Lark Rise To Candleford returned to our screens this month in a flourish of bonnets and terribly frightful misunderstandings, but while time passes rather languidly for country folk in the 19th century, the same cannot be said in the field of modern costume drama.
Downton Abbey may have won gushing plaudits from all corners last year, but this week’s news that its counterpart will be axed is the biggest compliment it will ever receive and confirmation that it had raised the bar in the BBC’s own backyard. A few years back, their producers simply divided a pre-war novel into six episodes, dug out the keys to the corset cupboard and put in a call to Julia Sawalha’s agent. However, like a navvy with a JCB, their erstwhile bumbling rivals blew the whole genre wide-open last Autumn.
Realising that the Beeb had hoovered up every classic British novel of note over the last couple of decades, ITV decided to go to the trouble of making up their own story from scratch and with the help of a publicity storm that made December’s blizzards look like BBQ weather, Julian Fellowes’ drama hit the jackpot. Downton may not have been able to match Lark Rise for bucolic cosiness, but it more than compensated for that by treating us to promiscuous youngsters, actual incident and enough twists to fill even the most decadent drawing room. The programme not only opened the gates to a particularly lucrative viewer demographic for the channel’s advertising department, but served as both an antidote and a tribute to modern television.
Commercial revenues won’t interest BBC bosses, but the gauntlet that ITV lobbed at them before Christmas clearly has. As joyful, rich and popular as Lark Rise is, in the wake of this genre shake-up, it seemed older hat than any head attire worn on its rural sets. While I realise that such parameters are both deliberate and highly-cherished, the fact that the programme has no great themes aside from the quaint examination of human foibles and the ongoing novelty of old-fashioned mores makes for slightly repetitive viewing. Lark Rise has always been inexplicably idyllic, but after watching Fellowes’ fiercely chronological story-arc, the Corporation’s thoroughly un-mechanised costume vehicle started to look very lightweight in its fourth outing. It is an experience rather than a story. A brilliant but rather ring-fenced experience. Downton on the other hand, couldn’t be more mercurial. It is a wonderfully snooty version of EastEnders, a tale created by someone who understands the medium of television, a costume drama game-changer.
Lark Rise has retained audience figures this year, but while bosses from Wood Lane will insist that this week’s termination was all planned well before Downton was even thought of, a scenario in which the ITV drama kick-started a re-jig seems more likely. A fitting response is unlikely to come in the form of yet another Dickens remake, such as the one scheduled for next Christmas. I’d put my whole pocket book on Great Expectations being superbly made, but in terms of fresh material, I fear its title might be bitterly ironic. As the BBC seem to have realised, now is the time for bold, ambitious and most importantly, new stories.