Eight years ago my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. His primary treatment was hormone therapy – an implant in the abdomen, which stopped his production of testosterone, the male hormone. Prostate cancer feeds off testosterone; take away the food and the cancer stops spreading. We were all told that the treatment would work and that at some point it would stop working. He had a finite time left to live. I will always remember the exact words the doctor used: “Two years is possible but not probable.” It was a terrible, terrible blow and it was an opportunity.
My father was in the Army, had a big moustache and he came up through the ranks to become a lieutenant colonel – but the stereotype stops there. He was not stiff-backed or stiff-upper-lipped but he did have some closed-off parts. With the implant making him less male, with the knowledge of his impending death, he was able to open up more. We talked.
He talked about his childhood. I started to find out things about my own family that I just didn’t know. My great-grandfather was a shepherd in the borders of Scotland and my grandfather was a shepherd, too, before leaving to work on the railways. My great-grandfather was born at the start of the 20th century. His life was very hard – he and his dogs ate a bowl of porridge every morning before going out on the hills. They went to bed when it got dark. They woke up when it got light. The family sang to each other all the time. This is a very long way from my life in London NW5.
I was struck by just how much the life of a family – Moffat’s in this case – can change over such a short time. I wanted to see the farm cottage my family lived in. It’s not there; it’s under a reservoir. There’s one photograph of the cottage and that’s the only visual reference I can find. The physical disappearance of the place where my father spent so much of his own childhood I found upsetting and I decided to do something about it – write. Not the story of my own childhood, which was itinerant: Aden, Hong Kong – the fag ends of empire. Nor the story of my ancestors and their lives, but the story of a village life across the 20th century. I called it The Village.
The camera never leaves the village. Births, deaths, love and betrayal, political events, national upheavals, rules kept and rebellions made – sex, religion, class… all seen through the lives of the villagers. I wanted to set the show somewhere very rural and very wild but with the proximity of urban life as a presence. I chose the Peak District because I love its character – rugged, rough, honest – and because it’s right next to Sheffield and Manchester. You can walk across a blasted heather moor, come to an edge and there’s the great metropolis.
two other factors – the weather and running. The first time I went to look at the village of Hayfield I saw a man come down off the hill in running gear with more mud on him than I’ve ever seen on a human being. I’m a runner – I’ve run four marathons – but this was something else. I had to have a go at fell running.
The farm we use as the Middleton family farm is up on Edale, Derbyshire. Shooting in December under pressure of time in high winds and sleet made for an interesting life for the cast and crew. Normally, when you’re shooting a scene with maybe four different shots and six takes of each shot, you need the
weather to stay the same so that in the edit process you can cut together different shots and takes and it looks like they’re all happening at the same time. You need the weather to stay the same. The weather on Edale changes about every ten seconds – sun becomes rain becomes sleet quicker than you can shout “action”. We took an early decision to embrace the weather, make it a character and stop fighting it.
The series opens in 1914 with the arrival of the first bus in the village. Martha Lane, beautiful and headstrong, steps off the bus. She is a catalyst for change. The life of the village will never be the same again. The ambition is that the series will end 100 years and 42 episodes later. The idea is to tell the big stories of the century through the small lives of the people in this single village. Two world wars, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, austerity, the sexual revolution, all refracted through the characters in The Village.
I wanted to start in 1914 because it’s the furthest back in time one can go while still being just within living memory. There are a few people still alive now who have memories of that time. Our narrator and central character is Bert Middleton, the second oldest man in Britain. We see him now (a very old man) and we see him then (a young boy). His job as narrator is the last thing he’ll do; it’s his last great act of remembrance. He is able to say, “I can tell you about the Battle of Waterloo from the daughter of somebody who was there.”
I find the idea that you can get back to 1815 in such short steps thrilling. I’ve always loved history but most of it, for me, has come from reading. Not this time – I spent a huge part of my research time talking to people and listening to their stories. I went round the older inhabitants of the Peak District and listened. I felt a connection with my grandfather and my great-grandfather. I was moved not just by the stories people told me but by their longing to tell them and have them heard.
But there’s a big rule you have to stick to when writing about history. My grandfather feeding porridge to his dogs gives me a feeling of warmth and a kind of vicarious nostalgia. But I’ve got a dog now and I know that his dogs must have been seriously under-nourished.
They were working hard all day every day on too little food. The real story here is that life at the start of the 20th century was hard.
The rule is that it’s vital not to imbue the past with a kind of ReadyBrek glow. In British television there’s a tendency to look at this period from the point of view of the officer classes. 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.
In writing The Village I wanted to get past these received wisdoms about the past and describe the bigger picture. While Rupert Brooke was swimming naked in Granchester 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. I’ve tried to represent through the 28 different characters in The Village the full spectrum of society.
The second rule about writing period drama is obvious. There’s no such thing as hindsight. It’s vital to put yourself in the past as though it were the present. I think too often, breaking this rule means that the sometimes mistaken understandings about history become more and more concrete and hard to break down.
I found myself constantly surprised in my research. Everyone knows about the white feathers handed out to conscientious objectors. But I didn’t know that the tribunals set up to determine whether these men had consciences were local, often held in village halls and usually chaired by ex-military men. Sitting in the Imperial War Museum and reading accounts of these hearings was extraordinary.
Young Bert is played by the brilliant Bill Jones, who is 12 years old. The rules about filming with child actors are rigorious. They can only work for four hours a day. Young Bert is probably the biggest character in terms of screen time and Bill had to do four hours of schoolwork every day as well as the acting.
Maxine Peake plays his mother, John Simm plays his father and Juliet Stevenson the Lady in the Big House. All are wonderful actors. But I’m really delighted that there are 25 other actors that a Sunday-night BBC1 audience probably won’t know. I wanted to avoid that, “Hooray, here comes Dame Maggie” thing that has a tendency to alter the way you watch something.
I hope that The Village will succeed because the stories are rich and dramatic but, more than that, I hope it works because the generation who can tell us about what we were then won’t be with us much longer. I have their wonderful stories and lots of them are in The Village and the ambition is to pass them on.
My father got five years in the end. He died almost three years ago. I will always be grateful for the time we had and the things he told me. If The Village makes you turn to your father, mother, grandparent, friend and say, “Was it really like this?” and the response is for that person to talk about their past, then we’ll achieve something that they used to say television prevented. We’ll be listening to the people we live with.
The Village starts on Easter Day at 9:00pm on BBC1