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 BBC1Reuse content