The Village: a Shakespearean drama
Who else is loving The Village on the BBC? It’s a fantastic Downton Abbey-meets-Call the Midwife-meets-actors-who-can-act, Sunday night offering, and I’ve been enjoying every minute of it. Like Downton Abbey, with its upstairs, downstairs, pre-WWI beginnings, The Village does indeed include all the stock features of a period drama set at this time, such as brutal patriarchs, conscientious objectors, and an extraordinarily pretty woman interested in female suffrage. Unlike Downton Abbey, these don’t come across as clichés. In The Village everything is perfectly paced and is brought touchingly to life with unusual and realistic details.
For example, the grim, alcoholic father, John Middleton, played by John Simm, is so much more than the two dimensional wife/child-beater who usually stalks the rural period drama. He is portrayed as a lost man, whose world is changing, and who is trying desperately to survive. The moment when John lies on the kitchen floor on his side, to see the grooves made by generations of feet that have come before him, as he made his son do, and as, we imagine, his father made him do, encapsulates not only the struggle of this individual, but of a whole society, whose way of living, ages old, is coming to an end. A fair few reviewers have criticised The Village for being miserable (the same ones who felt Call the Midwife too fluffy – it was, but make your mind up!) but it is not uniformly so, and even the grimmest moments don’t come across as manufactured tear-jerkers, but bear all the pathos of memory. The Village depicts a way of life, and a group of people, rather than the usual period drivel with a bit of BBC Bonking thrown in to make it risqué.
It is often the non-verbal moments, rather than the scripted, that are the most touching because The Village boasts some truly fantastic actors. There are a fair few who I could talk about until the cows come home (and thank goodness it did – who thought he’d spent the money on booze?), such as Maxine Peake and Bill Jones, but for me, the really stand-out performance of the series so far comes from Matt Stokoe, playing Gerard Eyre. To be fair, Stokoe doesn’t get much to do in episodes 1 and 2 other than look, and look thoughtfully, but he certainly manages to steal the scene by doing so. We know who he is, he’s an intelligent man, with ideas like our own, who wants to do the right thing, and who we like. If you haven’t seen episode 3, I won’t ruin it for you, but you will cry like a baby! The script writers haven’t made much of Gerard Eyre, but the actor certainly does.
It is a favourite saying amongst people who want to communicate the popular and commercial status of Shakespeare amongst his contemporary audience that Shakespeare’s plays are a bit like Eastenders. I’ve always found this slightly irritating. If you want to liken a TV series to Shakespeare’s dramas, then The Village is a better choice. The formula oft trotted out by writers like Julian Fellows, and that is successful in The Village, of interweaving the story lines of characters with a high social status, the wealthy, ruling classes, with their working class counterparts, and of mixing tragic story lines with light-hearted ones, was once a formula used to great effect by Mr Shakespeare. Many of our favourite Shakespeare plays feature kings alongside servants, and his audience too, enjoyed the parallels and contrasts drawn. Although Shakespeare uses stock characters he also employs a touching realism that allows the audience to identify with the human being portrayed, even if we can’t identify with a particular experience. I have to say, I think the Shakespeare writes his scripts better; Simm, Peake and Stokoe in a Shakespeare play please!