Meet the man behind ITV’s exorcist thriller Midwinter of the Spirit

Phil Rickman's spooky bestseller is coming to TV - prepare to be scared, says Alison Graham

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Author Phil Rickman regularly consults exorcists. He knows at least two and was talking to one only the other week. He even put actor David Threlfall in touch with an exorcist for advice. But fear not – though legend demands that all writers and actors must have their demons, Rickman, creator of the hugely popular Merrily Watkins series of supernatural crime fiction novels, is not possessed. And neither is Threlfall.

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There are no spinning heads, no blood gushing from taps or weeping down walls in Rickman’s version of folklore-rich rural Herefordshire, the setting for his books and his first TV adaptation, Midwinter of the Spirit.

Anna Maxwell Martin is Merrily, a Church of England vicar and an initially reluctant exorcist, or “deliverance minister” as the church prefers. Threlfall plays her mentor, Huw Owen. The very word “exorcist” brings to mind Max von Sydow (The Exorcist) and Rod Steiger (The Amityville Horror), gloomy men wielding crucifixes and yelling in Latin. But Merrily, a widowed single mother in her late 30s, is quiet, questioning, devout, kind and horrified almost beyond words when a man is found crucified in woods in the very first episode.

Rickman fans will recognise instantly that therein lies a significant departure from his 550-page 1999 novel, the second in the 12-book Merrily Watkins series (a new story, Friends of the Dusk, is out in December). But the writer, who lives near Hay-on-Wye on the Welsh border, is philosophical about surrendering his work, not least because Merrily’s road to TV has been arduous and full of potholes. Rickman partly blames Martin Shaw.

Over the years the books have been optioned “six or seven times”, says Rickman. “The last time it clashed with Apparitions, that Martin Shaw thing [a 2008 BBC drama about a Church of England exorcist vicar], which was terrible. It kind of destroyed exorcism on TV for years, nobody wanted to touch exorcists after that.”

But gradually ghost stories bubbled back into films, with the huge cinematic hit The Woman in Black, based on Susan Hill’s book, and recently on to TV with Remember Me and The Enfield Haunting.

I’ve spoken to authors who happily hand their work over to be gutted and re-formed by a TV scriptwriter (Stephen Volk, in the case of Midwinter of the Spirit, writer/creator of the brilliantly creepy 1992 it-panicked-a-nation Ghostwatch). Did Rickman happily seize ITV’s cheque then run away, abandoning his baby?

“No, no, I sort of hang around and get up everyone’s noses,” he says. Unsurprising, as Rickman is by trade a journalist with a long career on local papers and regional TV and radio (he has a regular books programme on BBC Radio Wales, Phil the Shelf) so he’s not easily rebuffed.

“This is because you realise that while a good television adaptation can make a book, a bad adaptation can destroy everything. I’ve seen one episode, it’s pretty close, and I realise that if they are going to adapt a 550-page book with lots of detail and lots of characters it’s impossible to do it in three hour-long episodes. So the story had to be changed, though I think the principles have remained intact and the main characters are more or less spot on.”

Two of Rickman’s main characters – Merrily’s pal Lol Robinson and Hereford detective Frannie Bliss – are played by black and mixed-race actors (Ben Bailey Smith and Simon Trinder), which has led to mutterings of “political correctness” from some of Rickman’s fan base. Rickman is having none of it.

“There are new diversity rules and ITV has to do this after the embarrassment of Midsomer Murders.” [Executive producer Brian True May had to step down after comments he made to RT in 2011 about the show’s all-white casting, calling it “the last bastion of Englishness”.] Besides, casting Trinder was Rickman’s idea, as he’d never had a particular picture of Bliss in his head so why shouldn’t he be mixed race?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ayqFk391nwA

As for his frequently imperilled heroine, Rickman has spoken to Anna Maxwell Martin only briefly, but David Trelfall was another proposition altogether.

“He was determined actually to be Huw Owen. Before he would even take the part I had to write a detailed biography of Huw. When he then agreed, we spent an hour on the phone talking about Huw, and he also spent 90 minutes on a Skype call with a friend of mine who is an exorcist.”

Ah, there it is, of course Rickman has exorcist friends. Every Church of England diocese must have a deliverance consultant, but there are very tight rules governing how they work.

“I’ve never gone in search of exorcists, they’ve come to me. When Midwinter was first published I had an email from an exorcist in mid-Wales who said how delighted he was that somebody had got it right. He liked the fact it was very low key.”

An exorcist Rickman consulted at the very start of the Merrily series told him the job demanded scepticism: “Otherwise you’re not going to last very long at all. When someone comes to you, you have to decide whether they are telling the truth, whether they want to attract attention or whether they are bonkers.”

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Midwinter of the Spirit begins on ITV tonight (Wednesday 23rd September) at 9.00pm