This article was originally published in The Courier on 26th July 2014.
The Mill: Sunday, Channel 4
In theory at least, The Mill is everything a factually-based period drama should be: a thoroughly researched, character-driven piece that resonates politically, culturally and emotionally with modern viewers. Given that it was Channel 4's most successful drama of 2013, some would argue it succeeds on those terms.
And yet, and yet... its fundamental failing is writer John Fay's heavy-handed eagerness to draw parallels between the oppressed plight of 19th century working class mill workers and the injustices endured by the poor and vulnerable in 2014. It's not that these shameful parallels shouldn't be highlighted – centuries of unbreakable government oppression is hardly a trifling matter – but that Fay makes his point with all the subtlety of a pitchfork crashing through a Westminster window.
I'm all for furious polemics aimed at the establishment, just as long as they don't descend into inadvertent farce. The Mill skirts dangerously close at times.
As we returned to Quarry Bank Mill in rural Cheshire, Fay wasted no time in reminding us of its brutality. Huddled urchins trudged through muddy puddles, their hob-nailed clogs offering scant protection from the elements, as a coughing girl warned of an incoming smallpox epidemic. But at least they have the support of each other, as we're reminded time and time again. Meanwhile, thin-lipped overseers - to whom the mere idea of human happiness is a damnable sin – cracked the whip and cow-towed to their privileged masters.
The problem I have with this particular mise en scene isn't that it's misleading, it's that it undermines genuine historical suffering by going for the jugular in a borderline comical fashion. Fay's intentions are entirely sincere, but a little finesse wouldn't go amiss. This opening episode was a shapeless, spluttering mouthpiece. It struggled as drama.
It's frustrating, as his talent for characterisation is obvious. Mill girl Esther – played with exceptional charm, cheek, grit and soul by Liverpudlian actress Kerrie Hayes – is one of TV's strongest female protagonists. It's just a pity she's sidelined by clumsily-written scenes in which Irish trade unionists bop us on the nose with Fay's central themes.
“The English labourer did not cause the downturn,” he railed, “a banking crisis in America started it. So why should he suffer?!” Do you see, viewers? Do you see?
In case you missed the thrust of Fay's point, he juxtaposed this rabble-rousing speech with scenes of a girl giving birth to the entitled mill owner's child in full hot water and towels agony. And the world turns.
Again, it's frustrating. These scenes take place in reaction to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1843, a repulsive, far-reaching mandate placing the poor into 'deserving' and 'undeserving' categories. Iain Duncan-Smith probably has it stitched into his duvet. But you should never patronise your audience when delivering an important message.
Writing these words gives me no pleasure, as I'm constantly droning on about the urgent need for more politically aware, compassionate populist dramas. The Mill ticks all those boxes, albeit with a paste brush strapped to a cannonball.
In the seasoned hands of someone like Jimmy McGovern – with whom Fay has collaborated – this approach can work. It's also effective if the intent is scabrous, sledgehammer satire a la Lindsay Anderson. Unfortunately, The Mill never quite settles on the appropriate tone.