With ITV’s Downton Abbey continuing to rule the roost when it comes to British period dramas (despite dwindling quality), surely it wasn’t going to be much longer before the Beeb produced a worthy contender. The Paradise was a commendable effort; it was powerful but impenetrable, with characters that felt hard to connect with at times. Created and written by Peter Moffat (scribe of the brilliant Cambridge Spies a decade ago), The Village succeeds where The Paradise fails, it makes you laugh and it’ll make you cry but most importantly it makes you care.
We meet Bert Middleton in the present day; he’s the second oldest man in Britain and a production company want to make a film about his life, and the village he grew up in. Bert takes us back to the summer of 1914, when he was 12 years old, and tells of a childhood stricken by poverty and the changes he and other inhabitants of his village experienced as the country was gripped by war.
Having Bert narrate each episode gives The Village an effective sense of realism. Moffat uses Bert’s eyes to give us tiny snippets of childhood, while developing larger narratives of the supporting characters Bert comes in to contact with. The theme of childhood is what gives the show its warmth; Bert is a beacon of hope and determination in amongst the gloom. He holds the weight of the world on his shoulders as only a child can and it makes him easy to identify with; as you see him sprint across the finish line of the village Rondo, your heart fills with triumph.
Moments like these are key to The Village, because for the most part it’s a tough watch. Moffat’s depiction of British life during the First World War (we never experience the frontline) is unremittingly grim; watching the mothers flock to the post office to see the list of fallen soldiers is heart wrenching. Most memorable is depiction of British Wartime politics; the way residents of the village treated conscientious objectors, and the effect shell shock would have on you & how the War Office could consider this cowardice.
The show is filled with spectacular performances from Bill Jones as the young Bert and Nico Mirallegro as his brother Joe, to their parents who are expertly portrayed by Maxine Peake and John Simm. The beauty of their performances is in their subtlety and it is astonishing how much you come to care for the Middleton’s; it’s an incredible feat by both performers and writers that makes some of the later plot points particularly poignant. The rest of the cast handle themselves brilliantly with Juliet Stevenson and Joe Armstrong being particularly memorable.
I guess for the BBC, what’s most appealing about The Village is its longevity and this could become the shows trump card; by taking us through a very personal account of British life, right up to the modern day, The Village will feel consistently fresh and exciting. The first series of Moffat’s show may be too gloomy for some, but stick with it and you’ll be taken on a journey that you’ll find yourself thinking about days later. Now that’s something I’ve never found myself doing with Downton Abbey.