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‘No wands or broomsticks’: how TV is reinventing the modern-day witch | Film

Domino Day is a thoroughly modern witch. As well as coping with being a contemporary witch in modern-day Manchester, with a mysterious coven on her tail, she is also navigating the world of love, and is a frequent user of dating apps – but often to hunt victims rather than to find her Mr Right.

The television series, which takes its title from its heroine, hits BBC Three and iPlayer later this month, and is one of a number of TV programmes slated for this year with a focus on witches.

Last week saw the release of Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale in the US, adapted from the 2020 novel by VV James. Despite being set in the author’s native Britain, the new thriller series about a world where witchcraft is out in the open has only been broadcast by AMC (home of The Walking Dead) in the US, and is not yet scheduled for a British streaming or TV service.

One of the big hits of late last year was, again courtesy of AMC, The Mayfair Witches, an adaptation of one of the most popular book series by Anne Rice, author of Interview with the Vampire. It was put out by the BBC, and a second season is slated to be released later this year.

Even Marvel is not immune to witchy ways. One of the big TV series this year will be Agatha: Darkhold Diaries, in which Kathryn Hahn reprises her role as long-standing Marvel Comics witch Agatha Harkness, who she first portrayed in the acclaimed series WandaVision. The series will debut for the Marvel Cinematic Universe several of the company’s occult characters from the comics.

Also expected this year is Rise of the Witches, a big-budget series shot in Saudi Arabia and based on the bestselling books by Saudi author Osamah Al Muslim, set in pre-Christian times.

It’s all come at the perfect time for Lauren Sequeira, the writer of Domino Day, who is finally realising her long-held ambition of getting her modern witchcraft story in front of audiences. And although aiming for a high-octane supernatural fantasy thriller in the mould of US shows such as True Blood and Vampire Diaries, she wanted to treat modern witchcraft with respect.

Sequiera, who describes herself as “a believer – I get my cards read and I believe in the properties of crystals, that sort of thing”, spoke to several contemporary witches when she was writing the series. “What I was sure I didn’t want was the whole Harry Potter thing with wands and broomsticks,” she said.

“We had one witch, who is also a professor, come to talk to us in the writers’ room, and she told us tales of cursed objects and voodoo and potions. I think that describing yourself as a witch is far more accepted these days than it was even quite recently. Ten years ago, you’d have got a weird look, at best, if you said you were a witch.”

The witch in modern popular culture is often sassy, sexy and dark, a far cry from the traditional witch of pointed hat and bubbling cauldron, and also very different to the historical reality of witchcraft, and the women accused of being practitioners.

Yet film-maker Emma Swinton mined the past for her short film The Witch’s Daughter, set in the real-life Pendle witch trials of the early 17th century. She, too, is pleased at the current witch trend as she’s developing the film, which starred Jo Hartley and Burn Gorman and was made with help from the National Lottery and the British Film Institute, into a full-length feature.

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Swinton grew up in Pendle, where 12 people were convicted, and 10 hanged, on accusations of witchcraft. She said: “There is a constant fire in me about the injustice that happened in Pendle. Growing up, seeing souvenir caricature witches for tourists, and the local bus with a stilettoed, red-lipsticked witch on a broomstick, I was always so enraged by the loss of humanity.

“I often feel the same disappointment with the portrayal of witches on film and TV as they have been exploited to be feared.”

That said, she is looking forward to the proliferation of witches on TV this year. “One of my earliest memories was watching Wizadora on CITV and an adult turning it off. I wasn’t allowed to watch it – it was about witches. This was my first spark of fascination with the witch. They could be presented as someone cruel or someone magic, and in many films from my childhood, like Snow White and The Wizard of Oz, they were cruel and scary.”

This image, she says, is now changing. “There is a huge reclamation of the witch. People are now openly calling themselves witches and there is a new fascination, with people seeing them from an empathetic perspective.”

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