How TV’s grimmest show, The Village, got happy

Period epic ‘The Village’ was dubbed a ‘misery fest’ in its first series - but now’s it’s going sunny side up

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The Independent Culture

‘I was getting punched. Repeatedly. In the face. In the mud. Going, er, should I be having a tetanus jab, ’cos I’m getting all this cow poo in my mouth?” Maxine Peake is laughing as she recalls a shoot that sounds every bit as grim as it looked on screen. We’re on the set of The Village as it enters the second month of filming in the Derbyshire town of New Mills, on the edge of the Peak District; it’s the second series of the BBC1 period drama, and things are looking up.

In fact, there’s symbolism wherever you care to look. The sun breaks through the clouds. Grey skies turn to blue. John Simm cracks a smile. These are momentous scenes indeed, for a series whose detractors accused it of wallowing in miserablism but couldn’t stop it from drawing three Bafta nominations this year (including Best Drama Series). Even so, it’s no coincidence that filming has moved from winter to spring.

The show and its young hero, farm boy Bert Middleton (Tom Varey), may be leaving the First World War behind and plunging into the Roaring Twenties, but the basic premise ensures that the streets of New Mills will be needed for a few years yet. Series creator Peter Moffat has conceived the show as a sort of British Heimat (the legendary German television series), filtering the epic events of the twentieth century through an unnamed northern village and residents including Bert and his parents (played by Simm and Peake).

All the actors are present today to film scenes for the opening episode, as a travelling fair arrives in town and bunting decorates the streets. Laughter abounds both while the cameras turn and between takes. Cast and crew are firmly on-message here: words such as “sunnier”, “optimistic” and “lighter” are thrown around like rings at the hoopla stand. But even such a festive occasion brings with it challenges. Here, it’s in the form of Ghana Jones (Daniel Ezra), a boxer from “Savage Africa” whose coach offers one pound for the first man to knock him down. We look on as several familiar figures from the first series try and fail to do just that in front of a baying crowd of more than 100 extras, until two remain: Lord Kilmartin (Julian Sands), a visiting newspaper baron lending his support to wealthy local Tory MP Edmund Allingham (Rupert Evans), and Bert himself.

“I felt like Rocky,” grins Varey, breathing hard and wiping his nose of fake blood after the scene is shot. And no wonder – The Village is the first gig for the 23-year-old who is still at Rada when I meet him, and has yet to hire an agent (“I’ll need to if I want a bigger trailer!”). Having begun his acting career as “Captain Underpants” in his nan’s front room, it’s fair to say that this role represents a significant step up. Varey is the third young actor to play the part, as Bert has grown from the doughty schoolboy of the first series into a young man with hopes and dreams beyond the struggling family farm. While still grieving for his older brother’s death in the trenches, we find him weighing up an opportunity to leave the village behind for a job as a photographer’s assistant in Sheffield. Given the focal point and proposed scope of the series, it’s no spoiler when Varey reveals that Bert is sticking around.

Not that Varey will mind. He’s not alone in hailing the community atmosphere that sees cast and crew repair to the local boozer at the end of the day. More importantly, further series would also give him more valuable experience working with his on-screen parents, who he says are his acting idols.

When I speak to Peake, she has just finished walking her “smelly old dog” around the set and talks with characteristic warmth and passion about the political awakening her character, Grace, is set to undergo. “When I first discussed Grace with [creator] Peter Moffat, I did worry about her being the downtrodden wife. But Peter said no, and promised she’ll develop and blossom and politicise. That was a big moment!”. The catalyst is a Labour candidate (played by Derek Riddell) who responds to an address by Allingham at the fair with some pertinent lines from “The Masque of Anarchy”, Shelley’s epic protest poem.

Peake, who took a morning off from filming to attend Tony Benn’s funeral, herself performed all 93 verses of the poem last year at the Manchester International Festival, and laughingly promises to give Riddell notes on his delivery. For her, the show’s political dynamic, pitting left wing progressives against a Conservative Party attempting to turn back the clock under the auspices of traditional values, is central to the show’s appeal. “There’s a lot going on today that’s not that different. People are really struggling to get by. It looks bleaker [in the series] because of the farm life and weather, but it’s perfect timing for where we are socially and politically at the moment.”

The London-based Moffat is the only key player missing from the set, and his excuse is a novel one. “I feel a bit sick on Virgin Trains because of the way they tilt, so I can’t write on them,” he admits when I speak to him some weeks later, just one day after he has finished scripts for the series and one day before the show wraps (“But that’s okay. The tougher the deadline, the better the work …”). Even so, Moffat spent many hours discussing each of the twenty-something speaking parts with the actors who play them – many speak admiringly of his sense of collaboration and dedication to the show.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Moffat says he embraced the controversy over the perceived dourness of the first series, reasoning it was better to be talked about than ignored. “I quite liked it. There was an argument in The Daily Mail, where Max Hastings said that this [The Village] is what it was like from his own family experience, and someone else argued that it couldn’t have been as grim as that. All I can do is research deeply, properly and hard. It would be extraordinarily remiss of any writer not to describe the First World War in terms of what it was. There are enough shiny First World War dramas out there already, thank you.”

There are many welcome additions to this second series – not only new cast members such as Varey and Sands, but Lyme Park, the site of Darcy’s infamous dip in the lake in the BBC/Andrew Davies Pride and Prejudice adaptation, which will act as the new home of the upwardly mobile Allinghams. But one absence is still being mourned: the first series was the final project for director Antonia Bird, who died in 2013. “She was a writer’s director and actor’s director,” says Moffat, “and she fought like crazy for both, to make the series the best it could be.”

Ambition is one thing The Village could never be accused of lacking. The ultimate goal of seven series covering 100 years seems a quixotic one in today’s uncertain television climate, but Moffat has already planned much of it out. “This is the 20s – sex, sexuality, jazz, electricity, and all that. Then the 1930s and the gathering storm. Then the Second World War. Then the 1950s and austerity … I absolutely think it can be done. And the best thing is, some of the people whose testimonies we’ve used to research the series start to be alive, rather than reporting what their parents or grandparents told them. So there’s more history to find out about, which makes it all a nightmare really. Christ knows how I’m going to write about the 1970s.” The Village goes disco? Now that would be enough to put a smile on anyone’s face.

Series 2 of ‘The Village’ begins this Sunday (10 Aug), at 9pm on BBC 1

Generation games on the small screen: Five great TV sagas

‘Any Human Heart’

Adaptation by William Boyd of his own novel for Channel 4. Stars Jim Broadbent, Matthew Macfadyen and Sam Claflin, who all play the writer Logan Mountstuart at different stages in his life, from Paris in the 1920s to London in the 1980s. Mountstuart lived life to the full and those he encounters on his travels include Ernest Hemingway, Ian Fleming and the Duke of Windsor while in exile with Wallis Simpson.

‘Our Friends in The North’

This nine-part series, starring household names including Daniel Craig, Mark Strong and Christopher Eccleston, followed four friends from Newcastle over a 30-year timespan. The critically acclaimed BBC drama trails the trials and tribulations of the group as they blunder and blag through the sixties, up to the mid-nineties.

‘Blackadder’

The epic saga, which is a household favourite in the UK and beyond, reimagines characters whose personas span from 1485 to 1917 – a one of a kind feat, as far as television series go. But the vast historical period covered by the BBC shows in no way diminishes the comedic value of the characters’ development.

‘I Claudius’

The ambitious, star-studded if now somewhat stagey BBC2 adaptation of the Robert Graves novels I Claudius and Claudius the God. The 13-part series spanned the rules of Emperors Augustus (Brian Blessed, above) to Nero (24BC to 54AD) and made stars of Derek Jacobi, John Hurt and more.

‘The Forsyte Saga’

A 26-part adaptation of three John Galsworthy novels depicting the fortunes of the Forsyte family over almost five decades. The series was the last of its kind made in black-and-white, which gives it the dated authenticity required.

Aubrey Allegretti

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