The last Monday in January, according to psychologist Cliff Arnall, is officially the most depressing day of the year. It's all apparently down to a combination of debt hanging over from Christmas, failed New Year's resolutions, long dark nights, appalling weather and, this year, overwhelming financial gloom too. But before you get too downcast, help is at hand. Television drama commissoners are queueing up to assist us in staving off the recession-blighted winter blues. They are serving up all manner of wholesome dramatic fare to take our minds off the dire state of the climate (both meteorological and economic). Escapism is all.
ITV1 is showing a raft of untaxing, visually ravishing detective dramas – Midsomer Murders, Poirot, Marple – not to mention the deeply cosy Heartbeat and Wild at Heart, the reassuring series set on a South African game reserve, which starts again this Sunday. Meanwhile, BBC1 is matching ITV1 with any number of undemanding, easy-on-the-eye series. Viewers can escape to the African charm of The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, the stolid dependability of 1950s sleuth George Gently, or the fantasy kingdom of Merlin, which has been recommissioned. The BBC will also shortly announce a new Sherlock Holmes story. But perhaps the most cockle-warming of all is Lark Rise to Candleford, BBC1's 12-part adaptation of Flora Thompson's gentle memoirs of her childhood growing up in rural Oxfordshire during the late 19th century. The show, which goes out on Sunday nights, has proved a surprise hit. Broadcast this time last year, the first series averaged almost seven million viewers.
The polar opposite of in-your-face contemporary dramas, Lark Rise is about as edgy as a helping of blancmange. But for all that, it possesses an undeniably beguiling aura. Centred on the Candleford Post Office run by Dorcas Lane (Julia Sawalha), the drama allows you to immerse yourself in an uncomplicated bygone era for a guilt-free hour each week.
The characters' thriftiness also strikes a chord today; as Thompson puts it, the villagers carry "the lost secret of being happy on little". Above all, the drama evokes a bucolic vision of a kinder, gentler world. We like nothing better than losing ourselves in this place quite untouched by sharp-suited short-sellers. Lark Rise is a village where a "credit crunch" would be a nourishing biscuit served in the local tea shop.
Lark Rise is filmed in the distinctly unidyllic surroundings of an industrial park on the outskirts of Bristol. Here, a deserted warehouse has been turned into a studio and filled with all manner of meticulously constructed sets. We wander from the ornate reception hall of the Golden Lion Hotel – all imposing leather-bound armchairs, silver candelabra and oil paintings of storm-tossed sailing ships – to the interior of the Candleford Post Office, whose walls are adorned with pictures of Queen Victoria and a poster reading "syrup of figs is pleasant and effective". It all serves to conjure up an England of lost values (and immaculate furniture).
That is one of the major appeals of the series, which is adapted for the screen by Bill Gallagher. People, it seems, crave a return to the good manners of yore. In a break between scenes, Sawalha speaks for many when she asserts: "I love chivalry. I love doors being held open for me. I can't get enough of all that." The actress thinks there are other reasons why the series chimes with audiences. "For a start, Lark Rise is the costume drama nobody knows about – it's not Austen or the Brontës, and nobody knows the storylines. With something like Tess [of the D'Urbervilles], you're simply watching someone else's interpretation of your own imagination. But with Lark Rise, you can really fly. With its pretty costumes, scenery and music, it's ideal Sunday night telly. It's quite simple and unchallenging. It takes you just far enough so you can have both tears and smiles."
Pausing on the hotel set, in front of a tapestry depicting a grand country house, Annie Tricklebank, the producer of Lark Rise, observes: "You watch some crime dramas these days and they're so dark and full of dead bodies. When I tune in to them, I think, 'oh, I'm so glad I work on Lark Rise!' The great thing is, you can watch this with anyone. There is no bad language and nothing shocking happens. You could watch it with your grandmother or your five-year-old and it wouldn't be a problem – they'd both get something out of it."
Lark Rise has been sold to an astonishing 50 countries. Why does it hold such universal appeal? According to Tricklebank, "everyone can relate to these characters. They endure. People watch the series and think: 'Even though it's set more than 100 years ago, exactly the same thing has happened to me.' The characters are enormously appealing, too. I, for one, would like to join the post office family for tea. They serve the most beautiful cakes and sandwiches."
Finally, there is one more reason why Lark Rise has done so well with family audiences: sex – or, rather, the lack of it. Tricklebank expresses mock horror at the idea of "intimate relations" in this piece. "Sex? In Lark Rise? I don't think so!"
'Lark Rise to Candleford' is on BBC1 on Sundays at 8pm