It has almost become a new blood sport to bait the BBC for its perceived failings. Left and right, Christian and atheist, lovers of Terry Wogan and those of Chris Evans, it seems hardly anyone is content with the organisation we were once happy to call ‘Auntie.’ And ten minutes hate is no different. Except that, being particularly sensitive to historical revisionism, I count expunging the records of some of this country’s most radical writers to be amongst the Beeb’s greatest misdeeds. Half-comatose on the sofa this Yuletide, unable to muster even the energy required to battle with an Aged Relative for the remote control, it was my misfortune to watch some truly insipid programming. My disappointment was made much the greater because of a betrayal of works which should leap as boldly from the screen as they did from the page before they had the choice meats of their stories reduced to a spam sandwich of an adaptation. At first glance, Cranford and Lark Rise to Candleford would not, I am sure, strike you as being hot-beds of radical thought. In fact, I am certain that you saw them in the schedules and thought ‘Oh no, another bloody historical drama of no significance to me in my 21st century battle to keep the wolf from the door, the central heating bills paid and the snow from blocking the driveway.’ But you would be wrong, dear reader, you would be very wrong.
The writer of Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell, was no romance writer. She counted amongst her friends some of the most important thinkers of her day and was herself no slouch in the brains department. Her books were not set in some sleepy, picturesque hamlet but in the North West of England, at that time the crucible of the Industrial Revolution, home to ‘dark, satanic mills’ and the people who manned the machinery within them. She was no passive observer of the rich-poor divide but passionate in her support for education and other means to bridge that gap and outspoken in her fears for the future if it was not reduced.
John Barton, trade unionist and Chartist father of Mary, is a typical Gaskell character; mourning his wife and son he first forbids his daughter from working in a factory and is eventually reduced to extreme action by the poverty and inequality surrounding him. Barbara Cartland territory, it is not. Instead her tales are firmly rooted in the city where troops once fired on peaceful protesters, where a local girl founded the first Suffragette society and where conditions prompted two Germans to write books that would change the course of history.
Because, before it gave us evil football franchises and the near-nightly hysteria of Corrie:
Manchester changed the world’s politics: from vegetarianism to feminism to trade unionism to communism, every upstart notion that ever got ideas above its station… was fostered brawling in Manchester’s streets, mills, pubs, churches and debating halls
That eulogy from ‘Pies and Prejudice’, Stuart Maconie’s excellent tribute to all things Northern.
Admittedly, Cranford is set a little distance away from the belch and smoke of the factories and mills, but not too far: it is based on Knutsford in Cheshire, where Gaskell grew up. Cranford is an adept skewering of the attitudes of those who are not as close to the top of society as they would like to be and just a few slips or financial missteps away from the bottom. The ladies of Cranford would sooner die than admit to poverty and work hard at maintaining their values of ‘elegant economy.’ However, to think of them as the idle rich would be a mistake. The mills of ‘Drumble’, the Manchester stand-in, loom on the horizon ‘distant but only twenty miles on a railroad.’
By contrast, although Flora Thompson, writer of Lark Rise to Candleford, did set her stories in a sleepy, picturesque hamlet, she was no writer of cosy, bucolic romances either. Writing from a perspective of 40 years after the events she was recording allowed her tales to demonstrate the seismic changes to a rural life previously anchored by the same seasonal events throughout generations. Mechanisation, better communication and urban expansion were to alter the countryside of Thompson’s childhood beyond the imagining of most of its inhabitants.
These changes were faithfully recorded and the stories shaped by Thompson’s background because, unlike many of the rural chroniclers, she was a member of the working class. Her father was a labourer in possession of thwarted dreams of becoming a sculptor and an interest in radical politics which occasionally made him unpopular with the neighbours. Some of her first stories and poems were printed in the socialist Daily Citizen. Instead of going off into service like so many of her peers, she began working for the local postmistress, a career woman with some daring ideas by the standards of the time, who would lend the young Flora ‘On the Origin of Species’ by that other higher thinker, Darwin.
For the characters of these two unconventional writers to be reduced to bonnets, forelock-tugging and ‘yes ma’am’-ing for a sleepy, Sunday audience is a travesty. The firebrands on the page are now simple creatures, homespun and happy with their allotted status in life. Perhaps the powers-that-be are hoping that a little of it will rub off on any potential modern day troublemakers? The nineteenth century saw a deluge of ideas in politics, science and literature alongside improvements in education, health and living standards. Ordinary people fought for, and gained, lasting social reforms that we enjoy the benefit of today, perhaps less valued as we don’t recall the manner of their winning. It is a shame and we are left all the poorer for this two dimensional view of life in that vibrant and radical time.