“MY name is Bert Middleton. I’m the second oldest man in Britain.
“This is the last thing I’ll do so you better listen carefully…”
Old Bert (David Ryall) talks to a modern day TV documentary crew in the opening moments of new BBC1 drama serial The Village.
Before we go back to the summer of 1914.
“The summer the bus came.”
Created and written by Peter Moffat, the six-part drama arrives on BBC1 at 9pm this Sunday. (March 31)
John Simm and Maxine Peake play farmer John Middleton and his wife Grace.
With Nico Mirallegro as their eldest son Joe, aged 19, and Bill Jones as youngest son Bert, aged 12, the old man we met earlier.
The first episode was screened at BAFTA in London earlier this month, followed by a Q&A with Peter (who is also executive producer) plus cast members Nico Mirallegro, Juliet Stevenson (Lady Clem) and Rupert Evans (Edmund).
My full transcript of that Q&A with some fascinating quotes – not least from Peter – is further down the page.
Including his mention of “The Wrong Ducks in Lark Rise Syndrome”.
As you will read, Peter’s grand plan, given the chance, is to write a total of 42 episodes telling the entire 100-year history of the unnamed northern village.
With the camera never leaving the village and the countryside around.
The Village – at least initially – may feel to some like a BBC2 drama, rather than BBC1.
With a slow burn approach that could lose a section of viewers across the first 30 minutes or so.
But I’d urge them to stick with it for the later rewards which will be all the greater for the time and faith invested.
The Village has the potential to be remembered in decades to come as a classic television drama achievement.
As Peter said about the current TV climate during the Q&A: “It’s quite a unique moment in television.”
So I hope those involved in an eventual decision about a second series look at the longer term wider picture of what he is trying to do.
The first series covers the period between 1914 and 1920.
There are some remarkable ensemble cast performances.
When we first meet John Simm’s John Middleton he is a frustrated, violent and repressed alcoholic, riven with guilt about something that happened 20 years before.
“Must a man pay all his life for one mistake? he asks.
Who thinks nothing of locking young Bert in a cupboard.
Maxine Peake’s Grace is the woman in the middle, struggling to feed and protect her two sons as the family farm hits hard times.
Some have tried to paint The Village in terms of a “gritty” anti-Downton Abbey view of history.
But that’s not what this is about.
There’s a manor house where Lady Clem (Juliet Stevenson) and her rather mysterious family live – including Rupert Evans as local MP Edmund Allingham.
Together with a rather unhinged young woman called Caro, played by Emily Beecham.
Seen later in the series by a psychiatrist called Wylie…
The story I wrote a few hours after the BAFTA event is below.
Followed by that full Q&A.
THE Village star Nico Mirallegro was left speechless during filming after plunging naked into a freezing cold lake.
Former Upstairs Downstairs, Hollyoaks and My Mad Fat Diary actor Nico plays Joe Middleton in the epic BBC1 period drama series.
“I’m still traumatised from that scene in the lake,” he revealed.
Joe goes into the water to teach his younger brother Bert (Bill Jones) how to swim.
Then vanishes as he pretends to be pulled under the water.
“We just went for it – but I realised that I couldn’t say the line in the lake. It was physically actually shock in your body.
“I had to count to 20 in my head and literally force myself to say the line.”
But Nico was shivering so much that he later had to re-record his lake lines in a studio to be dubbed on to the final version of the drama.
The six-part series, on screen later this month, starts in 1914 and aims eventually to tell the story of one English village across the whole of the 20th century.
Joe is the eldest son of John and Grace, played by John Simm and Maxine Peake, growing up in extreme poverty on a family farm.
He also works as a servant at the nearby “Big House” and is seduced by that family’s young daughter Caro (Emily Beecham) in the woods.
While his naked adventure in the lake is witnessed by another young female admirer – teacher and local Methodist missionary Martha, played by Misfits actress Charlie Murphy.
Filmed in Derbyshire’s Peak District, the camera never leaves the village and tells the history of the century through the residents’ eyes.
Creator Peter Moffat, who hopes to write a total of 42 episodes, explained: “It’s small lives telling big events.”
The BAFTA Q&A hosted by Benji Wilson:
Q: Peter – do you want to take us through the genesis of the idea for this series?
Peter Moffat: “My father became ill and I started to talk to him. And we knew we had a finite time left. So we spoke a lot, for the first time properly, about his childhood, his father, his grandfather and their lives, which were on a farm. They were both shepherds in the borders of Scotland. And it was very new to me. I was struck by how in two generations a shepherd who feeds his dogs on one bowl of porridge every morning turns into a north London media fellow. And I thought I’d better have a look at it. There’s only so far you can go with your own family. The farm cottage they lived in isn’t there anymore. It’s gone. So physically and geographically it’s not possible for me to go back and look at it. So I thought, ‘We’ll have a look at everybody.’”
Q: And in terms of research, is this based on oral histories…or things you read…
Peter Moffat: “We decided it was going to be in the Peak District and the first thing I did was went and spoke to people. So it’s was partly a question of finding the oldest people in Derbyshire to talk to, which we did. It’s remarkable how all these villages…all have people in them who have oral histories, written histories, records of the past. I think it’s a particular fascination we have in this country. So a huge natural resource that’s there for me and the writers to tap into. So the people first and then the books.”
Q: Juliet – what attracted you to this project?
Juliet Stevenson: “The scripts. I thought they were just the most intelligent, imaginative scripts I’d read in quite a long time. I love the whole idea really. Like all great ideas it’s got a very simple heart. You just take this community of people who the audience will get to know and then you move them through the 20th century. So it’s a way of humanising history. And I think watching it – I hadn’t seen it before – it’s so humane. So when people are angry or hopeless or violent, you always understand why their historical circumstances are making them like that – or economic circumstances,. So I love the breadth of the compassion and the wit of it. I thought it was a very rich tapestry.”
Q: What was it like to film up in the Peak District?
Juliet Stevenson: “I was coming and going. It was very cold, as it would have been. You realise how crazy it was for the women in those skimpy frocks and little tiny satin shoes. A whole class thing of these women living in a situation which is completely inappropriate…freezing cold, soaking wet.”
Peter Moffat: “The first draft of episode one had a line…old Bert at the beginning who talks to the camera, and the line was something like, ‘There wasn’t a cloud in the sky the whole of that summer.’ Which is a uniquely disastrous thing…(to write). The weather was a great character. As you all know, it’s difficult when the weather changes during takes for consistency’s sake. But actually, in the end, you just have to say, ‘It changes every five seconds up there.’ And there we are. We’ll live with that and it’ll be great. And it was bloody seriously freezing. And I was sitting in a warm place writing for those lot to go and film…”
Q: Nico – you must have been delighted when you read the script telling you that you had to go naked into the lake…
Nico Mirallegro: “I’m still actually traumatised from that scene in the lake. None of us had actually been in the lake. There were some divers in there pre-rehearsal. And then we just went for it. And when we did go for it, I realised that I couldn’t say the line in the lake. Physically – actual shock in your body. I was stood there for about 30 seconds. (trying to catch his breath) I had to count to 20 in my head and literally force myself to say the line. But that was ADR, so that (on screen) wasn’t what it sounded like.”
Q: Rupert – we didn’t see a lot of your character in the first episode. What’s coming up for your character, how is he going to develop?
Rupert Evans: “I think what Peter has done is very clever. Because as the series progresses, my family and myself, we see the big house and all that goes on there and there’s an interaction, both through business and politics of the village. As the local MP I get involved in the politics and the business side of the village. So there’s an interaction that moves out from the big house and there’s a crossover between us all. And as it moves on, certainly one sees the effects of war from the point of view of those that are left behind – the parents, the ones that didn’t get taken up in the draft. So we see it’s like a mini-world really and I think that’s what interested me in the beginning, was that idea that we see a village, that small world of what it was like in the 19 teens upwards. So as we progress we see the effects of war from the point of view of the villagers and the outcome of that. Whether it’s seeing who comes back and who doesn’t…and also business. Business during the war thrived in many areas and obviously not in some. So boot production is a big thing that starts kicking in, in the series and I get involved in that. So there’s a real criss-cross of storylines from everyone within the village.”
Q: What was the scope…we’ve already heard talk about going right through the 20th century. That is ambitious. How do you plan for a series that is going to last almost in perpetuity?
Peter Moffat: “An episode I’m reading now, which is getting ahead of myself – there may never be a second series. Who knows? But you have to do it. Research is everything. The great luxury of the first series is that I had about three years of working on it before writing. And the first episode took me six months to write. An American television writer said to me once, ‘Are you writing a play?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘How long does it take you, do you think, to write a play?’ And I said, ‘Nine months.’ And he said, ‘Nine months?’ And I’ve got no idea what he means. Whether that’s way too long…and actually, of course, with television, both is true. A lovely nine months to write a first episode and then, ‘Can we have episode six in three-and-a-half weeks?’ So different demands and interesting demands. Often, weirdly, how annoying is this? – the three-and-a-half week thing is a bit better…” (laughter).
Q: Why start it in 1914?
Peter Moffat: “Because it’s about as far back as you can go whilst just about being within living memory. So old Bert is tremendously old and there are two or three people who are his age who are still around – you can just still touch that time. Any earlier and there isn’t anybody.”
Q: To what extent is it accurate historically? Because you’re always going to get people sniping and saying, ‘Oh that wouldn’t have happened, someone wouldn’t have said that, they wouldn’t have worn that?’
Peter Moffat: “Yeah, that’s always going to happen. It’s the Wrong Ducks in Lark Rise Syndrome, isn’t it? In an episode of Silk, I had somebody writing to the BBC saying, ‘I know for a fact, because I live in Middle Temple, that there is never on a Sunday night loud music playing.’ It was the composed music that she was complaining about! It was actually a good point. I’m going against that now. I quite like a lot of silence…”
Q: Being cast back 100 years. What aspects surprised you?
Nico Mirallegro: “It was fascinating to learn about what went on in those times because we never really did anything about World War One in school. So to read about how they lived and how they worked. And how they earned their money. It was very interesting. And as far as the costumes and make-up was concerned, you know how it was going to look. It all helps as well – you’re on a farm and you’re in this gear that someone had on maybe 80, 90 years ago. It’s amazing to think that. And it is actual hard work. We were in the field picking potatoes and were actually picking potatoes.”
Q: Juliet – can you say a bit about where it was filmed? Where the big house was?
Juliet Stevenson: “It was near Buxton in Derbyshire.”
Peter Moffat: “Three different villages were used. Our village is obviously a fictional village. It’s never named. The camera never leaves the village. The camera will stay there. Small lives telling big events. That’s the point to it. That’s the ambition. But the Palace Hotel in Buxton, you’ve got to go. Haunted. Lots of cast won’t stay there.” (laughter)
Juliet Stevenson: “I stayed there.”
Benji then opened questions to the audience:
Q: Was the choice of Derbyshire influenced by the fact that there is a particularly strong agrarian and mills and chimneys, as they refer to it, oral tradition existing side by side in Derbyshire?
Peter Moffat: “I wanted to avoid choosing anywhere that would be too defined by one thing. So not a fishing village, not a coal mining village, because then you’d end up telling the story of the decline of coal or fish quotas, which arguably might not be so universal or interesting. So Derbyshire – there’s a lot of change in those villages over the period that we’re talking about. Because the camera never leaves the village…although actually we do…characters go up into that extraordinary landscape. So when you get out it’s blindingly beautiful. There is – Emma Burge (producer in audience) – I think no CGI at all in any of this…”
Emma Burge: “Just the odd pole rubbed out.”
Peter Moffat: “…so great to be able to breathe. The Peak District is often referred to as ‘the lung’. I like the idea that it’s right next to Manchester, Sheffield, urban conurbations. That sense that metropolitan life is right there at the same time as that extraordinary bleak and blasted rural landscape.”
Q: Peter – to what extent were you on set and how much was the dialogue / text revised as you were filming?
Peter Moffat: “It was a very different writing experience, this, for me. I was very obsessed with stage directions. I had an experience a few years ago when I sat in a read through next to an incredibly well-known actor who was sitting next to me and as we read the script, crossed out all the stage directions. I had to say to him afterwards, ‘What’s all that about?’ And he said, ‘Well, you know, it’s just for the execs anyway, isn’t it? I just want to know what I’m saying.’ And I thought, ‘Well that’s not right, actually.’ Television writers maybe ought to think a bit more in novelistic terms. That when you describe something that an actor is doing in a scene, and it’s be gesture, say it. Put it down there. The actor can think about it, work with it, reject it, like it or not. And actually with Juliet, for example, when she was cast – and how great is that – we had a great conversation about her part, her character, her role. And I hope that can go on. I suppose what I’m saying is that writers and actors should speak a lot more. I think there’s a nervousness around that. Some of the people in the middle – not in this particular production – get worried about it. Much more of it, I reckon. Because these guys (the cast) are paying super attention to everything they’re saying, you know? And so am I. But maybe we might disagree. And that might be interesting.”
Q: Peter – can I just ask what it is about period dramas that has proved so popular with television audiences, the public this time? We’ve had Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs…
Peter Moffat: “That’s a massive question. I don’t know. What is it? We’re all fascinated by the past. I didn’t come at this with an argument. I didn’t have an attitude about it. But I’m very struck…I think there’s an imbalance. I think we’re more interested in upstairs than we are in downstairs, actually. It just struck me as I was researching that there’s a whole wealth of material that isn’t about the posh folk. Which are all great stories or not, as it goes. So a broad spectrum of class in this, I think. Everybody.”
Q: Is there any even tacit political undercurrent to this? Are there any points you are trying to make?
Peter Moffat: “No, really not. But it’s…in this period, and with the First World War…we have a very strong feeling about it and it’s about remembrance. We remember it in very particular ways and in very strong ways. I think a little bit weirdly, it’s still a bit about Rupert Brooke. It’s still a little bit about gilded youth and the loss of that and how sunny it was before they all went to war. And arguably that’s out of balance really. Lots of people will have read, I’m sure, Ronald Blythe’s brilliant book Akenfield, which is a slightly different period. But he’s talking about men like John Simm (playing John Middleton) who drop dead in the field. From what? From work, actually. So that’s happening at the same time as Rupert Brooke is going swimming with no clothes on. So actually putting Nico in the freezing cold…
Q: What is it like for actors when you have your writer, also as exec producer, hanging around on set and looking over you? Is it useful?
Juliet Stevenson: “I agree with Peter. I think the days where actors and writers were talking to each other more have disappeared. It’s far much more difficult to have those crazy conversations and I would very much welcome them returning. But the great advantage in having a writer as an executive producer, as Peter is, or Paula Milne who I worked with a couple of years ago was, because then you know that if you have a conversation with a writer it may get through with the executive producer because it’s the same person. So that’s always handy. (laughter) But I would just like to echo and support what Peter said. Because I always think as an actor, you’re following in a writer’s footsteps. If they’re a good writer anyway. A fantastic one here. You have a sense that he has created…he has inhabited your character, each character, before you have. Then you come along behind and you re-inhabit them in your own way. So you bring your own stuff to it, your own sensibilities to it. You’re following in a path. They’re very closely linked those two roles, writer and actor. So I think it’s only fruitful when you have a chance to have conversations and share ideas and pool the possibilities.”
Peter Moffat: “Sophie Okonedo sits down and you go through the script line by line and talk about it. Absolutely brilliant. I thought, ‘What’s this? This is unheard of. What a great idea, actually.’ But there are 28 characters in this so it might be a bit tiring.” (laughter)
Rupert Evans: “As actors, we have our own paths. So we have our own private journey which we look at in a very detailed way individually. And actually after a while we disregard everyone else mainly and you see your own journey through the series in a very detailed way. And so on this, it’s lovely to be able to…sometimes it was madly phoning Peter in the early mornings or late in the afternoons and ask him what he was thinking and where we were going. Because invariably, if you get an understanding from the writer of what he was thinking, it can help you in that moment of crisis when you’re not quite sure what this means. So it was really easy.”
Q: (From me as it happens) As you’ve said, you can’t know yet whether you’ll get a second series, let alone a third or a fourth. But presumably you’ve mapped out the journey to the end of the century? What would come next in a second series after 1914 to 1920?
Peter Moffat: “So a second series would pick up straight off the back of the first series. So it would be the 1920s, up to and including the General Strike. So ’26, roughly. 42 parts is the plan (surprised reaction from audience). Provide them in three-and-a-half weeks? I’ve got a really good doctor. Just turned 50. Oh God.” (laughter)
Q: That must be overwhelming. That’s just so much history?
Peter Moffat: “Yeah. Great. I think it’s quite a unique moment in television. Box set culture has said long-form serial drama is now really possible. And how fantastic is it to be able to say that there is a possibility you might get to write 42 hours of television about the life of this country in the 20th century. You can’t do that at the National. I think BBC1, potentially, could and should be – people have said it before – the National Theatre. I really think that. I think there’s a good moment now. People don’t say so much, ‘I don’t watch much television but…’ People are now saying, ‘Here are the five things I really love.’ More quickly, arguably, than they’re saying it about film, which I think is interesting.”
Q: There’s a beautiful painting of Judi Dench in the National Gallery. It’s stunning. I think you’ve all crafted a really magnificent piece on the acting and writing. Even the light and colour. When you came to the end of the series, did you have a sense of loss of that era, of anything that we, as a nation, have left behind?
Peter Moffat: “Yes, absolutely. This is something my father was telling me, actually. They used to sing to each other the whole time. Just sit in small rooms and sing. At each other. For each other. That must have been great. Or not. I’m very cautious about nostalgia though. Because I think we get settled with it, attracted to it, live in it too easily. So I mentioned earlier about my great-grandfather’s dogs and how they get porridge every morning. I can feel my heart go, ‘But actually what a terrible idea. Poor dog, went to work all day on that.’ So warmth, glow, nostalgia, not sure. Be robust, be truthful if you can. Make it honest. And a big thing, an obvious, obvious thing – there is no hindsight when you’re there. Present tense all the time in the past. It’s crucial.”
Q: The suffragette (Martha) coming through – will that progress? And your (Juliet’s character Clem’s) husband, the man who was covered, facially distorted…are you going to delve into some of the characters about why they are who are they are?
Peter Moffat: “Yeah. I had to write it as 42 parts. So I suppose it’s arguable that it’s slow burn, it’s slow moving. Yes is the answer. You’re absolutely going to get to find out about all of these people. You’re actually going to get to find out quite a lot more about them in these six episodes. Juliet’s character has a – I can’t think of another way of putting this, I so hate this – journey (laughter) to make. Which I think is a great and full and interesting one. And that happens in six parts. Where she’s at, at the end of episode six is a profoundly different – here I go again – place compared to where she is at the beginning of the episode we’ve just been watching. But it’s…don’t bish, bash, bosh. Don’t hurry up for the sake of it. Try and keep to the idea that it’s long form.”
The Village begins on BBC1 at 9pm on Sunday March 31.