It’s tempting to think of the The Village as the BBC’s anti-Downton. Set during roughly in the same time period as everyone’s favourite High Tory soap opera, the two shows were bound to draw comparisons, but they are totally different beasts.
While Downton Abbey approaches the class system of early 20th century England with a sort of Things-Were-Better-Then gentility, at times The Village has been so bleak that it has drawn inevitable criticism for being a cover for lefty, kitchen-sink agitprop.
Written by Peter Moffat (Cambridge Spies, Silk) The Village is inspired by Heimat, the long-running German film series which depicted the impact of the big 20th century political events on a family from the Rheinland. Moffat is keen for his drama to similarly stretch across the years in future series.
The first series takes place mainly during the First World War and is dominated by that conflict’s social effects, from the entry of women into factory work as Grace Middleton (Maxine Peake) starts sewing military boots, to the slow erosion of the stigma around married women working as teachers, explored through the career of Martha Lane (Charlie Murphy). The series ends with a poignant exploration of the now-forgotten controversy which surrounded the erection of official memorials after the war.
The second series continues to take on political events under-explored by writers to remind us of the hardships and opportunities of the post-war days, focusing mainly on the election of Ramsay McDonald’s first minority Labour government in 1923. It’s good to see writers finding inspiration from the lesser-known stories of the period; another BBC drama, Peaky Blinders, chooses to set its first series against the apparently obscure backdrop of the influence of the Irish War of Independence on the criminal gangs of Birmingham.
The village is stirred up by the arrival of miner and Labour parliamentary candidate Bill Gibby (Derek Riddell), who sparks a number of small acts of rebellion, culminating in a mass trespass on the lands of the local aristo family, the Allinghams. As a consequence, the Middleton family almost falls apart, while the Aillinghams continue to rule the roost, although not without personal tragedies of their own.
At the conclusion of the series, Gibby makes a return to the village as leader of Sheffield council (although the South Yorkshire pedant in me feels compelled to point out that the people’s party didn’t take control at Pinstone Street until 1926). His plan, exposed by Grace, is to flood the village to make a new reservoir for the city — perhaps based on the fate of the village of Derwent in 1943.
It raises an interesting political question for the next series: has Gibby, having laboured for years to break the villagers from their deferential relationship to the Allinghams, merely strengthened that relationship through his adoption of bureaucratic municipal socialism?
The Village reminds us of the capacity of the labour movement to reach every corner of the map in the early 20th century. Even in the sorts of places regarded as timeless Labour heartlands, the party’s breakthrough often didn’t come late and after serious struggle (not until the 1960s, for example, in the Derbyshire pit town of Clay Cross). The success of this movement was the result of the actions of hundreds of thousands of people working in unimaginably difficult circumstances.
Ultimately, what makes the series so good are the outstanding performances on show. But the history provides a fertile bed for actors who clearly know their trade.