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The first series of C4’s The Mill was a dour combination of educational broadcasting, soapy dynastic saga and miserabilist melodrama not too smoothly blended. The second series, starting on Sunday (8pm), looks as if it has the mixture just right. Complete with a fair sprinkling of historical figures connected with the setting, Quarry Mill, the historical background is confidently revealed in unlaboured conversations between the characters – nifty résumés of the Corn Laws, the reparations to slaveowners after abolition, reference to the Tolpuddle martyrs, new measures aimed at helping the impoverished but often oppressing them with rigid new restrictions. Parallels and contrasts are brought out with a sardonic wink to the viewer – “I know it’s grim down south,” says a northern millworker to dispossessed agricultural workers, the wretched new economic migrants.
Daniel (Matthew McNulty) still combines his post as the mill’s mechanical genius with his union work, a foot uneasily in both labour and management camps. Class solidarity is hard to come by, and one of the series’ strengths is that black and white, villain and hero, often blur into an ambiguous grey of divided sympathies, conflicting loyalties, conscience versus self-interest.
Dickens’s reassuring picture of ultimately triumphant middle-class virtues, aimed at just such a public seems uncomfortably unconvincing. The production avoids heritage picturesqueness. It has an occasionally claustrophobic authenticity: dark buildings, struggling people, bleak surroundings. The sense of social and economic change is well caught: the passionate belief in technical advances to solve all ills, expanding horizons combined with the uncertainty about outsiders (a freed slave provokes mixed reactions). Kerrie Hayes as the spirited millgirl with her own mind and iron will is tough, feisty and mischievous rather than conventionally charming; but one suspects charm from any quarter, masters or workers, was in short supply at Quarry Mill. Great things were afoot and Britain was changing into something unrecognisable. The new series catches the excitement and the pains.