|Sacha Parkinson as Miriam Catterall in The Mill|
If you thought costume dramas were all frills and flounces, non-threatening marriage proposals and rich people at leisure, think again. Channel 4 has decided what our Sunday nights really need is a dose of gritty realism. That means industrial accidents, child labour and sexual harassment, all at a grim Cheshire mill in 1833. This is a drama based on historical events and filmed on location at Quarry Bank Mill, with a script which references topical issues (abolition, imperialism, working conditions) at such a rate so as to leave us in no doubt as to its verisimilitude.
The problem is that, while the production looks good (great costumes, accurate machinery and arty shots of the bleak surrounding landscape), the psychological is definitely lacking from this brand of realism. John Fay’s script (unsurprisingly due to his soap-writing background) is TV drama by numbers. Every point is hammered home unrelentingly – parallels between imperial interests abroad and labour conditions at home made cringe-worthy-ly obvious (along with the hypocrisy of factory owner’s wives in supporting the abolition movement), or the factory overseer telling the apprentice girls that no one will believe them if they report his sexual advances with all the subtlety of a pantomime villain.
|Donald Sumpter as Samuel Greg in The Mill|
In this first episode, factory worker Miriam gets assaulted by the overseer, and her comrade Esther urges her to tell. You can guess our girl Esther is going to be feisty from the very colour of her hair (red, obviously), while what could have been an interesting exploration of the ways in which shame acts to silence abuse victims is undercut by giving Miriam a straightforward motivation for not backing up Esther’s complaint (fear of the exposure of her sister’s pregnancy). Meanwhile a mechanic gets rescued from debtors’ prison only to beat up a campaigner for the Ten Hour Movement. Reasons as yet unclear, except to make sure that we – the audience – are fully aware that this is hard hitting stuff. Oh, and little Tommy gets his hand taken off by a machine, largely so factory owners can parade around his stretcher mid-amputation, talking about the possible damage to their business and assuring everyone of their callousness.
It’s not just the plotting. The language doesn't feel right – it’s not enough to use ‘privy’ instead of ‘toilet’ to catapult us back to the 1830s. Production makers could plead issues of accessibility but the incongruously modern language cheapens the show and is more off-putting than anything. Fay would have done better to immerse himself in more Gaskell.
With only three more episodes to go, I’ll probably be sticking with this one, if only for its aesthetic appeal, but I have a feeling it will annoy as much as entertain. If you want the real deal– powerful stories, well told, which are engaged in all these social and political issues in a much more provocative and intelligent way, turn to North and South (1855), Hard Times (1854) and Shirley (1849). It would take a lot to match them.
What did you think of Episode One? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!