With its heroin addicts, rowdy village social club, cannabis-smoking school kids and sex-starved wives, The Casual Vacancy – the latest cause for BBC bashing – snuck onto our screens at the weekend.
Sitting in the sleepy Sunday night BBC1 slot, typically reserved for unchallenging, porridgey drama, here was a complex, relevant look at modern-day British rural life. Or, alternatively – if you’re a certain sort of boggle-eyed, wilfully disingenuous pillock – The Casual Vacancy is the author JK Rowling and the screenwriter Sarah Phelps’ bare-faced attempt to destroy the Tories and the middle classes, while squandering your hard-earned licence fee.
It must be quite exhausting to feel this way about the BBC. One must miss so much of life’s joy whilst lost in a righteous lather over how closet communists are frittering away your 40p a day. Regardless, to my mind, The Casual Vacancy was pithily and ornately scripted, played out by the cream of British acting talent, and, vitally, it was a fine go at tackling rural class war, parish corruption and the malevolent side of countryside malaise.
This was the perfect antidote to those episodes of Location, Location, Location where glib metropolitan fops have £850,000 “to play with” and fancy a country pile with room for Fenella to start her bespoke candle company. What, I always think, do these people imagine a life outside of London or Bristol or Manchester would be like? Non-stop Vicar of Dibley cheeriness? Log fires, tiny bleating lambs, snug village pubs, rolling fields and most importantly, no ruffians and feral folk spoiling the view?
The truth is that rural life might be prettier but – when it’s seven miles to the nearest pint of milk, all of your “neighbours” are holiday cottagers, the pub has closed, and the main local pastime is slander – it’s just as problematic.
Worse than any of this, the very same people you left London to escape are actually living right around the corner. Ironically, you turned a blind eye when these worse-off souls were priced out of their London rental accommodation and headed to a cul-de-sac in the middle of nowhere. “Well,” perhaps you thought, “If they can’t afford London, then it makes sense they should go!”
The Casual Vacancy addresses the matter of old money versus new and the “plebs” versus the clean-front-step-and-cake-stall-brigade, with Rory Kinnear – playing lovely but doomed Barry Fairbrother – pointing out to the parish council that by shifting the poor into certain rural estates and hoping they won’t bother us, it was little more than apartheid. If that line ruffled feathers amongst viewers, it was only proof of its uncomfortable truth.
Still, it was odd to read reports that the show was attacking the middle classes and glorifying “the noble savage”. It was glaringly clear, to me at least, from Phelps’ script that while Michael Gambon’s character Howard Mollison was indeed a terrible snob, we could hardly disagree that the “feral” kids wiping bogeys down his deli window were spoiling village ambience. These were difficult notions of “village life” – the junkies, the domestic abusers, the shark-like property developers, the upwardly mobiles, the downwardly spiralling – and I applaud Rowling and Phelps for picking at them.
If the BBC receives complaints about The Casual Vacancy, I suggest they file them with the multiple moans directed towards their other rural drama The Archers, which it is said, these days, is too exciting. It’s just like EastEnders, apparently, claim a number of vocal decriers who don’t watch EastEnders, since if they did they would notice that in Albert Square last week – as a fleeting subplot – a woman in a hijab admitted she abandoned a secret baby that she had conceived after sex in a nightclub toilet with the local rapist. Meanwhile, on The Archers, high tension was gleaned by a problem with “best before” stickers in the Ambridge Organics shop.
But, if moaners are to believed, The Archers is too controversial, and, more accurately, it is the BBC’s duty to provide listeners with 15 minutes a day of beige activity-free twittering about robotic milking cycles, plus a theme tune that induces a Proustian flashback of a cosy time in 1986 when the listener lived at home with their mummy and life was simple and good.
No attempt, apparently, both here and in The Casual Vacancy, should be made by BBC scriptwriters to tackle the fact that today’s rural life is a heady cocktail of extra-marital shagging, farming accidents, bankruptcy, bumming, bored youths, council planning corruption and attempts to turn the local pretty duck pond into a double-fronted Nandos.
Personally, I’d like to thank the BBC for reminding me that the grass isn’t always greener. I may dream of a simple life 20 miles outside Hexham, but I’m probably happier in Hackney.
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