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Trouble at t'Mill - and Then Some ...
on 13 January 2015
This is a remarkable creation from a golden age of telly drama. Beautifully adapted by Arthur Hopcraft (perhaps best known for his BBC dramatisation of 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy') this was Granada TV showing its muscle in what is now hideously termed 'costume drama'.
Perhaps it's appropriate that the production was mounted by Granada Television, based in Manchester. The whole story is played out among the dark satanic mills of Coketown, a red-brick industrial hell set firmly in the north of England. The windswept moors, the smoking chimneys, the bad weather and the bleakness do not let up from beginning to end. Even the sheep cry there.
The series begins magnificently, with the arrival in Coketown of 'The Horseriding' - a travelling fair, complete with tumblers, acrobats, clowns, dogs, jugglers, contortionists and what-have-you - all in the most superb slightly-frayed-at-the-edges garb that has obviously seen hundreds of performances across country. Full marks to the costume designer (Esther Dean, who went on to design 'The Jewel in the Crown' - need one say more ?) for making the clothes as believable as the characters who wear them. The opening shots are powerful stuff, the music and bright colours of the fair set off against the mud and drab squalour of the back streets.
In 'Hard Times' we are presented with a grim-faced Dickens, in some ways at his most realistic and extreme. The tale is a feast for actors able to cut the mustard, and in this 1977 production we have Patrick Allen, Timothy West, Rosalie Crutchley, Alan Dobie, Jacqueline Tong and Edward Fox in an ensemble of British Talent that is not paraded by the publicity department for its Star-factor, but works together beautifully as a company of good actors who know precisely what they are doing with well-directed and stunningly produced material.
The four 50-minute episodes are wonderfully written to catch the essence and meat of the book, and they are allowed to take their time - which does NOT mean they are slow! There are golden moments from just about everybody, Timothy West's Josiah Bounderby taking the prize for self-important bluster from a man who never tires of telling us how self-made he is.
The studio sets, far from looking 'dated' look pretty darned good, and are as well-dressed and well lit as the actors in them. The filmed sequences are grainy and bleak, like the weather in Coketown, and the whole thing has more atmosphere to it than many a present-day high-tech-high-speed example of 'period drama', weighed down as it so often is by wall-to-wall incidental music and effects.
The actors know how to use their voices properly, and to effect. They don't mumble. They don't sound as though they've been hoiked out of the local am-drams - and they aren't swamped by the weather/waves/machinery/rotten acoustics and other trappings of location filming that we are now regularly force-fed by the bucketload. We can hear what they are saying, and what they mean - and clearly: funnily enough, the words really matter. The words are a huge part of the tragedy that unfolds before us. Yes, it's not unlike watching a play in a theatre, and it needs our concentration. So we have to concentrate, and whatever's wrong with that ? It's what makes - or made - television drama special. When it is.
With 'Hard Times' we are watching a production of the highest quality, worthy of our greatest respect. There are few enough equivalents coming off the production-line these days, however much the industry hype and spin try to convince us otherwise.