Mic Wright’s Remotely Furious: Trouble at The Mill and Problematic Penguins
The Mill (Channel 4)
Penguin Post Office (BBC 2)
Outside the sun was shining, inside The Mill was on the telly, dragging all light and hope from the world. The first series of Channel 4’s historical drama based on the archives of the Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire was one of the broadcaster’s biggest hits in 2013, presumably acting as a kind of televisual cosh for viewers. Series 2 is shaping up to be no less gloomy with a script that levers in historical references with all the skill of a bemused GCSE student flicking through Cliff Notes.
“Wages are down.” “Blame the Corn Laws.” “It’s not your fault! You’re a victim of the Poor Law!” Outside of the leads – Kerrie Hayes as plucky young apprentice Esther Price and Matthew McNulty as swarthy engineer Daniel Bate – most of the characters are like dirt-splattered mannequins posed to illustrate the travails of the poor. This series rejoins the characters four years on from the first, in the wake of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act which defined “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, so there’s a catalyst for even more misery.
The Mill was originally pitched as an antidote to Downton Abbey but it indulges in the same kind of cartoonish simplifications. Where Downton makes life downstairs seem far more enjoyable than it can possibly have been, The Mill turns its working class characters into ciphers in a unrelentingly dour history lesson. There’s a drought of wit, humour or humanity outside of one cheeky line noting that “it’s grim down south”.
The writer, John Fay, is desperate to make parallels between the 19th Century and today. You can see his workings when a union man tells the workers: “The English labourer did not cause the downturn – a banking criss in America started it.” Then there’s the flood of migrant workers albeit from the south of England causing discontent among the frock-coated Farages.
Hayes’s performance is the one chink of light in the gloom. She flirts and cajoles her way to a better life but is always on the cusp of losing it all. And if you start to feel hopeful, there’s always her destitute sister Martha’s story to reignite your depression – begging on the streets because her husband has died of smallpox. Things are made even bleaker by the ominous string score that swamps every scene.
Tricked by memories of Happy Feet, I turned to Penguin Post Office as an antidote to The Mill-induced misery. At first Andrew Graham-Brown’s excellent documentary about the women who run the Royal Mail’s outpost in Antarctica for five months a year and the penguins they live amongst was pretty cheering. But it wasn’t to last. It turns out penguins can be pretty unpleasant to each other too.
Two female penguins scrapped after one nicked the other’s mate, some stole stones from each other’s nests and a young penguin was killed by a group of adults. When one of its siblings lay down beside its dead body , it was a scene that outstripped any of the sad tableaus The Mill had to offer. If it hadn’t been for dancing Tunnock’s teacakes in the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, I might have sworn off TV for good…