TV review: The Village continues to be tough going for its audience treading an unrelentingly gloomy path

The Village, Sun, BBC1 // Young Margaret: Life, Love & Letters, Sat, BBC2

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The Independent Culture

The Village is appointment television, but it's one of those appointments – as for a dental descaling, say, or a colonoscopy – that you can easily find yourself making an excuse to postpone. It happened to me last week. Fifteen minutes shy of transmission, I bottled it. It had been a long day.

 I was tired. And I found I was just too twitchy about what Peter Moffat was going to hit me with next. Self-murder? Life-threatening illness? Slaughter of the innocents? Well, all three as it happens – an attack of scarlet fever and the squire's suicide coinciding with the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It's hardly surprising, surely, that we regulars sometimes get the jitters and simply refuse to go over the top, the relentless barrage of distress having induced a kind of shell shock. Which, as it happens, was exactly what Joe was suffering from at the beginning of last night's episode. In a characteristically gloomy opening scene, Bert lost one of his marbles and Joe lost all of his.

As with some soldiers in the First World War, though, I feel a sense of dereliction if I miss an episode. Because so much of The Village is precisely what you always hope television will be – serious, beautifully austere, and grandly ambitious. It might make you giggle from time to time, with its exhaustive inventory of the miseries of early-20th-century life, but then you find yourself gripped by its willingness to let a scene run. There was a good example of its patience and restraint last night, as Joe, at the end of his home leave, set off across the fields to rejoin his unit. Visually it was stunning, a study in khaki, with rusted grass and a dry-stone wall lit by a low sun echoing Joe's uniform. And instead of the clichés of mental distress you half braced yourself for (the hollow gunfire on the soundtrack, the overlaid images of trenches and barbed wire), you simply got a young man frozen by terror, dropping to the ground as the world reeled around him.

It was no more cheerful this week than it's ever been. A Mr Chalcraft from the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives turned up to help Grace, promising to bring marginally better conditions to the sweatshop. But it wasn't very long before he was secretly colluding with Mr Bairstow, assuring him that he was only concerned with making sure that there were jobs for the men when they came back from the trenches. Poor Mr Hankin was publically humiliated, after Norma asked for advice about his failure to consummate the marriage. And Bert fled into the night in a paroxysm of guilt after hearing that Joe's breakdown had been caused by a field punishment for sending coded postcards home. The authorities don't appear to have been very understanding about Joe's failure to return to duty either; a volley of shots over the final fade to black imply that he may well have smoked his final cigarette.

I wish that Moffat would occasionally lighten his touch a little, which would intensify the pathos not weaken it. There are moments when the strained intensity of the dialogue tips the thing alarmingly towards Cold Comfort Farm. “This land is bigger than any one man's weakness,” said John's neighbour as he throttled him. “It deserves better than you.” Or when a desire for drama appears to have trumped historical plausibility. (Would Bairstow really have said “He can't fuck his wife” in front of Lady Allingham, even under provocation?) But I still can't find it in me to desert. It may be tough going at times, but I'm in for the duration.

Did you want more about Margaret Thatcher? Young Margaret: Life, Love & Letters revealed that she and her first boyfriend at Oxford had enjoyed a “modest amount of amorosity, for want of a better word”. Too much? I thought so.