Ever since it was announced that ITV was to adapt Phil Rickmam’s best-selling novels, this has been accumulating some buzzy momentum. It’s a crime drama wrapped up in a horror story, once again proving that the hottest sub-genre of crime drama is one that mixes supernatural elements with more traditional procedural tropes. Midwinter Of The Spirit stars Ann Maxwell Martin as Merrily Watkins, a priest who has decamped to the beautiful market town of Hereford on the English/Welsh borders. Merrily’s thinking was that it was the perfect place to reboot her and her teenage daughter’s life after the death of her husband in a car crash. How wrong she was…
It starts with a priest administering some sort of exorcising or purging of the soul ritual to a man on his death bed, who, as his voice intensifies and grows louder, starts to bleed from his nose onto his Bible. This is intercut with a man running through the woods, chased by a group of hooded people. The man, with a full Jesus-like beard, sinks to his knees, his prey closing in all around him. We hear screams and see a crown of barbed wire.
That’s quite an opening.
We’re then taken to a remote, rural setting – all Brontë skies and rugged northern-English topography. A group of priests are being taught deliverance ministry techniques by Reverend Huw Owen, his Lancashire burr giving softness to a subject that’s as dark as night. He’s telling them about what it is to be a deliverance minster – social worker and councillor rolled into one for the most part. “Your job is to protect people from the intrusion into their lives of entities, which half the professed Christians in this country don’t believe in. So good luck with that,” he deadpans.
The scenes are given creepy significance thanks to crackly videos of case studies, who are convinced relatives have been possessed, lights going out unexpectedly and talk of ‘everything leaving imprints’. Owen and one of his students, Merrily Watkins, share a fag outside, their breath pluming into the cold night air. The Obi Wan of deliverance ministry teaching is sceptical of Merrily, and doesn’t think she’s strong enough to deal with a discipline that she’s still very cynical about.
For the opening quarter of an hour Merrily is called upon for her new ‘expertise’. That word crops up a lot. People are expecting her, because of her deliverance training, to have ‘expertise’ in ‘this area’. Her modern-thinking Bishop is pushing her towards this line of work even if she’s not sure, the police do and so do the staff at the local hospital. In the case of the police she’s asked by two coppers who, led to believe she has ‘expertise’ in ‘this sort of area’, take her to an horrific crime scene, which features the bearded man at the start of the episode. He has been strung up, crucifixion-style, to a tree. The Pandora’s box has been opened. For Merrily this was her first crime scene, and the fact that it’s a gruesome True Detective/Hannibal ritualistic killing and display suddenly makes her confront the darkest sides of humanity. What did Owen say during her training? That she would be exposed to the worst, and she needs to be strong.
She’s tested further. She’s woken from the fit of a nightmare involving her dead husband by a phone call at 3.09am. It’s the hospital. A man named Denzil Joy is on his last legs and because she has ‘expertise’ in ‘this sort of thing’ could she come down and, you know…? Fully expecting a routine last rites job, when she gets to the hospital it’s explained to her by the nurses that he’s nastiest man they’ve ever encountered. He’s an abuser; a molester. It turns out his family hasn’t asked for a priest to administer the last rites – the nurses did. They want his soul purged because whenever they had cared for him, they felt is if his evilness stayed with them.
As she cranks up her kindly bedside manner, the emaciated, wheezing Joy strokes her hand as she gives him the last rites. His life support machine bleeps as he flatlines, but as Merrily lowers her head to say one final prayer Joy slowly raises himself up, eyes wide open and blazing. She screams as he digs his filthy, sharp fingernails into her hand. Merrily runs out of the ward, her hand bleeding and her constitution shaken with her encounter with this most of evil of men.
The scene is the stuff of pure horror – full of jump-out-of-your-seat moments.
And that’s the start of her descent into madness. There’s trouble at home, as her teenage daughter Jane makes new friends in the town (the mischievous Rowenna and one mysterious tarot-wielding woman who feels as though she’s manipulating her) and begins to distance herself from her mother, who is now starting to see Denzil Joy in hallucinatory fashion more or less everywhere she looks. She’s called to the murder victim Paul Sayer’s home, where a shrine to Satanism has been uncovered.
There’s more strangeness as the episode goes on – Jane’s new friend Rowenna looks extremely dodgy to say the least and the episode ends with Merrily finding Canon Dodds in his home with his throat cut. Before his death, he tells Merrily that he couldn’t stand up to Denzil Joy and that ‘they’ were too great in number. It looks like there’s a bunch of Satanists alive and at work in Hereford and Merrily Watkins has become a reluctant last bastion of the Christian faith against the evil that permeates the city. If there’s a comparison to be made it’s The Omen, that oh-so-creepy British horror film of the 70s.
The production pulls out all the stops to creep us out – there are fuzzy out-of-focus bits, slow motion sequences and plenty of sombre music. But it works. And it works not only because of the production but because of the actors. As we’ve seen before in supernaturally-tinged crime dramas, it needs the actors to fully buy into the extraordinary story concepts, and Ann Maxwell Martin is just superb as Merrily Watkins, a woman on the brink who feels that her life is slipping away from her.
Midwinter Of The Spirit is very well done, looks great and is full of chills and spills. It’s perfect for these darker, autumn evenings.
For our interview with Ann Maxwell Martin go here
For our interview with David Threlfall go here