Drudgery vs Downton: which is more gripping?

Historical drama The Village is the Anti-Downton Abbey. But really, how interesting are the lives of the rural poor?

David Bowden

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Look at these hands. These aren’t the dainty, namby-pamby hands of your average writer. These are gnarled hands. Tough hands. Dirt under fingernails. Calluses with blisters. Used to doing a hard day’s graft. Gritty. Rough. Workman’s hands.

Okay, so they were fairly dainty and namby-pamby hands until recently, but that was before BBC1’s The Village hit our screens. Five weeks’ worth of scrunching up my hands in frustration at the brutality of agricultural life, or balling them into fists to shake at the unfeeling coldness of the class system, or gripping the sofa in quiet fury at the tightly bound repression of it all, has taken its toll on my poor mitts.

The Village is the BBC’s much-trumpeted take on the classic German serial, Heimat, which spent 15 hours chronicling life in a small German village from 1919 to 1982 and which has spawned numerous follow-up series depicting incidental characters (a prequel is slated for release this October).

Lauded and treated as controversial in equal measure for its partial take on German twentieth century history (where the upheavals of two world wars, Nazism, economic hardship and Cold War division appear at a distance to the cast’s lives), Heimat is considered unique in terms of its ambitious attempt to understand German identity outside of the familiar and lazy shorthand of iconic events.

Nominally telling the life story of Britain’s second oldest man, Bert Middleton, The Village thus far has taken on events in a Derbyshire village during the Great War (as it was then). This was not, it must be said, one of the more mirthsome periods. Thus far we’ve had alcoholism, child abuse, sexual molestation, abuse of the mentally fragile, multiple deaths, suicide, animal mutilation, religious fervour, shell shock, and a whole lot of people being put in their place by a bunch of snotty chinless wonders in the big house. It’s hard-going stuff: at one point, having been distracted, I returned to viewing a scene which I had assumed was a gruesome scene of murder, only to be surprised to find that it was perfectly consensual intercourse.

But, what’s that you say, Skip? That this sounds less like a brave attempt to offer a radical and humane slice of social history and more like every other grim-oop-north Sunday evening BBC drama you’ve ever seen in your entire life, only on downers? Well, yes.

In a more revealing interview, it seemed scriptwriter Peter Moffat was somewhat less interested in a creative reimagining of Heimat for a British audience (even grumbling about not being able to use Heimat’s trademark jumps from colour to black-and-white), than he was in coming up with an anti-Downton Abbey, which has a somewhat jauntier take on class relations. Moffat, an award-winning writer of legal shows such as Kavanagh QC and Silk, is tired of television history which focuses on the ‘officer-class history’ and instead wants to take us into the lives of the farm labourers who were often worked to death.

It is this dour sense of swallowing your medicine of gritty authenticity which pervades The Village, and makes it so difficult to endure. The problem that television drama has with depicting grinding rural poverty is that that kind of life isn’t, by and large, particularly thrilling. Which is why, almost universally, the agricultural poor do everything they can to escape their alleged lot and swap it for it for often grimmer (but more promising) urban slums when presented with the opportunity.

Of course, if Moffat wants to go some way to correcting the romanticised view of the countryside idyll corrupted by vulgar urban living, and show us the living death that was the reality of pre-industrialised life for the vast majority of the population, then all credit to him. Certainly, at its best – and the series is certainly well acted and beautifully shot – The Village achieves these aims, with the first episode rather underlining the point that the rush of young men to sign up to military service was more a symbol of rural desperation to escape than it was driven by any real sense of nationalistic fervour. Similarly, the life of the farmer (John Simm) struggling against alcoholism, at the behest of his long-suffering wife (Maxine Peake) who has an equally manic embrace of religion, is one of the most poignant storylines of delicate redemption you’ll see on screen this year.

Yet, like all the best truths, the depressing realities of proto-modern rural life are fairly easy to summarise: you don’t need Moffat’s hoped-for 42 hours to get it across. Drama tends to focus on the lives of the privileged leisure class because, well, they were the only ones with time and money to get up to anything really interesting. The rest largely survived: and you can bet many did it with a bit more humour and sense of fun than we’re presented with in this monochromatic account.

Nonetheless, it has been commissioned for a second series, with a solid audience of five million, who are no doubt willing to endure the misery with a comfortable expectation that things are likely to get more pleasant over the coming seasons. Yet if the limits of BBC historical drama are now so low that they’re simply aiming to be moderately more rigorous than the daft escapism of Downton Abbey, then the future may be bright for the cast of The Village but I’m not so optimistic about the pay-off for its viewers.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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