My day on the haunted set of The Living and the Dead
Huw Fullerton swaps ghost stories with Colin Morgan, Charlotte Spencer and the rest of the team behind the new supernatural BBC drama
The set of The Living and the Dead is haunted, all seem to agree.
Sure, seeing a few spooky sorts is an occupational hazard when you’re making a Victorian ghost story for the BBC (which you can watch now on iPlayer), but most of these spirits aren’t ones written into the script.
No, these spectres were at 16th-century manor house Horton Court long before the camera crew – and they seem to have taken a personal interest in filming.
“People have said the odd thing,” series star Charlotte Spencer tells us. “There was a woman near the fireplace in the hallway. There’s others…someone’s seen a little boy on the roof.”
“Supposedly a boy did drown in the lake in the 1930s,” adds Colin Morgan, who plays a psychiatrist-turned-farmer called Nathan Appleby in the new series.
According to the former Merlin star, a similar drowning takes place in the series, which mainly focuses on Morgan’s character and his wife (Spencer) returning to the family farm only to encounter a series of supernatural occurrences that test their marriage.
“I hope it’s coincidence,” he says with a grin.
Myself and the other cynical journalists on the set scoff and laugh at these claims – but as the days goes on the stories keep piling up.
The shadowy figure lurking at the back of scenes who was later nowhere to be found; the mysterious footsteps ringing down the corridors while they did a second take; the filming of a séance interrupted by an angry flurry of flying papers, a moment actually caught on camera.
“We were doing a sequence with Colin who was doing a Ouija board scene where he’s calling up the ghosts,” recalled producer Eliza Mellor. “He was calling out, ‘Are you there? Are you there?’ and suddenly all these papers flew off the shelf onto the floor and we were all really freaked out.”
I can sympathise with the feeling.
These papers flew off the table during a Ouija board scene
The heating breaks in the disused chapel we’re using for interviews, which has stood on these grounds for a thousand years, and a chill runs through us all. I pull on gloves and check the time on my phone to see how much longer we have to stay here. I’m a little unnerved. And there are still more ghost stories.
More like this
“One time we were filming,” Spencer recalled, “and I hear footsteps and I was like, 'Someone doesn’t know we’re filming obviously.’
“So I turned around thinking they would run away, but there was no one there. And the first [assistant director] was about to say, ‘Who’s walking in the corridor’ and there was no one there.
“They were the loudest footsteps I have ever heard down the corridor and sound never picked it up."
Charlotte Spencer as Charlotte Appleby
“It’s a bit spooky. A bit weird,” agrees series co-creator and writer Ashley Pharoah, better known for the supernatural Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. “There’s been a lot of those things happening. The scariest one was the telephone one.”
A telephone? What makes a telephone scary?
“Quite recently we were filming and we could hear a telephone ring and we were saying ‘God, that’s really odd’,” Eliza explains. “Like old fashioned telephone rings. Why is the phone ringing?
“We went down to talk to the National Trust and they said the phones had been been cut off for years, and we said we have heard that twice yesterday.”
Hmmm. That one’s pretty tenuous, I think, suddenly feeling more secure in my non-supernatural world. Lots of people have that “classic phone” as their ringtone, and we’re not usually calling in the Ghostbusters every time they get a PPI call.
I check the time again on my own (non-novelty ringtoned phone). Despite being on 70 per cent charge 10 minutes ago, it’s gone dark. Stone dead.
And now Eliza has remembered something else.
“The next moment we were filming again and somebody said, ‘Oh, there’s somebody in there, can you move out of the way’” she recalls, “and then we went in and there was nobody there.
“We all looked and played back and it really looked like somebody had been there.”
Filming at Horton Court in Somerset
Keen to leave the dark church and the deep shadows that lie in its corners, we later get the chance to wonder around the house and grounds where filming takes place. The wooden, authentically Victorian interiors have a gloomy atmosphere that would make anyone find things a bit spooky, let alone if you already had your mind filled with ghostly ideas for the series.
Unlike Morgan and Spencer’s characters in the series (who genuinely do seem to attract some nasty supernatural forces as they try to mechanise their farm), there’s no need for anyone to be scared, though the room filled with dusty old children’s toys (below) isn’t helping my nerves.
But then again maybe I’m denying my own nature – because Ashley Pharoah is pretty convinced that we all like being a little frightened from time to time.
“I think everyone’s on the same journey as an ending,” he tells us. “Everybody is interested in what the next great adventure is and I think people like to be scared.
“It’s a really ancient need to sit around a fire and tell ghost stories.”
He's expressing an apt sentiment for someone promoting an atmospheric supernatural drama, and it's a nice line to round off the day. I can see that.
But my phone’s still dead, and I’ve checked with the other journalists. Two other phones have also blacked out, and the others have lost signal. And as noted, all the phone lines in the house were cut years ago. Frankly, I’m quite happy to not hear any more ghost stories today.
“I don’t get a bad feeling in this house,” Spencer says. “I wouldn’t dismiss it or say, ‘Yes there definitely is something,’ but I don’t get a bad feeling.
“It’s more that they’re interested. I wouldn’t spend a night in there by myself. There would have to be a big group of people.”
Obviously I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t think spirits can pass over from the other side, I don’t think there are people who can communicate with the dead and I certainly don’t think it’s likely that a TV series all about ghosts would just happen to pitch up at one of the rare places haunted by them.
But right now all I can think about is how lame a ghost story I’d end up a part of if I was killed on a set visit because my iPhone ran out of charge in the West Country, and how much warmer and un-haunted my modern flat back in London will feel when I get back tonight.
Let’s just say that from hereon out I’m very happy to keep my ghost stories on my TV screen.
The Living and the Dead is now available as a six-episode box set on BBC iPlayer