‘The Living and The Dead’: Working as a History Advisor for the Upcoming BBC Drama Series

Hearing that I can’t live without quality horror flicks probably won’t come as a shock to you. Imagine therefore my delight when the BBC approached me in November 2014 to discuss an opportunity to get involved in the making of a TV horror drama as a history advisor. Created by Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes maker Ashley Pharoah, The Living and the Dead will air this year in six episodes of 60 minutes each, and as a BBC World project I think the series is going to be broadcast in the UK and the United States simultaneously.

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Photo credit: Robert Viglasky (via BBC)

The Living and the Dead (produced by Lookout Point, the company behind Ripper Street and War and Peace) revolves around the characters of Nathan and Charlotte Appleby (played by Colin Morgan and Charlotte Spencer), an English gentleman farmer and his wife living at the end of the nineteenth century. Nathan works at the cutting edge of fledgling scientific psychology but is also downright obsessed with investigations of ghosts, poltergeists, spirit mediums and all sorts of things that go bump in the night. As even the most conservative historian will now acknowledge, this kind of research was much more prominent among Victorian men and women of science than your pre-1970s history books would have it.

Hence, Pharoah and his team were after a historian who could tell them something about the state of the mind sciences in the late nineteenth century, and they specifically sought input from someone who had done first-hand historical research regarding any actual entanglements of Victorian psychology with ghosts and the occult.

After a few emails with the show’s script editor, the BBC sent my Consultancy and Advice contract, followed by Pharoa’s pitch of The Living and the Dead to the BBC with a preliminary overview of all six episodes, and the full script of a draft of episode one. This was the material I was asked to carefully read as a basis for discussions with the creative team. Upon confirming my availability a meeting was promptly scheduled for mid-December 2014, when script editor Katie Kelly, producer Eliza Mellor (of BBC’s Poldark and Death Comes To Pemberley), and executive producer Katie McAleese visited me at Churchill College to discuss the material. The meeting, which lasted about 4.5 hours without a break, was very stimulating and I felt everybody was excited about the dramatic potential of much of the heterodox research some Victorian psychologists were seriously into.

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From Ashley Pharoah’s Twitter feed

Obviously, my contract prohibits me to spill any plot-related beans, and I think I ought to wait for the show to air before revealing what kinds of suggestions I made. And it goes without saying that the show’s main objective is to make your skin crawl rather than provide a history lesson – unsurprisingly, during our first phone conversation Katie K. was quick to stress that this was a drama show, “not a documentary”.

But she also emphasized that Pharoah and his team were keen to develop the plot as historically accurately as possible. Not only did they want to avoid anachronisms and factual errors, but also possibly draw upon some of the unorthodox research actually produced by real people who were a little like Appleby.

Before and after the meeting, Katie Kelly, whose job as script editor was to secure consistency between the scripts of each episode, even asked me for recommendations of academic literature and accordingly did some serious reading in the British Library. She also read parts of my PhD thesis, which forms the basis of the book on late-19th century psychology and psychical research that I’m hoping to complete this year. And when I heard that filming had commenced in summer 2015, Pharoah assured me in response to a tweet that “every single word” of my feedback had been incorporated.

That the creative team behind The Living and the Dead is committed to historical detail is also indicated by their consulting another advisor, Suzanne F. Cooper, a curator, lecturer, and specialist on Dickens, Ruskin and Victorian women (see her blog and Twitter feed). I understand Suzanne was far more intensely involved in the making of the show than me, though I don’t know on what aspects she gave advice specifically.

So how many millions, I hear thee ask, does one make as a history advisor for a BBC drama that has the potential to become an international hit? Obviously, all of a sudden I am now one of the rich and famous (in fact, as I’m lazily typing this with one hand I’m holding a £1,000 note to snort a line off Emily Ratajkowski’s buttocks with the other).

Not.

To be fair, I don’t think I invested more than eight or nine hours of work altogether, and I honestly enjoyed every single minute of readings and discussions. But broken down, the fee I received upon signing my contract would be roughly equivalent to what an average waiter is being paid. Which would be perfectly fine if I had a permanent post, but given how closely postdoctoral positions continue to resemble freelance work these days, the pay is hardly appropriate. (This is of course no complaint directed at the lovely creative team, since I don’t think there’s anything they could have done. But please, dear BBC, rethink your current pay rates for academic advisors not holding permanent positions).

…and finally: Questions of money, fame and historical accuracy aside, do I think the show will be any good?

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From Ashley Pharoah’s Twitter feed.

Remember, my brief involvement was in the early-ish days of the show’s production, when the scripts were still being developed and not even the casting was confirmed. Apart from the original pitch of the series that included a very preliminary synopsis of all six episodes, the only full script draft I read was of episode one, which was still subject to potentially substantial changes. So there’s a chance that the outcome will differ considerably from what I saw in late 2014.

Having said that, if the material I did read, along with the photographic footage released to date, is anything to go by, I think Pharoah’s new brainchild has massive potential. Reading the script of the first episode honestly gave me the chills, and I very much like the feel of the stills from the set that have been making the rounds on Twitter.

So I’m as curious and excited as you are, and I can’t wait to see Nathan and Charlotte Appleby in action. But in case you’re wondering: If I could bet my advisor fee on The Living and the Dead’s success, I definitely would.

Andreas Sommer

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