Magazine article The Spectator

Television Hard Times

Magazine article The Spectator

Television Hard Times

Article excerpt

Everyone's loving BBC1's new, Sundaynight period mega-drama The Village (32 episodes long if writer Peter Moffat has his way). It's taut, spare, grown-up, accomplished, dark, strange and poetic, according to the critics, which I think are all euphemisms for 'not like Downton Abbey'.

And it definitely isn't like Downton Abbey. There's a lot more brooding, the dialogue's more Pinteresque (which is to say it's more often there to evoke mood or the banality of existence than to carry the plot, amuse you or illuminate character), its view of the past (a Derbyshire village on the eve of the first world war) is much less rosy. But is this necessarily a good thing?

Personally, I'm not so sure. Say what you like about Julian Fellowes but he does understand the upper classes. Moffat, as he has demonstrated before in a series like Cambridge Spies, clearly doesn't. The people in the Big House in his village are caricatures: stiff, affected, remote, unimaginative, reactionary - sweepings from the factory floor of every cliched period drama you ever saw about toffs in grand houses, produced without a shred of sympathy or insight or originality.

Take the scene where the pretty, young, bolshie schoolma'am comes for dinner and quickly steers the conversation to her pet subject women's suffrage. The chinless wonders at the table are frightfully agin, of course; as is the grande dame (Juliet Stevenson) who, belatedly, chastises the missy for broaching politics at dinner. But this is Moffat having his cake and eating it: had you actually been a bolshie schoolma'am living in 1914 - as opposed to a bien-pensant scriptwriter's idea of how 1914 ought to have been - you would not have had the luxury of treating the local toffs to a proper dose of reforming righteousness in this way. Probably, your employment would have depended on their patronage. Even if it didn't, you certainly couldn't afford to ruffle feathers in so tight a village community as you'd be ostracised. Anyway, you wouldn't have been invited to dinner in the first place.

But it's not the anachronism or the clunkiness that I mind, so much as the politics. If you're setting your cap at writing the British version of Heimat, then surely you're selling your subject - and your audience and your generous budget - short if your vision of society is so obviously constrained by festering Guardianista class resentment. Moffat despises the old order so much that he cannot bring himself to get inside their heads. …

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