Lark Rise To Candleford
Writer and Executive Producer,
Bill Gallagher, writes...
"In her wonderful evocation of Victorian life, Flora Thompson writes that the people she grew up with "had never lost the secret of being happy on little". In our age of frenetic appetite, that seemed to me to be something worth dramatising.
"What struck me first about the books was how they are teeming with wonderful characters and anecdotes. I knew immediately that this was crying out not to be the familiar four-part dramatisation of a classic novel, but to be a distinctive Sunday night long-running drama series. There's just so much going on in the three books that episode stories come tumbling off the pages thick and fast.
"What also struck me as uniquely appealing was that this was not a depiction of one community, but two. And how different they are! Whilst Lark Rise is gently holding onto the past, Candleford is busily bustling into the future.
"From this difference comes the conflict that is a never-ending source of dramatic stories, comic incident and torn relationships. Caught between these two worlds is Laura (Olivia Hallinan), a 16-year-old hamlet girl who goes to work in the Candleford Post Office when the arrival of another mouth to feed in her family means that she, the oldest, must leave.
"Lark Rise is poverty-stricken, life-loving and proud of its rural identity. Life here is spontaneous – they're always ready to have a knees-up and "a bit of a tune" – and they are earthy.
"People make their meagre living off the land. Sometimes hunger bites. Sometimes a bit of poaching is called for. But the books remind us of other lost arts ... like Spadgering, the catching of sparrows in nets for roasting, or the making of delicious puddings.
"Candleford, on the other hand, is impatiently improving itself. Commerce is burgeoning. Status and appearances matter. The windows of the local stores are packed with silk dresses and fine, hand-made shoes. The pursuit of modernity is nowhere more evident than in the Post Office, in an age of rapidly growing communications.
"The contrast between these two places can be amusing, touching or often absurd ... but the pace of change can throw up cutting human dilemmas, like the first showdown in the series when the two communities fall out over the cost of a telegram.
"This kind of thing matters when news of a long-lost brother's serious illness gets lost amongst Post Office regulations. Tensions spill over into open hostility, and Laura – newly arrived in Candleford – finds herself caught in the crossfire.
"Having found the form for the series, my main problem was how to people it. The difficulty was what and who to leave out! Lark Rise To Candleford is bursting with great characters.
"Laura herself is a delightful combination of simple country girl, feisty, intelligent and courageous, but – most endearingly – she's insightful in ways that separate her. She loves the world she comes from, but she is outgrowing it fast as she makes her way into adulthood. And her parents know this ... that, as much as the pressing hardship they live under, is why they sent her out into the world.
"Laura's parents, Emma and Robert (Claudie Blakley and Brendan Coyle) are proud and generous people ... sometimes too proud, and sometimes too generous. Robert's idea of "the fellowship of man" leads him to bring tramps he finds in a ditch into his home.
"Caroline Arless (Dawn French) is larger than life in every way – she loves to throw up her skirts and dance, she spends every penny she has on "feathering the foam" ... and some pennies she doesn't have, too. Her zest for life is winning and often funny, but debtors' prison is waiting for those who can't keep up.
"Queenie and Twister (Linda Bassett and Karl Johnson) keep the hamlet in touch with a still-older way of life, one of bee-keeping, mead-making and eggling. It is a life informed by superstition, but also with hard-won understanding of the canny ways of survival.
"Candleford's taste for the finer life gives its inhabitants an attitude. Zillah (Liz Smith), the Post Office's crabby, gossipy old maid, warns Laura: "You're in Candleford now, girl. This is not a farm yard!"
"Thomas (Mark Heap) the pious postman, demands of her: "Are you a Christian?" And the aloof and pretentious Pratt sisters (Matilda Zieger and Victoria Hamilton) proprietors of The Stores, look down their noses and caution the little country girl: "Be sure and don't touch anything in our shop."
"And then there is Dorcas Lane (Julia Sawalha) the Post Mistress, a woman ahead of her time, at the hub of the community, with a wry and provocative sense of humour. With a taste for idiosyncratic luxuries – warm rain water baths, buttermilk face-wash – Dorcas is over-fond of meddling in her neighbours' affairs. Her own life – her own love life – is not as simple as it first appears.
"The Post Office itself is an important character in the make-up of the show: full of life, reaching out into the wider world, and bringing to it the foibles and frailties of the locals, not just of the town but of the surrounding countryside.
"As a writer, that journey from script to screen can be fraught with disappointments, compromises and frustrations ... and, of course, a fair share of surprises and delights. We have a cast to die for, great performances in abundance, but one of the greatest boons came from the toughest challenge.
"Having written the two communities we then had to find them. Not easy, given the demands of a long-running series and its heavy schedule. Two pieces of brilliance gave us the answer.
"The first came from Nicolas Brown, director of BBC Drama Production. He simply said: "Why don't we build them?" The second came with designer Malcolm Thornton (Our Mutual Friend). From a few farm buildings, Malcolm has created the most extraordinary world. Two worlds!
"Everyone who walks onto those sets is taken aback, not just by the authenticity and the loving detail, but the beauty of it. In the detail, in that beauty is the evocation of what Flora Thompson gave us in her love letter to a vanished corner of rural England."