A very British Heimat: Will BBC drama The Village be as epic as the German saga?

Heimat followed a single family over the 20th century. Peter Moffat hopes that his new First World War drama for BBC1 will be just as epic.

We may like to think of long-form television drama as a 21st- century innovation, that it was born at HBO with The Wire and The Sopranos, and that subtitled drama on British television only began with Spiral or The Killing. But back in the mid-1980s, German director Edgar Reitz's epic saga Heimat, having been exhibited as a 16-hour marathon in a London cinema, was shown in its entirety over 11 consecutive nights on BBC2. It made better serial television than cinema, and even at a time when Dennis Potter was busy doing dazzling things to the medium, Heimat was life-enhancing in its originality and artistic vision.

Subsuming the entire mid-20th-century German Götterdämmerung, but set entirely in one village in a remote region of Rhineland, Reitz's saga followed one extended family – rural people leading ordinary lives – from 1919 to 1982, from the Weimar Republic to the Federal Republic.

It seemed as slow as time itself, and capriciously stylish at times – switching, seemingly at random, between colour and black and white.

And when five years ago the barrister-turned-writer Peter Moffat, the Bafta-winning creator legal dramas Criminal Justice and Silk, told me that was talking to BBC1 to create a "British Heimat", set in one Derbyshire village, I was both excited and doubtful. A British Heimat? On BBC1?

"We can't make 13-episode seasons (as in America), but you can make six and then another six, if you're lucky, and then another six – hopefully eventually we will have 42 hours of television drama," says Moffat when we meet again to discuss how, like Reitz, he is also attempting to follow just one village through the tumult of the 20th-century. Unlike Heimat, however, there won't be any black and white interludes in The Village("That was soon dismissed," says Moffat. "The BBC said 'you can go slowly but no black and white', "), while Moffat's series won't be shown over consecutive nights, but over six weeks.

Extending from 1912 to 1916 (with a final episode set in 1920), the first series of The Village stars John Simm and Maxine Peake as impoverished, alcoholic Peak District farmer John Middleton and his wife, Grace, and Juliet Stevenson as the lady of the local manor.

These names apart, the cast is largely unfamiliar, including two standout newcomers – 13-year-old Bill Jones as young Bert Middleton (whose long life will be central to Moffat's project) and Irish actor Charlie Murphy as headstrong suffragette Martha – as well as dramatist Jim Cartwright (The Road) as the local publican. "I was very keen to have lots of faces we don't know because you're arguing 'here is a slice of real life', " says Moffat.

This first – it is hoped – of many series covers roughly the same timespan as the opening series of Downton Abbey, but there the similarities end. This is working-class history, although aristocrats are necessarily involved (John's oldest son works in the local big house), but without the anachronistic Downton-style fraternisation with the servants. Instead, these domestics are expected to face the walls when the master of the house passes by.

"I think we need to re-calibrate the way we look at history… particularly this period," says Moffat. "It's seen now as officer-class history. I don't think there are enough of John Simm-type characters who, after all, make up most of the population. We've got lots of lovely Upstairs Downstairs stuff, so let's have 'how is it for a farm labourer?'."

"I believe that you need to be away from the centre in order to look at people's histories," Edgar Reitz told me in a 2005 interview about Heimat. This, Moffat understands, especially when it comes to the unimaginable suffering of the First World War. "I don't think you can do that war on screen," he says. "I don't think you can show us, without embarrassment, the Western Front. But you can do it by not being there… people who come back from it and have relationships with people who didn't go. I really wanted to write about the First War and I knew I couldn't it by having men in trenches and pretend mud."

The mud was only too real in the waterlogged late autumn in the Peak District settlements of Glossop and Hayfield. But why choose Derbyshire? "Well, it's incredibly beautiful," says Moffat. "But also I didn't want a place that was too overly described by any one thing – so I didn't want a fishing village or a coal-mining village. And there's the proximity of urban life… you can walk in the Peak District and come over a hill and there is Sheffield."

Moffat researched locally and at the Imperial War Museum, and within his own family (his mother provided the detail of left-handed schoolchildren having their knuckles rapped until they became ambidextrous), while John Simm delved into a book by local historian Margaret Wombwell, Milk, Muck and Memories. "That was invaluable because they were first-hand accounts of working farmers from the period," says Simm, who also learned how to scythe corn.

"Back-breaking work," he says. "But quite satisfying… you've been working the soil. John Middleton talks about it a lot – the earth and the land."

The hard-drinking Middleton is violent towards his wife, Grace, a storyline that worried Maxine Peake. "I have a difficulty with those roles… I've played a few now. But I was promised that she would blossom politically as the series went on… find her voice."

This is the third time – after Silk and Criminal Justice – that Peake has led a drama series by Peter Moffat, who describes her as "simply the best actress of her generation". Peake returns the compliment: "His characters are so unusual," she says, "and you don't really know where his script is going." But has Moffat written a British Heimat? It's a tall order but the first two episodes suggest that he is skilful and intelligent enough a writer to pull this one off.

Future series would be set in the 1920s, the 1930s, the Second World War, post-war Austerity Britain and beyond. The hope is that enough people watch this opening six episodes to give BBC1 drama bosses the confidence to allow him to fulfil this epic ambition.

'The Village' begins on Easter Sunday on BBC1

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone