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The Essex Serpent showcases Essex, but not as you know it

The Apple TV+ series breathes fresh life into the often misunderstood county.

Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston in The Essex Serpent
Apple TV+
Published: Wednesday, 18th May 2022 at 11:03 am
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Fresh off the back of a spate of unique, original programming including Severance, Pachinko and Roar, Apple TV+ makes its debut outing in the realm of historical period drama with The Essex Serpent.

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Adapted from Sarah Perry's 2016 novel of the same name, the narrative charts the story of recent widow Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes), who uproots her London life and heads to the Essex coastline upon hearing rumours of a mythical serpent preying on a local community.

Its creative team, spearheaded by director Clio Barnard, dissect the dispute between science and religion set against a melancholic, angst-ridden backdrop. But while the titular reptile and the character relationships are undoubtedly the main event, the series also brings something else into focus: the county of Essex, specifically how the TV landscape has largely failed to encapsulate its many layers.

The TV legacy of Essex

The Only Way is Essex cast
The Only Way Is Essex cast. ITV2

Through mainstream television, Essex and its natives have been depicted as caricatures, with an authentic rendering often nowhere to be found. But while popular 2010 series The Only Way Is Essex, with its vajazzles and fake tan, is partly to blame, the building blocks for what has come to define the region can be traced back 30 years prior.

1980s smash hit Birds of a Feather, which was revived in 2014 was, for many outsiders, their first encounter with the county. As a result, its loud-mouthed characters and the kitsch glamour of its Chigwell residents are how Essex has largely come to be thought of on the national stage. Fast forward to the new millennium and little has changed, with Gavin & Stacey, White Gold and The Wright Way all producing similar variations of this stereotype.

There have been some signs of a positive shift of late, with 2020 miniseries White House Farm and The Third Day showcasing fresh ways to explore emotion and location. But Emily Watson's shrill matriarch Mrs Martin in the latter continued to dial into the pigeonholing that has long plagued Essex and prevented it from moving the needle.

A rich history

Hadleigh Castle, Essex
The remains of the south-east tower of Hadleigh Castle which overlooks the Essex marshes and the Thames estuary. Loop Images / Getty

What television has also largely omitted is the breadth of the county's history. There's no denying that what audiences have seen and continue to see is an integral part of Essex's culture, but multiple things can be true at the same time and The Essex Serpent offers up a unique perspective to counteract its rigid status. Not only does it accurately depict what Victorian Essex would have looked like – when does that ever happen? – the series also takes a nuanced approach to emotion, ignorance and understanding.

Filmed largely in the town of Maldon, the history of Essex's coastline, which is endlessly fascinating, is criminally untold in popular culture. Nearby Colchester is considered the oldest recorded city in the UK, with its castle central to some of the 700 witch trials that took place between 1560 and 1700 in neighbouring Manningtree, Hatfield Peverel and Chelmsford.

Maldon has also suffered its fair share of Viking invasions and Saxon battles against the backdrop of the mysterious marshes and Osea Island, peppered with coastal fossils that speak to yesteryear. By answering what could make the fictitious community of Aldwinter so strict in their God-fearing beliefs, The Essex Serpent channels local history to prove there could, indeed, be more than meets the eye.

Breathing in new air

Claire Danes in The Essex Serpent smiling while stood outside
Claire Danes (Cora Seaborne). Apple TV+

For those who have only ever visited Essex through their TV screen, this drama is a breath of fresh air. Writer Anna Symon and the director have successfully tapped into the spirit of Chelmsford-born Perry's storytelling to sketch the county's rural beauty – a characteristic that is often cast aside and as such, is a mystery to those who haven't stepped foot in the region.

Barnard spends significant time capturing the mystery of the marshes – simultaneously beautiful and bleak – as she does in her Bradford-based romance Ali & Ava, which further imbues the series with a depth and solitude not typically present in the pre-existing depictions of Essex. That is bolstered further by the connection between Seaborne and local vicar Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), who have contrasting belief systems about the matter at hand.

Setting a story in the Victorian era and using it to unpack musings on science and religion is nothing new, and yet The Essex Serpent, while leaning into superstition, myth and the small-mindedness of certain locals, has a contemporary feel. Though the unpredictable Cora is from London, it's Will who remains open-minded, in spite of what he's faced with, counteracting the conveyor belt of ditzy, dumbed down stereotyping we've predominantly been fed.

It has taken far too long but finally, there is a fresh – and desperately needed – addition to the fold. Essex can be anything and everything it wants.

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The Essex Serpent premieres on Apple TV+ on Friday 13th May 2022 – sign up to Apple TV+ here. Check out more of our Drama coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what's on tonight.

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