New BBC drama has more plots than most

`Outcasts' of the 1920s are to star in a new pounds 3.5m series, report s Ivan Waterman
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The Independent Online
FOR 150 years, from the Industrial Revolution onwards, Britons flocked to the towns and cities from the countryside. Now the BBC is spending pounds 3.5m on a drama series capturing the moment in the 1920s when the trend began to be reversed.

The Good Life this is not. Plotlands, to be shown in six hour-long episodes in the new year, is about a small number of urban misfits who left London in the years after the First World War to build their own communities, barely shacks at first, in the fields of the Home Counties.

The idea of turning a little-known piece of social history into television drama came from Jane Root, a director with independent production company Wall to Wall, whose grandparents told her of their own experiences on their tiny strip of land.

The writer, Jeremy Block, co-creator of the long-running hospital drama Casualty, was given the task of putting flesh on the bones of the script, while veteran producer Louis Marks, late of Middlemarch and the award- winning J M Barrie story The Lost Boys, was asked to mastermind the production.

It could be more than a six-part series: given reasonable ratings, Plotlands may prove to be the angst-filled soap that senior BBC executives under John Birt have been seeking throughout the Nineties.

After Eldorado burning itself out on the Costa del Sol amid a barrage of critical abuse, and the suburban Castles, billed as a sort of dramatic spin around the M25, dying almost unnoticed, Birt's programme-makers have cast their net back to the post-Great War period to picture the disillusioned Plotlanders struggling to survive in their Brave New World against the erratic British climate and manipulative, greedy traders. To use a blurbcoined by a mischievous member of the crew, but unlikely to be heard when the series is broadcast: "Their field of dreams is often turned into a tear- stained quagmire of heartache." But of such stuff are great soaps made.

Certainly the BBC has gone to extraordinary lengths to get this show on the road in a couple of remote acres of land rented from the National Trust near the village of Ivinghoe in Hertfordshire. Carpenters, led by a design team who researched the period, raised the ramshackle "properties" in weeks before the cast arrived. The few passers-by blink with astonishment when they spot the sign at the end of the crumbling man-made track: "Langton Fields - 45 Plots at pounds 5.... The Cheapest Freehold Land Near London."

"I don't know whether non-contemporary soaps work but it is an interesting thought," says Louis Marks, sitting in the catering marquee on the set. "We have a colourful bunch of characters and there is the opportunity at a later stage to chop and change. We are dealing with a kind of itinerant population.

"Hopefully the young will associate with this through their grandparents and possibly their own thoughts on starting a new life, of having dreams and ideals, of being frustrated with their lot. It touched a chord with me. There was something very appealing about it."

Marks unquestionably has the right melodramatic ingredients of sex, violence and intrigue in an initial plot that combines a heroine who has fled from her brutal docker husband, a dashing heartthrob haunted by the day he slit a ruthless officer's throat in the trenches, a blind racketeer, henchman of the landowner, who lives with his good-time-girl "eyes", an Irish matriarch with her riotous brood from Dublin and a middle- class family fallen on hard times since their jewellery business went bankrupt.

In the crude hamlet of huts, tents, chalets and a segment of an abandoned railway carriage, the cast have been forced to live almost like hermits for the best part of five months to get the true "feel" of being a displaced and isolated urban army in the middle of the countryside.

Richard Lintern, who was last seen marrying Louise Lombard in the popular period series The House of Eliot, said it had helped them "find" their characters but added: "It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like for the real inhabitants back then. They were more like cavedwellers in terms of people who lived in the cities."