The series takes place in specific moment in history, yet its themes are universal and timeless, its stars and writers tell Gemma Dunn.

The Essex Serpent might be set in the nineteenth century, but it reads like a modern-day drama.

Adapted from the best-selling Sarah Perry novel, the six-part limited series - exclusive to Apple TV+ - follows Cora, a widow who moves from London to a small Essex village intrigued by the idea that it might be haunted by a mythological sea serpent.

Cue a clash between science and religion as the keen naturalist (played by Golden Globe winner Claire Danes) meets her match in village vicar Will (Tom Hiddleston), with whom she forms an unlikely bond.

"I've worked on quite a few period dramas and this one is different in that it is incredibly contemporary in its take on love and friendship," offers screenwriter Anna Symon of the sweeping tale.

"It doesn't feel like it's set in Victorian England and it doesn't feel like a constrained buttoned-up drama. It feels exuberant, liberating and incredibly fresh.

"While Cora Seaborne is a Victorian woman, in many ways the challenges that she faces in that period still exist for women today. We see a woman who is struggling to find her place as a widow, as a wife and mother."

It was an intentional move from Perry, who stands by her stance that "historical novels are not about the past, they are about the present".

"Choosing to set it in the nineteenth century was a philosophical choice as I have never been interested in the differences of the past, but in the similarities, and in the idea that they were no different from us in their desires, their fears and their senses of humour," she elaborates.

"I thought if I wrote a novel set in the nineteenth century showing it as being a contemporary era with radiators, anaesthetic, socialism and feminism, it would be exciting for the readers."

It certainly ticked the boxes for Homeland actor Danes, 43, who says she "inhaled" the book having been gifted it by her actor husband Hugh Dancy some years earlier.

"The environment is so evocative and an extension of the characters' internal lives," she muses, referencing the windswept Essex landscapes. "Anna did a wonderful job of realising that, visually. It's this very heightened, thrilling story.

"I got immediately lost in it, so when it came my way I was thrilled to inhabit that story and learn about Cora from the inside out."

For Hiddleston, 41, the historical saga - directed by Ali & Ava's Clio Barnard - was brand-new territory.

"I read it very quickly as soon as I read the screenplay, and I really loved it," coos the Loki star. "It's so atmospheric and it's so beautifully written. The prose is so elegant, it's so evocative and it was a gift to us.

"In terms of the serpent, I love that the story works on so many levels," he follows. "There's something in the water and we don't know what it is - or it seems as though there is - and that's immediately thrilling as a mystery.

"Yet it's also a symbol of something beneath the surface, things that we don't yet know, or we don't yet understand. Ideas or feelings or instincts.

"Something about ancient myths appeal. We're always intrigued by these old folk tales; they have a hold on our imagination in a very powerful way."

He's not wrong. One of the key themes within The Essex Serpent, Perry states, is "the conflict between faith and reason, and being afraid of things we can't predict or understand".

"Both the novel and the series examine this idea through various lenses," she teases.

While outsider Cora wants to understand the nature of the so-called serpent and what lies behind the mysterious happenings, Will, in contrast, has faith and community at the centre of his life and believes, to a certain extent, that science is misleading those with overactive imaginations.

"Cora and Will have a respectful and playful companionship in their debates about this, and inside that companionship arises a deep mutual admiration and affection as well as a latent, growing passion, which is destabilising for both of them," shares London-born Hiddleston.

"Cora's arrival in Aldwinter unsettles the entire community, from Will and his family to the schoolchildren. It unsettles the way the local villagers root themselves in their lives."

Yet despite their opposition, they're clearly drawn to each other, he reasons.

"They so clearly respect each other and what the other one believes. Will, as a man of faith, also understands the power of intellectual reason; and Cora, as someone who's invested in science, also realises that not everything in her life can be explained solely by rational judgment.

"There is a leap of faith, perhaps a leap of the heart, that in the end has to be made," he concludes.

"They both have a real natural curiosity," adds New Yorker, Danes. "They're immediate friends and have this great rapport that they're just dazzled by and really haven't encountered before. I think they're taken by surprise."

As for drawing parallels, the fear of the unknown married with a desire to explain the unexplained speaks to contemporary society, says the pair.

"We've had to manage so much uncertainty recently and it's not easy," Hiddleston compares. "And to try to hold on to something, to hold fast to what is good, and hold on to some comfort is almost a practice.

"To cling together is something that we all need. I realise it's very difficult to be isolated. As human beings, we can't do it alone. We need each other. (There's) a sense that we fear what we don't understand. And sometimes it takes a bit of care and thought to dissipate that fear and allow the not-quite-understanding-yet."

"I was really struck by the line you (Hiddleston) have, where you say, 'Fear is where God lives'," recalls Danes, addressing her co-star. "That really chimed. That's particularly resonant and a helpful thought."

Joining the duo is Harry Potter star Clemence Poesy as Will's wife Stella, Frank Dillane as Dr. Garrett, Hayley Squires as Martha, and Jamael Westman as Dr. Spencer.

Reflecting on the script-to-screen journey, Symon says her hope is that viewers simply "fall in love with it in its own right".

"I'm hoping that the two things exist together as companions," Perry finishes.

"That the novel is different from the series and the series is different from the novel, and that they can exist together in this lovely symbiosis, influence each other and amplify each other."

The Essex Serpent launches on Apple TV+ on Friday.