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Review: Channel 4’s ‘The Mill’

Apprentice boys in the dormitory. c) Ryan McNamara and Channel 4

Apprentice boys in the dormitory. c) Ryan McNamara and Channel 4

This new costume drama is set to make a big impact and is sure to become favourite end-of-summer viewing whilst making a household name of some of the performers new to television, especially Liverpool born actress Kerrie Hayes, in one of the key roles as trouble-making apprentice, Esther Price (17).

Channel 4’s attempt to represent accurately life in Quarry Bank Cotton Mill in Cheshire, warts and all, is a sure fire winner if the opening episode is anything to go by. Some of the raw portrayal of life, in the 1830’s, for the indentured youngsters who worked in the mill, makes for uncomfortable but compelling viewing. Episode one, contains scenes of cruelty, injury and sexual abuse, as fact and fiction are skilfully woven together in this hard-hitting costume drama.

Set in politically turbulent times, an army of child labourers, mainly orphans and those bought from the local poorhouses, are grist to the mill and ripe for exploitation by mill owner father and son, Samuel and Richard Greg, played by Donald Sumpter and Jamie Draven.

With an emphasis on placing profit before welfare the tale has the potential to be stifling with its over gloomy take on mill-life, drab, grey uniforms, growling dangerous machinery and predatory opportunists but several humorous moments lighten the plot and help identify the children as individuals.

Esther is depicted as having a mind of her own. Underneath her submissive demeanour her rebellious nature is stirring and this, coupled with a Dickensian sense of injustice, sparks the series into life. The main characters are living and breathing and not just dusty notes in the ledgers and diaries of the mill’s records.

This new dramatisation allows us to stand in the children’s shoes (or clogs to be more precise) and see them as far more than simply appendages to the machinery of the mill. This series communicates on a human level whilst being entertaining, informative and above all, moving.

The Mule Room.  c) Ryan McNamara and Channel 4

The Mule Room. c) Ryan McNamara and Channel 4

While some appear insensitive to the morality of child labour, Hannah Greg (Barbara Marten) Samuel’s wife, being a progressive thinker of the merchant classes, has made some charitable provision for her employees. The masters however, ignore the individual needs of the children and turn a blind eye while she on the other hand has made some concessions towards the children’s welfare by employing a doctor to tend the sick and providing a rudimentary schooling on Sundays (ironically, the children’s only day of rest.)

Enter the hero, Daniel Bate played effectively by Matthew McNulty. Brought out of debtors’ prison by Richard Greg, this skilled mechanic with a flair for invention is hired to make the mill run more productively. It isn’t long however, before his take on right and wrong leave him appalled at the dangerous working practices and poor conditions of the vulnerable youngsters and lead him to sympathise more with the plight of the children than the demands of his employers.

An accident to twelve year old worker Connor Dempsey (Tommy Priestly) is the catalyst for Bate’s conscience and he soon sides with the equally fiery tempered and frustrated Esther in search of the political reform which will throw them both into direct conflict with the mill owners.

The out-and-out villain and scene stealer in the first episode is Charlie Crout played by Craig Parkinson. He brings a real sense of menace as the repulsive and abusive overlooker who slyly makes the girl’s lives a misery through his unwanted sexual advances.

There is not a weak performance in this first episode. The young cast of actors, Katherine Rose Morley as Lucy Garner, Sacha Parkinson as Miriam Catterral and Holly Lucas as her younger sister Susanah Catterral, all contribute well and will surely blossom in their roles and go on to win the attention of the public. Ably supported by a host of seasoned veterans this is a set of talented youngsters bound to catch the eye of the critics.

The production team, through their technical innovation and attention to detail, are to be praised for their high production values in portraying a darker period in British history too often ignored or simply glossed over in the name of progress.

John Fay’s realistically gritty and believable script adds credibility to the actors’ performances. The writer successfully captures the mood and values of the period basing much of the factual content on actual people and events from the mill’s extensive historical archive. The mill children, seen as little more than white slaves in reformers’ eyes, are portrayed with sensitivity by the award winning writer and he leaves us in no doubt where his political sympathies lie. Fay spins a fine yarn without creating stereotypes of a bygone age.

“Fact can seem stranger than fiction,” he informed the press at the media launch of the series. “In 1833, the very week that the British government abolished slavery in the colonies, a new factory act was being discussed to limit the length of the day from twelve hours to ten hours for children working in the mills!”

Fay obviously has compassion for the treatment of the ‘undeserving poor’ whether in the past or in the here and now. He believes that the idea of poverty being seen as a crime is currently back in fashion and high on today’s political agenda.

‘The Mill’ is a major venture for Channel 4 and will be broadcast towards the end of July. It is at the moment scheduled for a Sunday evening viewing 28th July (subject to confirmation)

Posted 1:42 PM Saturday July 20, 2013. Filed under Film & TV,Wilmslow. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response to this entry. Pinging is currently not allowed.

2 Responses to Review: Channel 4’s ‘The Mill’

  1. Amanda Whittaker Reply

    July 25, 2013 at 10:26 am

    Quote from your review of Channel Four’s The Mill:

    “The out-and-out villain and scene stealer in the first episode is Charlie Crout played by Craig Parkinson. He brings a real sense of menace as the repulsive and abusive overlooker who slyly makes the girl’s lives a misery through his unwanted sexual advances.”

    I’d just like to put the record staight:

    This character is my g-g-grandfather and has been wrongly slurred by Channel Four who admit that there is no historical or documentary evidence that the incidents surrounding Charles Crout ever happened at Quarry Bank Mill. He wasn’t even an Overlooker at the time this rather fictional docu-drama took place. The character ‘Miriam’ is a figment of the scriptwriters’ imagination (as are other characters and dates).

    Channel Four have marketed and advertised this series as being based on the lives of ‘real’ people and based on ‘historical and documentary evidence’ of Quarry Bank Mill. It’s now obvious they’ve played around with the ‘evidence’ to the extent that much of it’s not even true! Even worse than that – naming real people – and then making up the facts – slurring real peoples’ names – makes you wonder how many other ‘historical facts’ in this series are actually fiction.

    This is a perfect example of how true history can be so easily distorted and reputations of people (and workplaces) altered beyond recognition.

    Even worse than that is the speed at which reviewers of this programme – like yourselves – are re-quoting the pre-publicity machine from Channel Four and unwittingly spreading fictions as fact.

    • Jan Bridget Reply

      July 29, 2013 at 11:01 am

      Blurring the lines between literature and factual history.

      I enjoyed the programme and will be watching it again, not least because I am into family history and most of my family worked in the cotton mills of Lancashire, but I will also bear in mind what Amanda has said.

      I understand where Amanda is coming from. It seems that anything can be said about the dead. Something similar has happened with one of my ancestors (my four times great grandfather), in a documentary film called “A Regular Black: The Hidden Wuthering Heights,” director Adam Low.

      It seems that anyone can take a real (dead) person’s name, from a real historical setting, and say things about this person that are not true. So I empathise with you, Amanda.

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