New ITV series set in Kent
The Larkins, a reboot of the 1990s TV series The Darling Buds of May, set in a village in Kent in the 1950s, has just started showing on Sunday evenings on ITV. Both are based on the 1950s popular stories by H E Bates who lived all his married life in Little Chart, a village just outside Ashford.
The Darling Buds of May was filmed at Pluckley, not far from there. This remake has used locations in Eynsford (near Dartford), West Peckham, and Underriver, in rural west Kent.
The stories are about Pop and Ma, said to be inspired by a trader whom Bates once spotted in a local shop with wads of cash buying dollops of treats (ice-cream) for his numerous children back in a caravan. Bates repositioned this family as local farmers, devouring pies and custard, while defying local snobberies, and also engaging in various trickster activities.
My childhood was in a village near Pluckley. So why did I hate this drama of village life? Is it that I am po-faced about anything that makes a mockery of the traditions of 70 years ago? I do not think so, because I enjoy TV comedy, such as Yes, Minister or The Good Life that satirises certain social classes.
Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be
The critic in The Independent, who also hated episode one of The Larkins, condemns the trend in “nostalgia” for entertainment, including in the list even Call the Midwife, of which I am a huge fan. I lived in Poplar shortly after the nuns and midwives moved out, and in fact people often asked if I was a midwife, as I cycled around with a large basket.
Call the Midwife makes a serious attempt to follow the social history of the period and the location, with the early years of the NHS, the thalidomide crisis, and the residents being gradually shifted out of appalling slums and into the new high-rise buildings.
No attempt at social history
But The Larkins just presents caricatures to laugh at, and probably economised on the social research.
The other village characters in the cast appearing in episode one are:
- Sir George Bluff-Gore and wife;
- A retired brigadier and his wife;
- Miss Edith Pilchester, a spinster;
- Reverend Spink, the local vicar.
Also appearing in these early scenes are:
- The local primary school headmistress;
- A local fairground youth (love interest?);
- An estate agent and his wife;
- A tax-inspector who appears right at the end.
All these are plausible characters that one might find in a village at that period.
A remarkable feature of this re-boot is the number of characters played by minority ethnic actors. But it grated that some of them were played by minority ethnic actors: the brigadier and his wife, and the headmistress, were played by Indians, with excellent acting, meticulously imitating the tics of the educated upper class of southern England. The estate agent looks multi-racial, while the tax-inspector is a handsome black man, with British-born accent. All highly unlikely in a 1950s village in rural Kent.
In my own childhood experience, there was only one minority ethnic family in the village, a hospital doctor from South India. One saw Caribbean people either on London buses or in the hospitals, not in rural Kent.
But how important is historical accuracy in a rollicking comedy that makes fun of everything ?
Mixed casting or miscasting?
To demand that drama should be based on period verisimilitude may deny roles and acting jobs to numerous excellent minority ethnic actors. I like the fact the Call the Midwife features realistic characters from Jamaica, and has had episodes based on the early Bengali families who settled in Poplar, scripts that follow known social history.
I also have no problem with black actors playing Shakespeare, for example the famous Macbeth staged by a Zulu troupe in London of the early 1970s, or more recently the black Hamlet. But I would flinch from black actors in Jane Austen, or the Brontes, if I am totally honest.
Our past intrudes
Trying to analyse why I am disturbed by this sociocultural mismatch in this recreated 1950s Kent village captures my fascination. I think it is that once slavery clouded European perceptions of human interactions, from about 1700 until about the 1980s, one cannot help the 1950s “colour barrier” intruding on interpretation of the plot.
It was definitely there then, so are we now ignoring it?
So it will be interesting to see how this version of a Kent village in 1950s interprets the love affair and then marriage of Marietta, eldest daughter of Pops, to the black tax inspector. It seems to me to be imposing the (much needed) racial tolerance of the more mixed 21st century British society, backwards to the tight social categories of the 1950s.
Pop: a feminist point of view
Then to come on to the depiction of Pop and his family. Ma is aptly a caricature of a plump 1950s housewife – her role is in the kitchen. Pop is affectionate: there are plentiful moments of the couple fondling in bed, as befits late weekend TV drama. But Pop is basically sexist in his treatment of wife and daughters, in spite of some sympathy with Marietta’s wish to escape the village and lead an independent life.
These stories are basically a male dream: adventures outside the home outwitting other males, and inside the home coming back to dollops of food and sex in bed. Pop is not an honest farmer: he engages in various tricks for gain.
A fifties Falstaff
In this way, he resembles Shakespeare’s Falstaff, played by a fat clown and hugely popular with Tudor audiences. Freudians would dub such characters as representing the “id”, the naughty part of our psyche that defies the moralising control of the ego.
Pop’s characteristics are those of the traveller whom H E Bates spotted in the local shop: cash-happy, probably criminal, but delightfully generous and keen on the good life for himself and family. The joke is in attaching these characteristics to a Kent farming family.
Real farming is serious
These are not serious farmers. The daughter rides the lanes looking glamorous (and without helmet) on her horse, but we don’t see her mucking out the stable. We see the tractor ploughing a furrow, but at the wrong time of year, in mid-summer, when haymaking usually coincides with church fêtes. And at that fête – lots of tombola but not enough cakes for a true Kent village fête.
I just don’t think the social research was thorough enough. Or perhaps the film-makers just wanted to defy convention.
The character of the local vicar, a swearing gossipy fellow, is a joke against the established church. The quarrel at the fête over who is to wear the red coat of the Master of the Hounds, with the ridiculous procedure of electing a Master at a church fête, totally confuses two different systems of hierarchy.
Not giving up just yet
So, am I just so offended by these jokes against outmoded village norms that I will just not watch the rest of the series?
I will probably tune in again, as I am fascinated by how the minority ethnic actors, and the script writers, deal with the challenge of putting present-day multi-cultural British norms into a plot and characters conceived 70 years ago.