I can’t resist a small-town saga, particularly one where the hero or heroine returns home to pick up the pieces after a seismic family event. I like the fractured nature of such stories, where the central character’s glowing memories grow tarnished and dim when exposed to the harsh light of the present. I enjoy seeing characters mesh and meld, as people are altered by years and by circumstance.
I’m sure this is why I am devoted to The Archers. Oh I wish I lived in Ambridge, which I know is a village but it amounts to the same thing – it’s a self-contained fictional community. I would volunteer to take part in Lynda Snell’s pantomimes (choose me, Lynda!) and I would take my turn behind the counter at the village shop. I would be part of things.
It’s envy, of course. I grew up in a small, dull town, and should I return I doubt the mayor would interfere drastically in my private life, or I’d have an unsuitable liaison that everyone would talk about, or I’d get on the wrong side of the police without actually committing a crime. I’d probably make a wistful visit to the chemist where I had a Saturday job for years, but that would be as gripping as things would ever get.
All of the above, except the trip to the chemist, land hard and heavy on the shoulders of Mark, the main character in masterly series The Town (tonight on ITV1). The Town calls to anyone who’s ever carried out that lonely task of packing a bag in the first hollow hours of bereavement, when a death calls you back to somewhere you haven’t lived for years but which you still call “home”.
Mark (the excellent Andrew Scott) moved to London long ago from the town where he grew up, but he makes that terrible cab journey to the parental home, empty-eyed and, because of the singular circumstances of his loss (I won’t go into detail), full of questions to which no one will give him answers.
Mike Bartlett’s script is a lovely thing because you’re not quite sure where you are being led. But then, neither is Mark as the doubts crowd around him, along with the attention – not all of it unwelcome – of old friends he thought he had left behind long ago. And who are all these people? What the hell is the booze-soaked mayor (smashing Martin Clunes) up to? Why does the local detective look so worried? Quickly everything Mark thought he knew begins to shift as the ground opens up beneath his feet.
Because The Town is so tough to categorise I can see it’s a hard sell for ITV, but the channel should be given credit for trying something so intriguingly different. It should be bought a celebratory cake, too, for some bold dramas this year; A Mother’s Son was a favourite of mine or things that, if not wholly successful, were off the beaten drama-path (Mrs Biggs, The Scapegoat, The Bletchley Circle).
Even if audience figures are low, I hope ITV’s drama department isn’t down-hearted and continues to strive: we should all be behind it, cheering.