The phrase was used lately in an article about The BBC's new period drama The Village, and again with the presumption that a story about "ordinary people" is something positive instead of a colossal bore. Well, you may ask, why shouldn't it be positive? Can't dramatic mileage be won by everyday lives? Possibly, but this is more sit-com than drama territory - after all, we are living everyday lives, and if there's no particular spin on the everyday I for my part do not see why I should have to watch it on the box as well. What's more, "ordinary people" is so often, as it seems to be here, code for "people living impossibly bleak and grim lives". In The Village, the story appears to center on a (naturally) dirt-poor farmer family where the husband drinks, the wife is long-suffering and the boys get beaten up. Sound like fun viewing to you?
I have to admit that there are other motives for my scepticism apart from my aversion to social history, also known as "history from below". It has, predictably, to do with how the series has been described to the public by various newspaper articles and reviews. Let me cite some of the phrases used: "debunking Downton", "the anti-Downton", "an antidote to Downton", "the real Downton Abbey" (as in telling it like it really was).
Poor Peter Moffat, the creator of the series. I'm pretty sure he didn't want his series to be a stick to beat Downton with at all (as transpires in an interview with The Sunday Times, he quite likes the show). What he wants to do sounds like an English version of Heimat, seeing the great events of the 20th century through the eyes of an entire small community. Supposedly, there are characters from all walks of life in this drama: even the "big house" residents are said to get a look in. Nevertheless, after all that media guff about how real and raw and unlike Downton the series is, one can't expect a devoted Downton fan like myself to feel very warmly towards it. I wonder what part the BBC plays in all of this. They already did an "anti-Downton", didn't they? There was Parade's End, an inert drama with a polished script where well-known actors were given little to do playing characters you didn't care about - it doesn't get more anti-Downton than that. And now, here's another drama that's supposed to crush its lightweight ITV rival with its worthiness. I certainly hope this isn't a conscious sales pitch on behalf of the Beeb, because it is a seriously rubbish one. True, all the viewers - and there are quite a few - who loathe Downton will be dying to give The Village a go. But the 120 million of us around the world who watched and loved the period-drama hit of the decade won't.
One of my favourite film quotes is from The Sound of Music, when Maria explains her terrible dress to the Captain: "The poor didn't want this one". I suppose it could be used as an argument in favour of stories like The Village: "the poor" are individuals, not a grey mass, and human passions are the same in hovels as they are in castles. On the other hand, this quip highlights that drabness is not generally appreciated, not even - or especially not - by those who have to put up with a great deal of it in their life. If The Village turns out to be too muddy and depressing, it may well become the period drama that the poor didn't want.