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

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
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.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker