Sunday evening is the showpiece TV slot for drama series. Currently running on BBC1 is the Village – a tale of a Derbyshire Peak District family set in and around Edale, Hayfield, Chapel-en-le-Frith and Glossop.
Previous hugely successful series which have occupied the slot include, of course, Downton Abbey, Call The Midwife, Emma, Bleak House, and further back All Creatures Great and Small. There’s a clear theme. Sunday evening is the nostalgia slot. I will confess I loathe nostalgia and find Downton Abbey pretty unwatchable other than as a comedy. The thing about nostalgia is that the rose-coloured spectacles are a key part of the trick.
We are so used to “reality TV” these days that we could mistakenly expect these series to be documentary-like in their accuracy. The fact is that our TV functions like a tabloid newspaper. It’s purpose is no longer to educate or reflect reality but to entertain and feed our fantasy. Lord Reith, the founding Director General of the BBC was remarkably prescient. He recognised the risk “He who prides himself on giving what he thinks the public wants is often creating a fictitious demand for low standards which he will then satisfy”. He warned the first viewers of the fledgling BBC television that they may not find much of the content interesting. The reality TV shows are filled with “real” people acting or eccentrics selected for their entertainment value. (Made In Chelsea must be the most loathsome of all). The soaps are compressed and accelerated versions of life. The British Medical Journal published a paper in 1997 on the comparative medical history of the soap opera communities. It concluded that:
Characters in soap operas lead very dangerous lives
Their lives are more dangerous even than those of Formula One racing drivers or bomb disposal experts
People suffering from many forms of cancer and other serious diseases have better five year survival rates than do these characters
Could the exaggerated portrayal of these violent and dangerous lives be contributing to our distorted national perceptions about violent crime and death?
The Village is a bold venture. The cast includes some Shameless actors and, for me there are many parallels. Shameless is possibly The Village of the 21st century but with more jokes. The creators of The Village wanted to reflect the older generations memories of the early part of the 20th Century. The series begins with Bert, the “second oldest man in Britain”, recalling his youth. It has a truth which most of the other series don’t. Call The Midwife was based on memoirs but with a desire to entertain in the same way that James Herriott’s veterinary memoirs did.
The Village has taken a different and bold approach which is quite shocking when compared with the programming around it. The lives portrayed reflect my family tree. I can trace generations of agricultural labourers in Norfolk back to the 18th Century and through to the time of The Village. A have no doubt that at some time there really was a Miller somewhere in Norfolk who fell on hard times and lost his mill.
The critics are united in their recognition of the bleakness of the series. Some see it for what it is – the excellent Caitlin Moran loves it. The Northerner blog in the Guardian bizarrely described it as “another Grim Up North caricature” and then compounded it with “What happened to the more affectionate, realistic portrayals of northern life in Cold Feet and Our Friends in the North?”. I have a problem with describing the Peak District as “the North” and this may reveal where The Northerner actually lives – I’m guessing Manchester at best. The Daily Mail (a tabloid remember) showed its typical probing journalism with “It was supposed to be a period drama to rival Downton Abbey. But viewers hoping for an upbeat Easter Sunday’s viewing were presented with misery, depression and violence. Episode one of The Village on BBC was voted a miss by Twitter users and seems unlikely to match the success of ITV’s stately home series.” To be fair this was in their “TV and Showbiz” section. The Village is most definitely not Showbiz thankfully.
I think it’s fair to say that The Village is not going to drive tourists in the same way Last Of The Summer Wine did but personally I think it is a cracking and refreshing piece of television.
In response to the Daily Mail Showbiz journalist I think Jack Nicholson, in A Few Good Men, says it well: “The Truth! You can’t handle the Truth”