Tom Hiddleston says it “felt very wild” playing the pastor of a village terrified by a mythical sea creature, in Apple TV’s The Essex Serpent.
Set in Victorian coastal Essex and London, the series is based on Sarah Perry’s award-winning book, and co-stars Homeland’s Claire Danes.
Hiddleston’s character, Will Ransome, tries to quell locals’ fears, telling them the creature is “an invention, a symptom of the times we live in”.
Danes plays London widow Cora Seabourne, who goes to the village to investigate reports of the serpent, after an earthquake dislodged fossils in the Essex landscape.
This causes the God-fearing locals to wonder else might have been awakened.
Rumours of a malevolent sea monster escalate after a local girl goes missing and is presumed dead. Some villagers work themselves into a frenzy, saying she was “taken for her sins by the Blackwater beast”.
Describing the scripts as “brilliant”, Hiddleston tells the BBC: “They were about complex people at a complex time, with a conflict of ideas.”
He said making the series “felt very wild, and mirrored the passions of the story we were telling. I was really excited to do it”.
‘We like to be humbled’
Hiddleston is of course no stranger to monsters, having been on the receiving end of “Hulk-smash”, as Loki in the Marvel films.
He thinks a seemingly endless fascination with mythical creatures is part of our need to account for things we don’t understand.
“Monsters are symbols of mystery… they reflect our need to find meaning in our lives,” he muses.
“I think human beings need, or are drawn, to externalise mystery. We like to be humbled by forces in nature and in our world that seem to be unexplained.”
Given it’s “probable we know we don’t know everything”, he thinks “we still have so many questions”.
“And sometimes those questions coalesce into the shape of monsters, benign and otherwise.”
His character Will’s views are challenged by Cora, who he meets in the swirling coastal mists. Much of the plot centres around the tensions – both intellectual and sexual – between them.
The story’s focus may be the serpent, but it pivots around Danes’ charismatic Cora, going it alone with her young son after the death of her brutal husband.
But unlike many other period TV dramas, Cora is not looking for a new spouse.
“No. Oopsy daisy,” laughs Danes, clearly delighted at her character’s independence.
“Her intellectual pursuits are the driving force,” she adds.
Cora shuns religion and is passionate about fossils. She is desperate to discover if the serpent is a dinosaur which escaped extinction.
“I think it’s her eagerness to realise herself,” she continues. “Her development had been quite arrested when she married this intensely controlling, abusive man.
“She’s just so relieved to have a chance to breathe again.”
Prof Gowan Dawson, from University of Leicester’s Victorian Studies Centre, told the BBC some of that era’s most notable women “who collected and studied fossils did not marry, and devoted their lives to their palaeontological pursuits”.
“This was the case with both Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, who, despite their very different social backgrounds, worked together in Lyme Regis, and made some remarkable discoveries of fossilised sea creatures,” he said.
“Fossils opened a window on a mysterious past populated by dragons and monsters, when Victorian Britain was otherwise focused on forging a new industrial future.”
It has to be said that although the wild Essex seascape explored by Cora looks stunning, it also looks inescapably cold and damp.
“My long, high-tech underwear was heaven-sent – effective and very, very welcome,” she says, grimacing slightly at the memory of being so chilly.
Clemence Poesy, who plays the pastor’s wife Stella, adds she was saved by “some very elaborate, nude-coloured stuff, almost like wetsuits” under her dresses.