Sunday night has long been the home of period drama and recently we’ve seen shows like Call the Midwife and Downton Abbey thrive on Sundays. However the latest period drama to air on Sunday nights is a little bit different from everything that has come before it. Despite being set in the early throws of the 20th century, The Village is a lot bleaker than any period drama in recent memory. Wholly set in a small Derbyshire village, the series is narrated by Bert Middleton who in the present day is the second eldest man in Britain. This first series sees the older Bert recount his youth starting in the summer of 1914 when he was only twelve years old.
Bert’s first recollection is of the bus pulling up into his village and a beautiful girl getting off it. The girl in question is Martha Lane, the daughter of the local vicar and an aspiring school teacher. Though Bert falls head over heels in love with Martha, it seems that she’s instantly attracted to his brother Joe after she sees him towelling himself down following an afternoon swim. Throughout this first episode it is made clear that Joe wants more than his simple life has handed him. When we first meet Joe he is working for the Allingham family at the village’s big house. The Allinghams are the classy family of the show but all of them have their problems especially Lord Allingham who won’t let anybody look at his disfigured face. Meanwhile his only daughter Caro is a little bit unstable, her only companion is her dog, and she seems to have a bit of infatuation with Joe. Joe’s home life isn’t any better though thanks mainly to his alcoholic father John who regular beats both of his sons. John is too proud to accept any money from Joe while he reacts badly to Bert’s insubordination often locking him in cupboards around the house. Bert’s mother Grace meanwhile stands sobbing in a corner most of the time and it appears as if she long gave up her own life to look after her husband.
Bert also narrates the story of life at school where he is regularly picked on by schoolmaster Crispin Ingham. Ingham chastises Bert when he gets anything wrong and often thrashes him in front of the rest of the class. Thankfully Bert has a kinder teacher in Gerard Eyre who notices that the young boy has some talent and wants to nurture it. It is clear that Eyre has some forward-thinking ideas which Ingham doesn’t hold with including having the boys run around during the taking of their school photograph. Eyre also is able to stand up to Bert’s father explaining that Bert needs his education and shouldn’t be used as a manual labourer on the farm. The final part of this first episode sees the declaration of the First World War and how this affects the villagers. Obviously the main focus is on enlistment with Joe and the rest of his friends signing up to go to war. The news that Joe is to leave the village leaves both Bert and Martha heartbroken but for very different reasons. Bert even misses Joe leaving the village as he is being kept after school by the dastardly Ingham. Thankfully Eyre is able to develop some photos taken on the day and gives them to Bert as a way of remembering Joe.
It personally took me a while to fully immerse myself in the world of The Village and for the first five minutes I can’t say I was impressed. Thankfully once we saw life at the Middleton residence and the goings on at the main house it’s fair to say I was hooked. I love the fact that The Village is primarily told through the eyes of a twelve year old boy as the narration has a playful feel to it. I ennjoyed the scenes of Bert hiding in the grass, learning to swim and peeping at the naked ladies at the local baths. In fact The Village is fairly risqué for a Sunday night drama on BBC1 as it includes a fair amount of bare flesh and scenes of a sexual nature. One of the reasons that I think that The Village is so successful is because of Peter Moffatt’s vast array of colourful characters. Moffatt, who previously worked on legal dramas such as Silk and Criminal Justice, is excellent at making us sympathise with his lead characters. Even the sometimes wicked John Middleton is given a sympathetic edge as we get the impression he is about to lose his farm. Antonia Bird’s direction is also superb as she captures the Derbyshire scenery perfectly and the cinematography is superb from the get-go. I feel the lavish exterior shots are some of The Village’s biggest strengths and will look fantastic in high definition.
In terms of the ensemble cast I thought John Simm was excellent as the emotionally flawed John Middleton who was failing as both husband and father. I found Simm truly terrifying in his first scenes however he was able to make us feel for John later on in the programme. Simm also had an excellent chemistry with Maxine Peake as his wife Grace who often felt she had to mother him. I liked that Peake was able to show two sides to Grace as later we see her nattering with her female friends down at the bathhouse. Nico Mirallegro is great as Joe a kind-hearted soul who tries to do the best by everyone but who will soon be the first of his family to leave the village. While Juliet Stevenson also lends tremendous support as the haughty lady of the manor. However for me the best performance came from Bill Jones as the young Bert who I found to be completely captivating every time he was on screen. Jones is great at behaving like a child would as he runs around the countryside and experiences love for the first time.
The Village definitely isn’t your ordinary Sunday night period drama due to its bleak subject matter and scenes of a sexual nature. The Village does feel incredibly real thanks in part to Moffatt’s script and the performance from Bill Jones as the young Bert. I love the idea of seeing the history of our country through the lives of these villagers and it is Moffatt’s hope that he gets to tell the story of the 20th century through the eyes of Bert Middleton. But for now I’m just hoping that the rest of the series is as good as this opening episode which completely blew me away.
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