Two new dramas offer a view of the past a world away from Downton Abbey, focusing instead on the people below stairs, writes Liz Hoggard
When Peter Moffat’s Sunday-night epic The Village went out on BBC1 in March, viewers were transfixed by its portrayal of a village in early 20th-century England. With its focus on rural poverty, alcoholism and child abuse, this was the antidote to the green and pleasant land of heritage drama. In place of Downton Abbey’s starched sheets and formal gowns, we got muddy boots and blood-stained linen, but visually The Village was equally ravishing, with panoramic shots of acres of fields, hills and sky.
Some critics accused it of being “bleak” and “unrelenting” but The Village drew six million viewers and series two was immediately commissioned — and the “grime drama” genre was born, reflecting a new appetite for authored series that help us understand the recent past.
Fans of The Village must wait until next year to find out how it unfolds into the 1920s. Meanwhile, two new dramas in the same strand of intelligent populism and based on real-life characters go out this summer. Channel 4’s The Mill, set in a Cheshire cotton mill in 1833, features characters – rebellious teenagers and an upwardly mobile working class – who wouldn’t be out of place today, while BBC2’s gangster drama Peaky Blinders, starring Cillian Murphy, Helen McCrory and Sam Neill, is based on a criminal gang in creator Steven Knight’s own family history.
The year The Mill starts, 1833, was “the year the working class found their voice”, according to the drama’s writer, John Fay, but its heroine, mill worker Esther Price, is instantly recognisable today.
Peaky Blinders, however, reveals an underworld that will be a revelation to viewers. “It’s a world you’ve never seen,” McCrory says, “the slums of Birmingham and 1920s gangsters.”
Both dramas focus on the people below stairs and, like The Village, The Mill doesn’t pull its punches about the brutality of working-class life. It looks at the Industrial Revolution through the eyes of real-life apprentices – in particular Esther, a Liverpudlian girl (newcomer Kerrie Hayes).
It’s based on the archive at Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire and is C4’s first factually inspired period drama. It’s a collaboration between the channel’s history and drama departments but is anything but earnest.
Having written for Torchwood and Clocking Off (in 2005 he won a joint Bafta for Coronation Street), Fay understands how to keep an audience gripped. People fight, have sex, become politicised – this is social history that educates without hitting viewers over the head.
“When you set something in tough times, there should be a sense of people surviving and triumphing without being glib and Hollywood about it,” Fay says.
Knight’s drama follows Tommy (Murphy), leader of a feared black-market gang called the Peaky Blinders (they sew razor blades into their caps). Neill is Churchill’s police chief sent to wipe out the gangs and also communist revolutionaries (the General Strike is a few years away).
What stops it being another run-of-the-mill gangster piece is that these men had been soldiers in the trenches.
“It’s this fascinating period when you have traumatised men returning to cities where there’s no work, to wives who had been coping pretty well without them,” says Knight. “And this great tide of men washing up against the heart of the city is bound to result in crime.”
Knight’s great-uncles ran a notorious gang and as a little boy his father walked into the family’s two-up, two-down and found an illegal betting shop, with immaculately dressed men surrounded by piles of money. The anecdote became the opening scene of Peaky Blinders.
Knight wrote the films Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises but needed a larger canvas for Peaky Blinders. “Everyone’s learned that television can do this better than any other medium, if you’ve got these big family stories that take time to unravel.”
Yet Peaky Blinders is so cinematic – “It’s filmed like a western,” says McCrory, who plays the Shelby family’s matriarch – that it’s premiering at the Edinburgh Film Festival later this month.
Birmingham of the 1920s, with its canals, industrial buildings and Chinese quarter, looks like Gangs of New York. There are gangsters with razor-cut hair and Benjamin Zephaniah plays a preacher. The soundtrack is by Nick Cave and The White Stripes.
Class plays a prominent role in these grime dramas but it’s not a simple face-off between toffs and commoners. Murphy’s gangster, for instance, is intent on escaping his roots and becoming respectable.
The Mill is similarly complex. Quarry Bank Mill would be likened to a sweatshop today – a third of the workforce were unpaid teenage apprentices – but its owners had philanthropic tendencies, providing a village, school, church and surgery. They even campaigned against the slave trade overseas – although their own workers were known as “the white slaves of England”.
And yet workers could rise up the ladder. “In the 1830s there were more millionaires in Manchester than anywhere else in the world,” says Harrington.
The other gripping theme of these dramas is the emergence of strong women; one of the joys of The Village, for instance, was watching Maxine Peake’s downtrodden and abused wife, Grace, blossom, while McCrory is central to the drama in Peaky Blinders, keeping the Shelby family’s hardmen under control, and Esther is The Mill’s touchstone character.
“When have you seen a teenage girl’s perspective on history on television, and her doing her bit to try to change the world?” asks Julia Harrington, Channel 4’s commissioning editor for history.
For McCrory, part of the series’ appeal was in taking a fresh approach to historical drama. “We usually do the top bits of British history,” she says. “It’s so nice to film a period we haven’t seen before. Everyone is the hero of their lives and that’s how they shot Peaky Blinders.”
In series two of The Village, Moffat will move the action into the roaring Twenties, the same era as Peaky and series four of Downton Abbey. The Mill’s first series finishes in 1914 but Fay wants to take the story to the present day, when Quarry Bank Mill becomes a National Trust property.
The common thread of grime dramas is to feel the past viscerally, to understand how the generations before us made us the people we are today. “People should be aware that as well as being awful and grim, those industrial times in Britain were filled with energy and strong characters,” says Knight. “It’s like this big volcano of life – and so many of us are descended from what happened in that melting pot.”
The Mill starts on Channel 4 this summer. Peaky Blinders is on BBC2 this autumn