17 April 2012 | robert-temple
An outstanding British TV series of the 1970s: life far from the urban crowd
This Granada TV series of 1972 made an enormous impact at the time with the more discerning viewers in Britain. I remember how many of our friends stayed in on the relevant evening for weeks because they didn't want to miss it. Those people unfamiliar with country life were in a state of severe shock, as this was a series which showed with a high degree of disturbing realism (as with the shocking film THE MILL) just how basic, gruelling, and relentless country life really was early in the 20th century, long before anything remotely resembling modern society existed. It is astonishing to me that so utterly British a series as this should be available on DVD only in America, and that it has never been released in Britain. The series consisted of 13 episodes, each based on a separate short story by either A. E. Coppard or H. E. Bates. Only 8 of the 13 episodes have been included on the DVD release, and the other 5 are omitted, including BREEZE ANSTEY, which was the episode which made the greatest stir at the time of airing. First: CRAVEN ARMS, starring the young Ian McKellen, who delivers a scintillating performance. At the time he was just a young actor, and we did not know how famous he would become. Nor did it seem odd at the time that he kissed the girls. The story is extremely amusing and satirical, about a young man who simply cannot make up his mind which girl he prefers. Second: THE MILL is a real shocker. Rosalind Ayres is truly brilliant as a 17 year-old girl so simple and naive that she doesn't even know how babies are born. Not for one millisecond does she betray in her eyes the slightest hint of worldly wisdom, and this is one of the most successful portrayals of an innocent I have ever seen. She is spurned by her oafish parents and 'goes into service' in a run-down former mill, where the invalid wife who has the dropsy and is confined to bed is played with hysterical guffaws and sheer brilliance by Brenda Bruce. Bad things happen to poor Rosalind, better left unsaid. This is a brutal story about the harsh realities of life in Derbyshire in 1918. Third: THE SULLENS SISTERS. Here we see a wonderful performance by the young Penelope Wilton, now one of Britain's finest mature actresses. Trevor Bannister, later famous in the TV series ARE YOU BEING SERVED?, has a wonderful opportunity to shine in an over-the-top part, and makes the most of it. The well-known actor Peter Firth, aged 21 and playing 19 successfully, is wonderful as an innocent young boy who falls in love with one sister but when he cannot marry her marries the other instead. The story, set in about 1910, is sharply observed, satirical, and realistic. Fourth: Episode 5 (4 is skipped), THE WATERCRESS GIRL. This features an astonishingly brilliant performance by Susan Fleetwood, who became a famous British TV actress but then died tragically at the age of only 51 in 1995 of ovarian cancer. In this story, set in 1908, Fleetwood plays the only child of a single elderly father in an isolated farmhouse beside a river, where she tends a bed of watercress. She has never seen a town and has rarely spoken with anyone. A young carpenter passing by buys some watercress from her, and a long and tragic love affair ensues, in which she has a dead baby and goes to prison for throwing acid in the face of the man's fiancée. This is an exceptionally grim story of country life in the raw. Fifth: Episode 7, THE LITTLE FARM. This is probably the saddest and most tragic of the stories. It features possibly the most brilliant and inspired performance by Bryan Marshall of his entire career, as the illiterate young farmer who has inherited his remote farm from his mother and lives alone there in squalor. He advertises for a female housekeeper. The entire tragedy of this sad story turns upon Marshall's inability to read, which he cleverly disguises in the way we are all so familiar today with dyslexics. Barbara Ewing is excellent as the unhappy young woman who turns up as the housekeeper, trying to escape her own past, and Michael Elphick is sly and wicked as the neighbour who destroys other people's happiness through selfishness, envy and jealousy. The ending is stomach-turning in its pathos. Sixth: Episode 8, THE BLACK DOG, is a tragic and deeply disturbing tale featuring a central performance by Jane Lapotaire which is profound in its insights into the twisted psychology of a girl who cannot love. The Black Dog is the name of a country pub, run by her father. The story is set in 1912, and a young gentleman played by Stephan Chase falls in love compulsively with the strange and enigmatic Lapotaire. The film is haunting, beautifully done, and extremely upsetting. Seventh: Episode 9, THE HIGGLER. This is one of the best of the stories (by Coppard), a sad tale of a 'higgler' (a man who buys and sells from his cart in the villages and farms). Sheila Ruskin, then a demure ingénue, does well as the educated girl whom the young higgler, excellently played by Keith Drinkel, nearly marries. Instead, he catastrophically marries a village girl who becomes a harridan, terrifyingly portrayed by Jane Carr. Eighth: Episode 12, THE RING OF TRUTH. This is a mysterious tale, concerning information conveyed to a young man in a dream by his dead father. By following up on this, the young man finds love and happiness, and learns of his father's secret sorrows. Prunella Scales, as his spoilt and selfish mother, gives an excellent character study. This entire series is a triumph of poignant drama about life as it really was in England a hundred years ago.