scenario – persuading Jane to reject her mother as she has done, but ultimately preparing to kill Jane as a sacrifice to her father (therefore killing the last bit of innocence and love in herself). Psychologically, it’s fascinating. Merrily’s confrontation with Rowenna, preaching love and ultimately comforting her, worked really well for me in this reimagining of Rowenna’s character. Merrily is the mother Rowenna longs for, hates Jane for having and so tries to destroy their relationship (evil is that simple, so everyday); and Merrily’s compassion is real, showing how love is a more powerful force. It says everything about Merrily that she hugs Rowenna at the end. Leila Mimmack (Rowenna) is definitely an actress to keep an eye on – she had just the right amount of fragility.

Siobhan Finneran as Angela Purefoy is great, oozing malevolence through her glamour. You just know she’s up to no good even though she’s so plausible – of course Jane is taken in by her. As the “other mother” she is both nurturing, alluring and deceitful; a contrast to the mothering expressed by Merrily, who is human in her mistakes. Sally Messham as Jane, a character in the novels that I really identify with, was spot on. Her portrayal of teenage rebellion was utterly believable. As Volk foregrounds the mother-daughter relationship, the multiplicity of these relationships, what makes and what breaks them, is what drives the story onwards. It is the mother that is important here – not the father, not Merrily’s God.

The supernatural elements of Rickman’s books are always quite ambiguous – is it really happening, or is it in the characters’ heads? I think this ambiguity translated well to the screen on the whole. The scritch-scratch scene was genuinely disturbing – I actually flinched, and gripped the arm of my chair. Yet as in the book, it’s such a small movement, so unremarkable by itself. That’s very effective horror – something small but with such impact. Is it a psychic attack, or is Merrily imagining the whole thing? Denzil Joy only ever appears to Merrily, and only when she’s praying; however Episode 2’s cliffhanger (perfect at ensuring the audience will be tuning in the following week) is the only time it hits a slightly off note for me, as the point-of-view feels more that of the audience, rather than Merrily. And it isn’t picked up at the start of Episode 3, which I felt may disappoint some viewers.

So is it clichéd view of good versus evil, of Christianity versus Satanism? There isn’t time in the TV series to provide a nuanced view of different belief systems. But it never infers that paganism equates to Satanism – the bad guys are what they are. In the novel Jane’s quest for an alternative spirituality leads her to the Pod – a vague grouping of women who practice alternative spiritual practices, which is how she meets Angela, although Angela is not a member of the group as such. The novel never really explores paganism – that comes in the first novel, Wine of Angels, through the character of Lucy Devenish, and the third novel, A Crown of Lights, with the characters of Betty and Robin Thorogood, whom Merrily comes to defend and befriend. So for me it’s a non-issue; people will assume what they assume.

My only other comments are that I would have loved more scenes with Annie Howe and Frannie Bliss (Kate Dickie and Simon Trinder) as they are such crucial characters in the series, and more exploration of how and why Bishop Mick became one of the bad guys. I felt perhaps that the casual viewer might have been a little confused by the last episode, as so much happened. But Stephen Volk did a fantastic job of creating a spooky, thought-provoking drama and the cast were all superb. It’s not easy adapting a novel of such complexity into two and half hours of TV, and he really captured the spirit of Rickman’s world. Well done to everyone involved.

The DVD of Midwinter is out on 2nd November. Phil Rickman’s new novel, Friends of the Dusk, is published on 3rd December, and he promises some fallout from the events in Midwinter of the Spirit. My phone will be off the hook for that week.

Call Gomer Parry Plant Hire. I’m moving to the Borders as fast as I can!

Published by Jo

Writer, Editor, Librarian

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