You have no items in your shopping bag.
Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.
I have just been watching the first episode of the new BBC television drama ‘The Village’, which started on British TV last Sunday. Although set in an identical period to the globally successful ITV period drama, ‘Downton Abbey’, I suspect it tells a more familiar and possibly more accurate story of the time, from the perspective of the ordinary people of a Peak District village. The ambition of the series is to tell the story of the village over the past 100 years, from 1914 to the present day, in 42 episodes; an intriguing and ambitious prospect. Filmed in and around Hayfield, Derbyshire, only five miles from where I live, the series is based on the actual recollections of local people, researched and recounted to series creator Peter Moffat.
Interviewed for an article in the Radio Times, Moffat said: “The series opens in 1914 with the arrival of the first bus in the village. Martha Lane, beautiful and headstrong, steps off the bus. She is a catalyst for change. The life of the village will never be the same again. The ambition is to tell the big stories of the century through the small lives of the people in this single village. Two world wars, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, austerity, the sexual revolution, all refracted through the characters in The Village. I wanted to start in 1914 because it’s the furthest back in time one can go while still being just within living memory. There are a few people still alive now who have memories of that time. Our narrator and central character is Bert Middleton, the second oldest man in Britain. We see him today as a very old man, and we see him then as a young boy). His job as narrator is the last thing he’ll ever do; his last great act of remembrance. He is able to say, “I can tell you about the Battle of Waterloo from the daughter of somebody who was there.” I find the idea that you can get back to 1815 in such short steps thrilling. I’ve always loved history but most of it, for me, has come from reading. Not this time – I spent a huge part of my research time talking to people and listening to their stories. I went round the older inhabitants of the Peak District and listened. I felt a connection with my grandfather and my great-grandfather. I was moved not just by the stories people told me but by their longing to tell them and have them heard.”
The real story here is that life at the start of the 20th century was hard; very hard; harder than any of us today would tolerate for a minute. I live in a charming Peak District village very similar to the one in the series. But sitting in my comfortable centrally-heated home, gazing at an enormous flat screen television, it is vital not to imbue the past with a kind of nostalgic glow. There is a tendency in TV drama to look at this period from the point of view of the upper classes. The summer of 1914, just before war started is always described as the end of an Edwardian golden age – innocent, charmed and about to be destroyed by the mud, the blood and death on the Western Front. But it was never a golden age for the people depicted in this drama; the bigger picture of our grand-parents and great-grand-parents, and that comes across strongly as the story unfolds. While Rupert Brooke swam naked in Granchester, men actually died in England’s agricultural fields from overwork and ‘The Village’ seeks to tell the story of the full spectrum of society.
Peter Moffat goes on to say: “The second rule about writing period drama is obvious; there’s no such thing as hindsight. It is vital to put yourself in the past as though it were the present. I think breaking this rule means that the sometimes misunderstandings about history become entrenched and hard to break down. I found myself constantly surprised in my research. Everyone knows about the white feathers handed out to conscientious objectors during the First World War, but I didn’t know that tribunals were actually set up to determine whether these men had consciences! These were local meetings, often held in village halls, often chaired by ex-military men. Sitting in the Imperial War Museum and reading accounts of these hearings was extraordinary. I hope that ‘The Village’ will succeed because the stories are rich and dramatic, but, more than that, I hope it works because the generation who can tell us about what we were then won’t be with us much longer. I have their wonderful stories and lots of them are in ‘The Village’ and I have a compelling motivation to pass them on with truth and without embellishment.”
If ‘The Village’ makes you turn to your father, mother, grandparent or friend and say, “What was it really like?” and their response is to talk about their past, then we’ll achieve something that they used to say television prevented: Listening to the people we live with.