I live about two miles from Lark Rise – or rather from Juniper Hill, the hamlet where Flora Thompson lived during her late-Victorian childhood. Candleford is Buckingham, about eight miles away. Brackley, the town where I live, is occasionally referred to in Thompson’s trilogy as “the market town”; it’s just over the county border, in the Southern tip of Northamptonshire. It seems unlikely that Brackley will feature in the new BBC series, which is based on the contrast between the two places in the books’ titles – and wants to present Lark Rise as isolated and a long way from any town, not just a couple of miles from a fairly busy place . To simplify the Lark Rise /Candleford contrast, they’ve also smudged over the fact that when Laura first left home, she went not to Candleford itself, but to a village just outside the town – Candleford Green in the book, Fringford in real life. .
It seems that to film the programmes the BBC have built a new village, somewhere over on the other side of the Cotswolds. Well, they couldn’t have filmed at Juniper. When you look over the fields from the village these days, you might just possibly see larks ascending, but you will definitely see the busy A43, and the geodesic domes of the Croughton American airbase, one of the largest satellite tracking stations in the country.
I haven’t visited Juniper for a while, but like most hamlets in the area, it has become less and less of a working village over the years. Picturesque cottages command prices way beyond the descendants of the sturdy peasants who feature in the TV programme, and the average villager these days is likely to commute to work in Milton Keynes, or even to London along the M40; his main interests are likely to be his 4×4 and his burglar alarm. Meanwhile the sturdy peasants seek out less picturesque accommodation, and, with council houses in short supply, many drift away from the area. It’s become very different from the traditional self-contained village culture described in Thompson’s books and sentimentalised in the TV series. The Fox pub (a centre of village life in the programme) closed several years ago. It served Hook Norton beer, but was not a great pub – the very loud jukebox always seemed to be playing rather terrible music whenever I visited.
Thompson’s books are an elegy for the old village life, with very little story but lots of little vignettes and observations. Their lack of narrative drive, which might have seemed to make it a TV non-starter, is actually what the enterprising writers have seized on. As the books meander along, there are plenty of little anecdotes, each one of which can be expanded to fill an episode. Unlike the usual “classic serial”, which moves towards a novelistic ending, this series will be able to go for episodic intensity (playing each episode for all its worth, and not building towards any final destination) like a soap, or one of those heartwarming series like Heartbeat.
In the seventies the trilogy was adapted for the National Theatre as a kind of Leavisite folk musical, designed to show the organic world we have lost. The play ended in 1918 with a gathering at the war memorial; Flora’s brother was among the carved names, and the Great War was represented as the turning point after which the village would never again be itself. The play was dramatically effective, but the music was a sort of generalised folk, and not local to the area. Lots of the tunes had a minor-key Irishness which is pretty but has nothing much to do with this part of the world. Such authentic local folk music as survives seems to be mostly jigs for clod-hopping Morris Men.
The TV series promises to be less subtle than either the books or the play, and is packed with “characters” drawn with soap-story obviousness. Apart from an evangelical postman and Dawn French as a jolly drunk, though, the overacting seems less strained than in the recent Cranford (whose director even managed to get an overdone performance out of Imelda Staunton, whose Vera Drake was a wonder of cinematic subtlety). The first episode set up at least one long-running reticent romance that is likely to keep viewers switching on.
Accents were variable, and some were a bit too West-country, but I liked the way that the first episode centred on a niggling local grievance about telegram charges. That’s very typical of the area. The current grievance in Brackley is about parking provision in the market place. We enjoy a good moan.
An important character in yesterday’s episode was Queenie. Back in the late seventies, I taught English to the actual Queenie’s great-grand-daughter, who was a very nice little girl. When she reached her mid-teens she became a punk, but the sort who kept a sweet nature under the overdone mascara.
Anyway, it’s a pleasant enough TV series for a Sunday evening, and will happily add to the nation’s favourite myths about lovable simple country folk.
Added Feb 17th: Anyone interested in the topography and history of the area should take a look at The Lark Rise Loop , a pamphlet by my old friend and colleague, Jim Adams. He has just brought out a second edition to tie in with the TV series. This is a guide to an eleven-mile walk around the Lark Rise country – Brackley, Mixbury, Shelswell, Cottisford, Juniper Hill, Evenley and back to Brackley. Jim has always been a very sturdy walker, and eleven miles are nothing to him, but you don’t have to do the whole loop, of course; my recommendation would be to go from Cottisford to Juniper, over to Evenley for a pint at the Red Lion (where if you sit outside on a summer Saturday you can watch cricket on the village green) and then back again.The pamphlet is full of interesting detail, and profits go to Dogs for the Disabled, an excellent charity based in Banbury. It costs £1 and you can obtain a copy (post free) from:
Brackley Tourist Information,
2, Bridge Street,
NN13 7 EPTel:01280 700111