In 1998, Phil Rickman, a British crime writer who had been publishing mystery thrillers since Candlenight in 1991, published The Wine of Angels, a novel featuring the Anglican exorcist (or “deliverance minister” – “it’s a funny old job, isn’t it?”) for the Diocese of Hereford. It was the first in what would turn out to be a 16-book series (with accompanying non-fiction book looking at the real-life locations in the series). The books were optioned by ITV Studios who placed it in the hands of former Doctor Who (2005-) producer Phil Collinson. He in turn opted to go with the second book in the series, Midwinter of the Spirit, and commissioned Stephen Volk to write an adaptation. Volk had form of course – he’d been behind the notorious Screen One special, Ghostwatch (1992), as well as Gothic (1987), TV series Afterlife (2005-2006) and feature film The Awakening (2011) among others.
Merrily Watkins (Anna Maxwell Martin), a recently widowed vicar in a small English town, is both studying to be the aforementioned “deliverance minister” and deal with her teenage daughter Jane (Sally Messham) who is become increasingly distant from her. Merrily is mentored by clergyman Huw Edwards (David Threlfall) but the troubled Canon Dobbs (David Sterne) tries to dissuade her from pursuing her new calling. Merrily is called in by DCI Annie Howe (Kate Dickie) and DS Frank Bliss (Simon Trinder) to help them investigate the murder of Satanist Paul Sayer (Stephen Walsh) who has been found crucified to a tree in a nearby forest. She’s asked to absolve the dying Denzil Joy (Oengus MacNamara), the man believed to be the leader of the cult that Sayer belonged to, and he attacks her, scratching her hand, leading her to believe that he’s passed a curse on to her. Meanwhile Jane befriends Rowenna Napier (Leila Mimmack) who introduces her to the psychic Angela Purefoy (Siobhan Finneran) who offers to put her in touch with her dead father. But Rowenna has a terrible secret that her social worker Lol Robinson (Ben Bailey Smith, also known as the comedian Doc Brown) gets ever closer to uncovering and Merrily begins to realise that there’s a Satanic cult at work in the village that has designs on her daughter…
Casting the leading character as an Anglican priest frees Midwinter of the Spirit from some of the baggage that has accumulated around exorcism stories which generally take a more Catholic route. Merrily is a more down to earth “deliverance minister”, rooted in a very recognisable and quite ordinary English rural setting which makes the supernatural incursion seem all the more chilling. Volk cannily lets the supernatural and theological concerns sit alongside a rural police procedural, the paranormal rubbing shoulders with the mundanities of social; workers being urged to just get cases off their books, the police doggedly pursuing their case and Merrily just trying to keep what’s left of her family together. Merrily’s complicated home life is sketched in nimbly, allowing us to plunge straight into the horror of crucified Satanists in the woods, and in this regard both Volk and director Richard Clark (a veteran of Life on Mars (2006-2007), Doctor Who (2005-) and Whitechapel (2009-2013)) are aided immeasurably by excellent performances from Martin and Messham.
The always excellent Martin in particular is outstanding as Merrily, who isn’t a seasoned, experienced exorcist, but someone still trying to find her way in her new calling. Her relatable performance roots the film in the real world and, along with Volk’s scripts, are the mini-series key asset. She gets great support from Threlfall, as her mentor, gruff, sexist but still sympathetic to her. The cult members are a nicely underplayed lot, Leila Mimmack making her second memorable appearance in a small screen chiller following the impressive Mayday (2013), while Siobhan Finneran plays Angela Purefoy as the sort of slightly eccentric local familiar to anyone who’s lived in a small village.
There’s none of what The Exorcist (1973)‘s Pazuzu refers to as “vulgar displays of power.” He evil at work in the village is more insidious than that, more low key, more English perhaps. Indeed, it’s deliberately vague as to whether anything supernatural is happening at all. The strangeness that besets Merrily and the other characters might be just post-traumatic stress induced hallucinations and a handful of zealots who are bigger on talk than actually summoning up real demons.
Matt Grey, who also shot ITV’s Broadchurch (2013-2017), another police procedural with, at least in its first season, an element of the fantastic, makes fine use of the chilly, autumnal settings and, along with composer Edmund Butt’s gorgeous score, is instrumental in creating some of the shows few but effective shock moments. In an interview with the Ginger Nuts of Horror website, Volk remarked how please he was that Clark “didn’t shy away from calling it ‘horror’, whereas others in the team wanted to call it ‘crime with a twist'” and there are certainly some very memorable moments of horror here – the discovery of the crucified Satanist in the wood, the recently deceased Joy sitting up in bed to scratch Merrily’s hand (“scritch, scratch!”) and Joy sneaking up on Merrily as she prays in the church. All fine horror moments that more than deliver the genre goods.
Sadly, though it was mostly greeted by good reviews, Midwinter of the Spirit didn’t perform well enough with the public to earn Merrily any more outings. Which is terribly sad as it’s a fine introduction to the character, a strong introduction to the marginal world she inhabits and boasts a cracking performance from Martin that deserved a couple more outings. Volk was sanguine about the situation, telling Ginger Nuts of Horror that “I’m really proud of the show we made and it’s a shame because there is the potential to adapt more of the books but, hey, ITV let us make one, so all credit to them.” But still… a couple more outings with Merrily would have been very welcome indeed.
Directed by: Richard Clark; A co-production of ITV Studios, GroupM Entertainment; Executive Producer for GroupM Entertainment: Melanie Darlaston; Executive Producer: Kieran Roberts; Produced by: Phil Collinson; Line Producer: Desmond Hughes; Written by: Stephen Volk; Based on the Novel by: Phil Rickman; Director of Photography: Matt Gray; Editor: David Blackmore; Music by: Edmund Butt; Costume Designer: Diana Moseley; Make-up and Hair Designer: Janita Doyle; VFX Supervisor: Tanvir Hanif; Production Designer: Melanie Allen; Casting Directors: Kelly Valentine Hendry, Victor Jenkins
Anna Maxwell Martin (Merrily Watkins); Kate Dickie (DCI Annie Howe); Nicholas Pinnock (Bishop Mick Hunter); Ben Bailey Smith [aka Doc Brown] (Lol Robinson); Leila Mimmack (Rowenna Napier); Sally Messham (Jane Watkins); Simon Trinder (DS Frank Bliss); David Sterne (Canon Dobbs); Will Attenborough (James Lydon); Siobhan Finneran (Angela Purefoy); David Threlfall (Huw Owen); Oengus Mac Namara (Denzil Joy); Stephen Walsh (Paul Sayer); Holly Kavanagh (woman on TV); Kai Alexander (Dean Wallis); Eileen Nicholas (Sophie Hill); Vivianne Soan (Edna Reeves); Scott Wright (Sean Watkins); Josie Walker (Sister Cullen); Ania Marson (Mrs Joy)