Television: Clothes have rarely looked as smelly, but it’s not all bad news for ‘The Village’

The BBC series starring Maxine Peake and John Simm is a far cry from ‘Downton Abbey’. So how come it’s looking like good Sunday-night TV?

Brightening up: the second series of The Village happily fills the Sunday-drama slot

Brightening up: the second series of The Village happily fills the Sunday-drama slot

Sat, Aug 16, 2014, 01:00

On foot of all the coverage around Robin Williams’s sad passing, the only thing I wanted to watch this week was Mork & Mindy. Could it really have been that funny? The comedy series must have had something if more than 35 years later – a shocking fact to type – I can remember how Mork, Williams’s hyperactive alien, arrived from the planet Ork in an egg and was taken in by Mindy. Pam Dawber’s character was fabulous because she drove a Jeep and lived in an apartment – how exotic – in Colorado.

Say “nanu, nanu” – Mork’s greeting – to anyone who, in 1978, was allowed to watch TV after tea (yes, digital natives, only one screen in the house and dinner in the middle of the day) and an image of Mork in his rainbow braces and sleeveless Puffa jacket instantly appears along with a reflexive smile.

But it’s August, the dread month in the schedules, so there is nothing on the box I expect to remember in 35 years’ time – not just because I’ll probably struggle to remember anything then but because a memorable television series is a rare thing.

Sunday nights cry out for entertaining drama. It’s the natural home for series such as Downton Abbey, to ease that transition from weekend to work week. On BBC One that slot belongs, for the next five weeks, to the second series of The Village, which, although set in the 1920s, couldn’t be mistaken for a fluffy period piece.

Written by Peter Moffat, it aims to filter the big events of the 20th century through the experiences of a family in a small Derbyshire village – like a British Heimat – and with narration from a reminiscing old man, Bert. The first series was grim to the point of cold, muddy misery, as the impoverished Middleton family – violent, alcoholic John and stoic Grace, played by John Simm and Maxine Peake in terrific performances – barely held on to their smallholding and lost a son, Bert’s older brother, in the war.

The story has moved on to the 1920s, and things are, if not cheery, then considerably brighter, with a young Bert getting the better of an obnoxious toff (a gloriously over-the-top turn by Julian Sands), not to mention blue skies (it seemed to rain throughout the last series) and even a jolly fete. So The Village, while still gritty, real and atmospheric – clothes have rarely looked as scratchy, smelly and uncomfortable as the Middleton family’s kit – mightn’t be such a downer on a Sunday.

The documentary Executed (UTV, Tuesday) reveals a history I had no clue was so recent. It’s just 50 years since the last two men to be sentenced to death in Britain, Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans, were hanged, after being convicted of the same murder. This calm documentary personalises their story by talking to their relatives about the many ways in which the deaths affected their families.

The film chronicles how the hanging of Derek Bentley and Ruth Ellis – familiar faces projected on the walls of prison cells – in the 1950s turned public opinion against capital punishment. But if 50 years seems relatively recent, then it is shocking to hear that it took until 1973 for capital punishment to end in Northern Ireland.

Liam Holden, the Belfast man who was the last person sentenced to death in the UK, revisits the condemned cell where he spent six weeks awaiting execution in 1973. It’s next door to the room with the noose, which must have concentrated the mind. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and his conviction was later quashed. The sense of what might have been hangs heavily over the interview. Capital punishment is a sensational subject – there have been many emotion-packed US death-row documentaries – but Execution is an unflashy and informative look back at a difficult subject.

The gushing description for The Shelbourne (RTÉ One, Thursday) calls it “an insightful, entertaining and sometimes hilarious six-part observational documentary series”, but it takes me until episode five to actually check in.

Afterwards I reread the description and marvel at how inaccurate it is, because, aside from anything else, The Shelbourne is mesmerisingly boring.

The idea to film behind the scenes in a hotel is well worn, and the better ones – the BBC’s three-part Inside Claridge’s, for example – nimbly negotiate the fine line between winkling out a good story and public-relations puffery.

These films work best when the director hones in on one or two big personalities. They can be witty or mean; it doesn’t really matter once they’re memorable, and seeing the business through their eyes has a way of getting behind the PR spin.

But The Shelbourne seems determined to interview every member of staff. They’re lovely and on message: they talk about “exceeding guests’ expectations” and working “to the brief” and so The Shelbourne, or episode five anyway, comes across as little more than an infomercial. The hotel must be thrilled. No one stands out except maybe the doorman Declan O’Brien, a laconic sort of chap.

The theme this week is romance, and we see a hotel suite being decorated with more white roses than there are in the Tralee dome.

One guest, John Stewart, asked them to create a romantic backdrop for his marriage proposal to his girlfriend. We’re not told the price. Several staff members troop into the room to marvel at its floral abundance and are full of compliments for the hotel. We never see Stewart’s partner, which is odd and makes the story seem incomplete, although in what looks like a time-filler – there’s a lot of time to fill – one of the managers wanders around the hotel, excitedly informing staff that “she said yes”. The man who fixes the air conditioning seems nonplussed when told the happy news.

A red carpet is rolled out for a couple arriving for their wedding reception – they’re not interviewed – and we see the banquet room. There’s subtler venue-plugging in videos at wedding fairs.

O’Brien, standing on the steps in his top hat, remarks that it’s not done for staff to fraternise with the guests. But “I did take one of Beyoncé’s backing singers to Glasnevin Cemetery. That was an interesting afternoon,” he says without so much as a twinkle in his eye.

Well go on then, Declan, tell us more, asks nobody. Or maybe they did, but that’s where the anecdote ends – like so much in The Shelbourne, which promises much but doesn’t deliver.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

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