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The Mill, Channel 4 | reviews, news & interviews

The Mill, Channel 4

The Mill, Channel 4

Historically-based Industrial Revolution drama should have stuck to fiction

Robert Greg (Jamie Draven), not intending to get acquainted with health & safety inspectors

Does it always have to be so flipping grim up north? In Channel 4's new four-parter, the Mill in question is at Quarry Bank in Cheshire. The date: 1833, during the Industrial Revolution. Villains du jour: the Greg family, industrialists and merciless exploiters of child labour.

As the first episode opened with the tolling of the wake-up bell calling the poor, struggling young workers to another dismal day on the factory floor, it all felt terribly familar. We were back at Lowood school with Jane Eyre, enmeshed in the proles-versus-fatcats class struggle of South Riding, reliving the grinding working class horrors of life in The Village and even getting a flashback to Call the Midwife. We thrilled again to the battle between the wealthy Hardacres and the impoverished Fairchilds in Brass. Perhaps most of all, it was Mrs Gaskell's North and South revisited.

Current commissioning editor thinking seems to be that if you haven't got a Downton Abbey, you need an anti-Downton Abbey, though heaven knows how this thing found its way to the top of the pile. John Fay gets the writer's credit, but I reckon there's an app for this, where you just keep scrolling down and tick the relevant boxes (select historical checkpoints, choose level of gratuitous cruelty and number of piteous photogenic children daubed with instant workhouse grime, decide where you want to introduce handsome, high-minded hero to rally the downtrodden workers etc). Pick several colourful regional accents, specify expensive china and appropriate gravel drive for the Big House, add an unpleasant industrial accident and a bullying sex-pest who keeps groping the girls, then hit "print" and you're done.

The series is said to be rooted in real historical events, but the cliches clunked so loudly and every turn of the plot was so laboriously pre-semaphored that judging whether anybody's acting was better than anyone else's became almost impossible, and was in any case irrelevant. These people aren't characters, they're categories. You couldn't help noticing Kerrie Hayes as Esther Price (pictured above), who might as well have had a bright orange label reading "Feisty and Rebellious" sewn onto her factory smock. She bellowed at everyone in a foghorn Scouse accent and tried to rouse her fellow-workers against the brutish sexual predator and "overlooker", Charlie Crout (Craig Parkinson at his most knuckle-scrapingly repulsive).

The rich-bastard Gregs are headed by the patriarch Samuel (Donald Sumpterpictured left, channelling Lurch from The Addams Family with a transfusion of Dickensian gloom). His son Robert (Jamie Draven), although eager to keep wringing every last drop of blood, tears and sweat from the family's captive cadre of children, also wants more and better mechanisation ("I believe in the future - anything is possible"). Thus he has hired camera-friendly Daniel Bate (Matthew McNulty), who may be a pinko "agitator" but is also a gifted engineer. For some reason Bate hates John Doherty (Aidan McArdle), who is campaigning stridently for the "10 Hour Bill" which would limit the number of hours children are forced to work.

Plenty of historical stuff about working conditions and trade unionism to come in future episodes apparently. Which doesn't mean it will start to feel any more lifelike.

Judging whether anybody's acting was better than anyone else's became almost impossible, and was in any case irrelevant


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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