BBC One’s drama The Village began in 2013 to many positive reviews – but elsewhere, positivity was in short supply…
Viewers on Twitter and the tabloid press called the show a “misery-fest”, and this interpretation became so widespread that it was accepted. Five million people settled down to watch The Village expecting to be a bit, frankly, depressed.
I re-watched episode one, turning this debate over in my mind. And do you know what? The Village isn’t bleak, it’s too clever for that. The Village does depict a harrowing chapter of social history. John Middleton has to work long hours of manual labour with the added weight of forefathers’ expectations on his shoulders. There’s an education system that misunderstands the point, with vitriolic consequences. There’s an angry mob and an attempted suicide in episode two. It’s a world that, almost as a reflex, sends boys who can’t even write to their inevitable deaths without even explaining why. So far, so bleak.
But The Village isn’t actually about any of those things. The show is about the moments of happiness in these people’s lives – because they are few and far between. But when they come they are all the more shining because of their rarity! Some of these women are abused by their husbands, but in the public baths they have a giggle. Bert may have to steal them, but he brings home shortbread and spends several minutes arranging them on a plate to brighten his mother’s day. Those are the best scenes, and when they come you feel you’ve earned them.
I love the sequence where Bert and his friend watch a pretty woman undress in the bathhouse, and then young Bert goes to… ahem… explore his sexuality in a nearby field. It is so honest and genuine, and amusing when Bert thinks he’s been caught.
The case in point for this is the end of the first episode – a masterpiece of drama. The trumpets flare up, simultaneously sounding like they are heralding love, but also war. The young boys march off to fight – a proud moment, tinctured with foreboding. A soldier shouts to his beau, “Will you marry me?” “Yes!” she calls back, surprised, elated! A beautiful demonstration of impulsive, young love… undercut with the darkness as to why he’s being so impulsive. And then the children play a game, and that game is to stone to death a German dog, because it’s German, and because the war has started. It is a dizzying and horrific cocktail of torn emotions, all in one scene! That’s skilful writing.
If you watch something and you feel two (or more) different types of emotion at one time – that gap in between is drama. That is what keeps the show immersive and addictive, even when the concern about its sombre tendencies repel you. This is a drama with integrity, and God knows we need more of that on British TV.
Writer Peter Moffat’s response to the criticism was brilliant: “I quite liked it,” he claimed. “All I can do is research deeply, properly and hard. It would be extraordinary remiss of any writer not to describe the First World War in terms of what it was. There are enough shiny First World War dramas out there already, thank you.”
The problem with the viewpoint that The Village is too glum, is, of course, it implies one should rewrite history. To not show servants having to turn and face the wall when the master walks through the hallway is to lie. It is rewriting history in the favour of the rich and powerful, at the (further) suffering of the downtrodden. The Village was billed as an anti-Downton Abbey; a far cry from the Tory-utopian vision of harmony between classes because the underlings know their place. I’m sure there were houses where the staff and owners got on well, as Downton, but the fact remains that they were owners. These people’s lives were hard, that is a fact. They weren’t always happy with their lot. They were sometimes – and that is shown in the drama.
The Village was nothing if not ambitious. But the BBC’s anti-Downton remedy may have bitten off more than the modern television landscape can chew. There is still yet to be an announcement about whether the drama will return for a third series, but with Moffat engaged in writing duties on another project, it isn’t looking likely. I think a radio series would have been a safer bet – more likely to commit to a long-runner – but then the concept would step on the toes of Home Front and, indeed, The Archers.
The second series failed to have the impact of the first, in spite of reports that the production team had made a concerted effort to make the series lighter and brighter. Look to the DVD artwork for this: the windswept rainy icon from Series 1 replaced with a holding-hands utopian front cover for Series 2 in 2014.
Plus, perhaps to hold out an olive branch to critics calling the show “lefty claptrap”, the people in the Big House get more screen-time in Series 2: Diet Downton. But that’s not why we’re watching The Village – metaphorically and literally the Big House is a long way from the village.
The fact that the series went brighter was to its detriment, because in straining to find more positive moments in the story, the series became a self-conscious shadow of itself. The second series was still great storytelling – and some of those happier moments, like Maxine Peake’s character finding her voice, were lovely – but it felt we were being pointing towards those moments as a defence. No drama should show its working.
A drama should also never be one just thing: dark and light are not contradictory, in fact they’re usually both present in one scene. If anything, modern audiences lean towards the dark, with the dangerous ignorance that something that is euphoric is not also automatically lightweight. But it’s a darkness that you revel in, a gruesomeness, like the blood and guts of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Are there points where The Village revels too much in real, human despair? Perhaps. It does take itself too seriously at moments, which is different from taking the predicaments of the characters seriously. But is that wrong for the drama? Rarely.
So don’t listen to the received interpretation, pick up the DVD and judge for yourselves with an open mind. The Village was not a failure for the BBC – with three BAFTA award nominations including Best Drama Series. The Village is not a flighty drama that in no way resembles real life. The Village is exactly like real life, in that some drudgery can be ignored in light of however brief, shining moments of happiness.