Midwinter of the Spirit preview: a promisingly creepy start

Huw Fullerton is impressed by Anna Maxwell Martin's latest drama - and not just because one of the main characters shares his name

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It’s a struggle living with a name like Huw. When I was growing up, there were no Huws in films, no Huws in books, hardly any Huws anywhere in the fictional world. I longed for the sense of community and belonging a name like James must have brought when watching Mr Bond disable bombs and save the world.

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Instead, I made do with imagining the fun of reading the news on BBC Wales Today like Mr Edwards. Don’t get me started on the “Share a Coke With” campaign.

So it’s gratifying to find a character finally bringing Huw to the mainstream in Midwinter of the Spirit, ITV’s spooky new drama which sees David Threlfall playing a slightly shambolic exorcist (called Huw Owen). By my research, that puts him as the fifth fictional film or TV character to share my name EVER, and only the second in my lifetime. (I mean, you would have thought a film about Welsh miners like Pride might have shoved a Huw in. They had a Glyn, for God’s sake)

Thankfully this Huw happens to be a pretty cool character, opening Midwinter of the Spirit’s first episode by sardonically teaching a new batch of “deliverance ministers” (aka exorcists) how to spot a genuine spiritual incident. Among his students is Anna Maxwell Martin’s faintly sceptical protagonist Reverend Merrilly Watkin (doing even more sterling work in the field of unrepresented names on TV – how many people are named after adverbs?), who is soon to enter a world of trouble as she starts to encounter weirder and weirder supernatural occurrences.

Huw is a little unsure how Merrily will adapt to the world of deliverance. She’s a bit green, a bit of a doubter and a woman – all uncommon in this line of work – but more than anything, he’s keen to let her know of the dangers that she’ll face in her new gig. Dangers both of this world, and beyond it.

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

Said dangers are realised well in this solid adaptation of Phil Rickman’s bestselling book series, as Merrily finds herself drawn into a strange world of occult conspiracies, murder-by-crucifixions and deranged priests, all far beyond her limited experience. It’s creepy stuff, no doubt, but it’s not done in an obvious or cheap way. There are a couple of jump-scares (mainly based around the evil spirit of a serial abuser), but most of the fear comes from a subtler sense of dread pervading Merrily’s quiet parish as effectively as the mist that engulfs its countryside. Just what has gone on here – and why?

Can Merrily help the police solve the occult murders or will she go mad like her predecessor? And what does any of this have to do with her recently deceased husband?

Anna Maxwell Martin delivers a great performance as Merrily (her reaction to a crucified murder victim is unusually and brilliantly played), and, as noted, Threlfall is strong offbeat support (though he doesn’t play that big a part in this episode, and is disappointingly northern considering his Welsh name).

In fact, throughout this first instalment the cast play against stereotypes and expectations, whether it’s the stroppy daughter who’s actually quite sympathetic, the saintly social worker who’s also a bit prejudiced or the tearaway teenager who apologises for her mistakes. The plot’s a little light and expository so far, sure, but overall it’s a strong start for a series that well suits the lengthening dark evenings of late September.

That said, I have two serious criticisms:

  1. Midwinter of the Spirit is a terrible title for a series that would have been better understood and marketed as Anna Maxwell Martin: Ghost Cop.
  2. There should have been more of that Huw guy in it. What an interesting name.
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Midwinter of the spirit begins on ITV tonight (Wednesday 23rd September) at 9.00pm