Ordinary lives make history and take centre stage at last

One of the country’s most prominent screenwriters has complained that British period dramas too often disregard the lives of ordinary people.

Peter Moffat, whose credits include Criminal Justice and Silk, is the creative force behind the forthcoming BBC1 drama The Village, which he was inspired to write after his father opened up about his own childhood.

The Bafta-winning writer, who discovered that his grandfather and great-grandfather were shepherds, told the Radio Times: “Life at the start of the 20th century was hard... it’s vital not to imbue the past with a kind of Ready Brek glow. In British television there’s a tendency to look at this period from the point of view of the officer classes.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“The summer of 1914 just before war started is always described as the end of an Edwardian golden age – innocent and charmed and about to be destroyed by the mud and blood and death on the Western Front. It wasn’t a golden age for men like my great-grandfather.”

The Village stars Maxine Peake and John Simm and charts the life and turbulent times of one English village across the whole of the 20th century.

Moffat said: “In writing The Village I wanted to get past these received wisdoms about the past and describe the bigger picture.

“While (the poet) Rupert Brooke was swimming naked in Grantchester men died in the fields – from overwork. Television drama has spent too much time being in love with the poet and not enough time exploring the wonderful, complex and dramatic stories attached to the rest of the population.”

It remains to be seen whether The Village does for Hayfield in the Peak District what Heartbeat did for Goathland and Last Of The Summer Wine for Holmfirth, in turning them into honey-pot destinations for fans of the TV shows within and far beyond this region.

One of the reasons Maxine Peake appears to have been drawn to play Grace Middleton, the matriarch at the centre of The Village, is that the world is seen through the eyes of a working class family struggling to survive, “Beautiful writing – a period piece when we’re not focusing on the decision makers but the working people.

“It is so great to see the other side – changes within a chain of social and political life, in minutiae,“ she says.

But what do other TV drama writers think of Peter Moffat’s assertion that too often historical drama is filtered through the experience of the upper echelons of society, or at very least the educated middle-class?

“I agree with pretty much everything he says,” comments Leeds-based Lisa Holdsworth, whose credits include Emmerdale, Fat Friends, New Tricks, Waterloo Road, Robin Hood and Midsomer Murders. “But the people who really get a raw deal out of period dramas in general are women. The reality of women’s lives is rarely shown, and so female actors don’t get to play powerful roles. Yet ordinary women were interesting in their own right.

“Although I really enjoyed the series and it tackled some difficult issues very well, Call The Midwife did show people with cut-glass accents telling the poor people of the East End what to do.

“I think the period drama is a moribund genre at the moment, and part of the reason is that even though shows like Downton Abbey are addictive, very little conflict is shown. You don’t see the master/servant abuses and violence that happened back then. If being a servant was so great we’d still have people wanting to do those jobs today. The idea that ordinary people’s stories are not interesting is clearly wrong because Heartbeat was about everyday lives and it attracted 10m viewers without breaking a sweat.”

Mark Catley, also from Leeds, has a string of TV and theatre productions to his name that include EastEnders, Casualty, the new E4 series Youngers as well as Sunbeam Terrace, Crap Dad and Sherlock for West Yorkshire Playhouse. He believes the stereotypical point of view espoused by many period dramas came about because often those were the only people doing the writing. He is currently developing a BBC One drama about World War I told via the experiences of nurses, doctors and volunteers.

“I’m glad Peter Moffat has said what he did, because in doing so he’s opening the way for people like myself and less experienced writers. And in writing a series about working people in a village, he’s persuading TV executives that these are stories that should be told more often.”

The Village starts on BBC1 at 9pm on Easter Sunday.