‘It is this obsession of futility, not any depth of sympathy or humanitarianism, which accounts for the piling up of the individual agony to so many poignant climaxes remote from the necessities or even from the incidental happenings of war [….] As for their infinite pity, nothing is easier, unfortunately, than to be bravely sympathetic about the sufferings of the past.’
Douglas Jerrold wrote that in 1930, about the numerous war books written around the time of the tenth anniversary of the Armistice, under the influence of All Quiet on the Western Front . I wonder what he’d have said about the final episode of the first series of The Village.
Previous episodes had shown us the bullying of a conscientious objector and a case of shell-shock brought on not by enemy bombardment, but by the trauma of Field Punishment Number One. Soldiers were shown as either vicious bullies or helpless victims, never as men trained to do a difficult job. The only enthusiasts for the war were either cruel or deluded; all the nice people were ‘anti-war’.
Inevitably, this last episode of the series brought in the obligatory trope of twenty-first century fiction about the War – Joe had been shot at dawn. What his offence was we never learned. Did Joe go AWOL? Did he cast away his arms? Or did he strike an officer? The last time we saw him he was a gibbering shell-shocked wreck, being escorted away from his home by two military policemen (Wouldn’t checking up on a deserter actually have been a job for the civilian police?) Would he really have been taken to France in that state? Would someone so obviously disturbed not have been among the 90% of those whose sentences were commuted by Douglas Haig?
The episode was set in 1920, and its main thread was the refusal to include Joe Middleton’s name on the village war memorial. The writer had maybe read about the arguments in Fulstow about whether deserter Charles Kirman’s name should be included on the village memorial. When the villagers were told officially that it could not, they decided not to build a memorial of any kind. In the fictional village there was no such solidarity. All the villagers were hostile, though finally a plaque was added with Joe’s name and the epitaph ‘A worthy son of his Father’, echoing the words carved on the grave of Albert Ingham at Bailleulmont.
The events of this episode, and of the series as a whole, were perhaps not totally impossible. Bad things happened in the War. But this series piled on the awfulness, and the extremes of awfulness are represented as typical. Of the 137 men from the village who went to fight, just 25 returned, many of them limbless; These are not typical casualty figures.
such a conglomeration of grimness becomes implausible after a while, and one longs for a sense of balance. Couldn’t we have met just one sane, decent and efficient officer? Couldn’t at least one character have shown an intelligent appreciation of why the country was at war? No, all was dreadfulness and futility.
After the war, influenza adds to the misery, bringing more tragedy to the poor of the village, while for the head of the toffs’ family it becomes an opportunity for political self-advancement.
The author, Peter Moffat, clearly has strong opinions about war and class. Strong opinions can be an asset to a writer – but not when they get in the way of the characters. In the village hall debate this week, as in the sermon in episode two, I heard the twenty-first century author’s voice, not the voices of believable characters from a century ago.
This series is a big BBC project, and another half-dozen series are promised, taking the Middletons right through the twentieth century. It is trying to be a serious project, in ways that other period dramas, like Downton Abbey and Lark Rise, do not. But its range of sympathies is so narrow that it can’t give a convincing picture of the whole range of social classes or of the political attitudes of the time. It will be interesting to see how the writer treats later periods. The next series will be set in the twenties. How will it deal with the General Strike, I wonder?
One last small detail: Would Bert’s box camera have been able to take photos anything like the ones we saw in this episode? Cameras like that had very simple wide-angle-lenses and not much choice of shutter speed. And if the family were so poor, how did he get them developed?