TV preview: The Mill | When Björk Met Attenborough

The Mill: Esther Price played by Kerrie Hayes. Picture: PA
The Mill: Esther Price played by Kerrie Hayes. Picture: PA
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Based on real historical characters, The Mill is a fine, watchable drama

The Mill - Sunday, Channel 4, 8pm

When Björk Met Attenborough - Saturday, Channel 4, 7pm

Catchphrases, like everything else, have an expiry date. Younger readers who may not particularly recognise the expression “There’s trouble at mill,” will perhaps be confused by its inevitable appearance in headlines and reviews relating to Channel 4’s major new series, but for a couple of generations it expressed not just a joke, but a description of a certain type of drama. It came, in fact, from a 1967 Granada TV series about a Yorkshire mill-owning family, The Inheritance, which starred John Thaw and James Bolam in early roles and was part of a fictional tradition dating back to Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Gaskell. Later it was parodied by Monty Python and was still current enough in the 1980s to inspire the hilarious sitcom Brass.

But it’s been a while since we’ve had a story like this on British TV, about workers and unions and strikes and the industrial revolution, so for some, the story that The Mill tells will be a completely new one; for others it will be a reminder. And, along with BBC1’s The Village, it’s also perhaps a reaction to the surprise success of Downton Abbey, which celebrates a cosy, fantastical past.

Here, the mill-owning family are the Gregs, who do charitable things and think of themselves as liberal-types (they helped found the Guardian, for instance). But they own slaves in the Caribbean, which is beginning to make some of them uncomfortable – and, though they haven’t yet noticed any comparison, they also “own” child apprentices at home, sold by the local workhouse, into poor conditions (12-hour shifts, no wages) where accidents and abuse are common.

It’s an interestingly complicated premise, rather than depicting the bosses as either cruel caricatures or Downton-style softies, and comes from the show’s origins in actual social history: the main characters are more-or-less real, as is the location at Cheshire’s Quarry Mill. And it opens up some big questions about complicity and history, with obvious parallels to recent stories about factories in Bangladesh and elsewhere.

Kerrie Hayes is the standout in a solid cast, playing a young apprentice who tries to stand up for herself, and the script (by John Fay, who’s written for Torchwood and Coronation Street) does a good job of making the individual workers more than just woeful victims, with some funny banter. There are some of the inevitable clichés of the “trouble-at-mill” genre, but overall it’s a fine, watchable drama.

Here’s a pairing I didn’t see coming: When Björk Met Attenborough, which sounds like the most peculiar episode of Wife Swap ever. It seems that the musician the NME used to constantly refer to as the Icelandic pop pixie and the man consistently voted the most trusted celebrity in Britain, are mutual admirers, so they come together to work on her Biophilia project combining nature, music and technology.

They’re such an oddly charming couple that I would have been violently happy just to watch them chat for an hour and could do without the contributions by others. I suggest a series of such random encounters: how about When Prince Met Mary Beard, or When David Bowie Met Sister Wendy?