Books, Film & TV Tuesday, October 20th Words by: Lauren Rogers

From page to screen: the Herefordshire vicar with a sideline in exorcism

Books, Film & TV Tuesday, October 20th

From page to screen: the Herefordshire vicar with a sideline in exorcism

In his blog, Letters from Ledwardine, Herefordshire author Phil Rickman asks if lifting the characters from his Merrily Watkins mysteries from page to screen had been a success. Here's what he had to say...

"May be the Autumn hit," said The i.

"Just the thing to cheer and chill as the nights close in," concluded Sam Wollaston after taking the p--s a bit, the way you probably feel obliged to when discussing anything related to the paranormal in The Guardian.

The media have always been iffy about the woo-woo factor.

Episode One had a miserable two stars in the Times from Andrew Billen, distinguished author of Fifty Years of Doctor Who, who suggested it needed an exorcism but not of the type Merrily was expected to perform in the next couple of weeks.

However, over in the Telegraph Gerard O’Donovan, having (I’d guess) read some of the books, got it absolutely right.

"Midwinter of the Spirit managed to be exceptionally creepy without ever venturing beyond the bounds of the credible. We could not be further from the whimsical realms of Father Brown or the slow-paced Grantchester. This was drama to get the heart properly beating…"

Equally perceptive, James Walton told Spectator readers, "The tone strikes a perfect balance: serious but never too earnest or self-conscious. Given Merrily’s likeability (and doubts about her own competence) the plot is not just intriguing but also emotionally engaging.

"Midwinter of the Spirit is an ambitious and so-far distinctly satisfying attempt to create what might be called Middle-England Gothic."

There was always going to be a problem compressing a 550-page novel into only three episodes of one hour each, including commercials. Stephen Volk’s screenplay was nicely taut and preserved the central premise of the novel whilst avoiding esoteric details and not letting itself be inhibited by the book’s need for historical accuracy – let’s face it, he didn’t have time for all that stuff.

If Episode One threw in maybe one shock too many, at the expense of character-building, Episode Two got it exactly right, finally allowing Ben Bailey Smith to show that he’d really got into the role of Lol… thoughtful, hesitant, quietly determined to do the right thing.

An English folk musician being played by a black guy had caused the predictable Internet storm, actually smashing some long-term friendships and getting me described as a privileged writer who’d sold out his readers for ITV riches. Well… you know… bollocks, basically. I had no control over casting and, as other crime writers will confirm, while Hollywood can be life-changing, UK TV is, basically, car-changing… if you hadn’t already spent the money on new windows and kitchen improvements.

Colours dominated readers’ complaints, with some insisting that Merrily should have been played by an actor with dark hair. Strangely, nobody mentioned David Threlfall’s beard.

Anyway, sorry, trivia-freaks, I love this cast. Not one critic didn’t think Anna Maxwell Martin was brilliant as Merrily or David Threlfall as Huw Owen. Nobody was unmoved by Sally Messham’s exact portrayal of Jane.

It would be wonderful to see them all return, with bigger roles for Kate Dickie as Annie Howe, Simon Trinder as Francis (not Frank, huh?) Bliss. The one-off Midwinter characters sprang from the screen: Leila Mimmack’s ghostly Rowenna, Siobhan Finneran’s terrifyingly uppermiddleclass-mumsy Angela and, of course, Nicholas Pinnock’s magnetic Mick Hunter…

Mick. Come on, this was daring. Only two black bishops in Britain, and 50% of them playing for the other side?

Mick being out of the picture has solved a problem for me. Midwinter was very early in the Merrily Watkins series, so I never liked to assume that most readers of the later books would know about Mick… about what he was and what he’d done.

Now, thanks to the magic of television, more people know about Mick than have read the books.

So, at last, in Merrily 14, Friends of the Dusk (out in December) I’ve been able to deal with the fallout in a parallel plotline that makes Merrily’s future very seriously uncertain.

This content was originally published on Phil Rickman's blog, Letters from Ledwardine.

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