Posts Tagged ‘BBC 1’

Historical Drama: The Mill on Channel 4, Sundays 8.00 pm

July 23, 2013

Channel 4 begins another historical drama, The Mill, this Sunday at 8.00 in the evening. In contrast to the medieval chivalry and power politics of BBC’s The White Queen on an hour later, The Mill is set amongst the factory slaves of the northern cotton mills during the Industrial Revolution. It’s based on the real history of Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire in the 1830s. This was the period when the new factory masters bought children from the workhouses to work amongst the machines in the mills. The working day was 13 hours long with accidents common. The apprentices were unpaid, and could only look forward to a few shillings if they completed their apprenticeship when they turned 18. The Mill dramatizes the events and controversy of 1833 when the government of the time attempted to introduce the 10 Hours Act, limiting children’s working day to those hours.

The blurb for The Mill on page 62 of the Radio Times runs as follows

‘A glowering, brutal mill foreman yells at a clutch of young female workers, women he’s frequently pulled from the dusty, hellish cauldron of the factory floor to indecently assault in a privy: “You’re apprentices, orphans, bastards! No one’ll listen to you, so say nothing!’ New Tricks it ain’t.

But if you like your dramas bleak, visceral and raw, sticky with the blood of dead and injured workers in the scarred and cauterised landscape of Britain during the Industrial Revolution, then The Mill will be your weekly treat. John Fay’s script is sweatily powerful as misery is piled upon misery. Children are frequently badly injured by unsafe, unguarded machinery and everyone works long hours in hideous conditions. And they are powerless and without hope.’

Two of the female stars of The Mill were talking about their roles in the series on breakfast TV on BBC 1 yesterday. Unfortunately I missed most of it. They did, however, mention that they ended up working 13 hours days shooting the series, and talked about the heat, noise and the dangers of the machines on which they were filmed. As lurid as it sounds, the series appears to be historically accurate. The evidence gather by contemporary reformers, such as Lord Shaftesbury, religious campaigners such as George Muller in Bristol, presented to the government’s commissions of inquiry and published in works like Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, present a grim picture of appalling poverty, despair and degradation. In Britain and the rest of Europe, legislation was passed by successive governments first limiting their hours and then outlawing child labour. There are still concerns about child labour in Britain even now. Back in the 1990s the anti-slavery charity, Anti-Slavery International, published a pamphlet discussing violations of the child labour legislation in Britain. Even though it is carefully regulated in Britain, it is still used throughout the developing world, in conditions very similar to that of 19th century Britain.

This is the world the authors of Britannia Unchained are harking back to with their spurious complaints that Brits are too lazy and need to work longer hours. Greg Palast, the American radical journalist, attacked this claim in his book, Armed Madhouse. Palast found that rather than making the West more competitive, it encouraged Developing Nations to raise their working hours even more, until you reached the long hours and appalling conditions of Chinese forced labour camps.

Channel 4 as Radical, Alternative Broadcaster

I can’t say that I’ll watch The Mill. It’s going to be far too grim for me. I prefer television that’s much less visceral and more escapist. It is, however, important. Channel 4 has been criticised of late for broadcasting mass-market programming that could be shown on any channel in order to improve its ratings. The channel was originally set up to show material of minority interest, as a kind of alternative BBC 2. As a result it broadcast opera, foreign movies, and documentaries on left-wing or radical issues. Jeremy Isaacs, its first head, said he aimed to broadcast northern miners’ oral history, amongst other subjects. It also showed material aimed at racial minorities. This included All India Goldies, a series of Indian films, and a massive TV version of the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. Much of its output was also fairly sexually explicit. It also included programmes on homosexuality, before this became more acceptable. AS a result the Daily Mail regularly attacked it, and hysterically dubbed Michael Grade, its director-general of the time, ‘Britain’s pornographer-in-chief’. More recently, Quentin Letts, the political sketch writer for the Mail and very definitely a man of the right, has attacked Channel 4 for not keeping to its original raison d’etre. He points out that its opera broadcasts introduced the art to a mass audience, attracting hundreds of thousands of viewers. It’s also supposed to have confounded the Leaderene’s husband. Denis Thatcher thought that by ‘alternative programming’, Channel 4 would be screening things like yachting. Well, it’s been several decades, but it looks like Channel 4 might be trying to reclaim its position as the channel of intelligent, radical broadcasting.