Adapting a best-selling novel by the iconic JK Rowling must be difficult enough with so many fans to please, but when it’s a story as complex and packed with characters as 2012 bestseller The Casual Vacancy, it must be near impossible. Even its star Keeley Hawes (Line of Duty) said that when she first read the novel, she thought, “how is this going to work? How will it fit into just three parts?”
But she needn’t have worried because it does work— and it’s mesmerising.
The three-part series, written by Sarah Phelps (The Crimson Field), directed by Jonny Campbell (In The Flesh) and produced by Ruth Kenley-Letts (The Hour) is set in the beautiful, seemingly perfect village of Pagford and centres around its residents who are, despite immediate appearances, living far from idyllic lives.
Episode one starts gently, the camera swooping over the English countryside, but soon the colossal cracks begin to show and things get very dark indeed. At the heart of the story is Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear) who is trying to stop the parish council Chairman (Michael Gambon) transforming Sweetlove house, a centre for the homeless and vulnerable, into a spa for the rich and beautiful.
When Barry dies suddenly, Pagford is left in shock, there’s empty seat left on the parish council and all hell breaks loose.
It might all sound a bit Midsomer Murders so far, but it really isn’t.
The Casual Vacancy isn’t really about local council rows, it’s about the hypocrisy, humour and oddness of the British nation, with its drug addiction, racism, bullying and social irresponsibility taking place just beyond the lovely village green.
The most striking character, and the real heart of the series, is tough-talking Krystal Weedon (played by new actress Abigal Lawrie) who lives a desperately difficult life looking after her drug addict mother and four year old brother. I could have watched her all day.
Yet even in the darkness there’s comedy. Barry Fairbother’s half-brother Simon Price (Richard Glover) is a character so buffoon-like and vile that he’s funny, and there are some glorious moments when we witness Samantha Mollison’s (Keeley Hawes) comically awful marriage to the rather pathetic Miles Mollison (Rufus Jones).
Beautifully shot, brilliantly acted and swarming with vivid characters, The Casual Vacancy is one of the best new dramas I’ve seen in a long while. And just as in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, this new fictional world feels so strange and real that it’s like being put under a spell.
The Casual Vacancy begins on Sunday 15th Feb 9pm on BBC One