All’s Fairer Sex in Love and War in ‘Land Girls: Series One’

[5 December 2010]

By Adrian Warren

A couple of years ago, it seems the BBC finally paid heed to an increasing chorus of calls from disgruntled daytime television viewers, whose frequent complaints accused broadcasters of commissioning off-peak programming that was lazy, repetitive and unimaginative.

Perhaps worst of all, daytime producers seemed to be catering to only very specific tastes. If you weren’t interested in Jerry Springer-style dirty laundry-airing and verbal jousting, celebrity obsessed magazine shows, incessant property development and home improvement programmes (probably not the most relevant genre to reflect the global economic recession), or rummaging through your late grandmother’s attic to look for knick-knacks to sell in provincial auction houses, you were largely out of luck.

There have been the odd exceptions amidst such slim daytime pickings: Moving On, a recent BBC offering, was an intelligent and thoughtful contemporary drama series executive produced by the excellent screenwriter Jimmy McGovern, and there are always classic film matinees and good quality imports to fill the void, but overall little home-grown product has been impressive.

So, in late 2009, along came Land Girls, a five-part series created to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the start of the Second World War, and the very first commission of a period drama by BBC One’s dedicated Daytime production team (to use its official moniker). Often guilty of purveying insipid contemporary afternoon drama such as Doctors, it became evident that BBC Daytime was serious about creating some high standard period entertainment when the cast list was first announced. Among the lead actors in Land Girls are the excellent Nathaniel Parker and Sophie Ward, both performers who are usually found appearing in major primetime entertainment series.

If the pedigree of several key cast members is indicative of the quality being invested in by the BBC, actually watching the whole series vindicates the suggestion that the corporation is striving to take daytime drama to a new level. Despite issuing appeasing protestations of frugality with licence payers’ money, it appears the BBC have nevertheless spent a reasonable budget on Land Girls, and it shows on screen: the production design, authentic costumes, lush orchestral score (by the Ivor Novello award-winning Debbie Wiseman), locations and technical credits are all impressive, and the series visually conveys England’s pastoral heritage excellently, often featuring beautiful bucolic scenes that stir the heart and bring Vaughan Williams momentarily to mind. Of course, these are all aesthetic embellishments to the main human drama, which despite being fairly engaging is also unfortunately prone to simplistic cliché and predictability.

Set during World War Two, the story concerns a core group of four British women who are thrust together at an English country estate called Hoxley—and its adjoining Pasture Farm—in order to serve their country as a part of The Women’s Land Army (WLA). The WLA, a real-life auxiliary female civilian unit, was dedicated to contributing to the war effort by supplying farmers and rural landowners with the staff required to replace the male workforce that had left to fight the war. Although the unit favoured women from the countryside, a fair number of monied town and city dwellers were also enlisted, which created an interesting and socially diverse environment. It is this dynamic which is drawn upon, and indeed becomes the backbone of Land Girls’ narrative, as the group adapts to their active service, one another, and the various figures of authority, whether that be their aristocratic landlords or their military superiors.

Unfortunately, although the characters’ differing personalities, back stories and various romantic entanglements are quite engrossing and supply the lion’s share of the drama, there is also a reasonable amount of hackneyed characterisation on display too, with some of the characters’ attributes seeming very familiar, generic and well-trodden, indeed.

For example, one of the new recruits, Nancy Morrell (Summer Strallen), is a stereotypically snooty fish-out-of-water city girl enlisted into the WLA against her will, who arrives expecting subservience from the locals, only to learn a few lessons in humility from them instead. Additionally, the local rural girls are largely portrayed as innocent, straightforward, and without agenda, particularly Bea (Jo Woodcock), whose acute naivety is irritating as opposed to appealing or touching.

The slightly patronising characterisation of the country folk extends to other figures too, and is perhaps best embodied by the chubby, affable and ruddy-faced hayseed Frederick Finch (Mark Benton), who bumbles good-naturedly around the place with his dirty shirt untucked, scheming, endearing and repelling in equal measure. Thankfully, Benton’s reliable comic timing is on top form, so the character manages to remain likable and welcome, despite being predictably slobby and inane.

Unsurprisingly, the pairing of Parker and Ward, as husband and wife of the manor, Lord and Lady Hoxley, offers the greatest display of acting chops. Parker, particularly, is a coup for the production; his smooth, swarthy, cultured and seemingly noble Lord Hoxley is entirely convincing, which is crucial to sustaining the conceit that Morrell is instantly drawn to him at their first encounter.

By contrast, Lady Hoxley is spiky, terse and intent on disguising from the world the fact that her marriage is an unhappy one. Despite Ward’s excellent performance, this scenario rather conveniently serves the screenwriters’ purposes, as it too explicitly creates the opportunity for Lord Hoxley’s eyes and affections to stray towards the attractive new recruit Morrell.

Bearing in mind its afternoon time slot and the period in which it is set, it’d be easy to pigeon-hole Lands Girls as a nostalgia marathon for the elderly, but its quiet charm and focus on relationships and romance should ensure its appeal spans generations. It’d certainly be slightly unfair to label Land Girls as a five-part soap opera, as the negative connotations of studio-bound histrionics and simplistic social intrigue don’t really apply here; Land Girls is far more expansive in scope, and even if it doesn’t always work, I admire the fact that its creative inspiration comes from loftier places than the usual pedestrian off-peak drama (and it was pleasing to see an occasional action sequence too; in the first few minutes of the opening episode, there’s a well-staged incident involving a strafing Messerschmitt attack, which features a real fighter aircraft and no CGI in sight - this represents a pretty unprecedented level of ambition for the traditionally bargain-budgeted arena of daytime programming).

That said, potentially the most interesting aspect of the series is sadly offered scant attention. Early on, an unusual subtext concerning the racial segregation of African-American soldiers based in the UK is introduced, and although tantalising, it’s never explored with any intelligence, so the issue is shoe-horned in and dealt with too succinctly and without subtlety. I suppose this is not at all surprising if the BBC wants to keep things relatively cosy, palatable, safe and untroubled by challenging political commentary, but it is nevertheless a little disappointing to have ‘dangled the carrot’, so to speak, and failed to deliver.

Despite a good audience share and a Best Drama award from the Royal Television Society, there was a minor negative furore during Land Girls’ initial broadcast, regarding the programme’s alleged historical inaccuracies (ironically, this adverse publicity probably helped viewing figures anyway); certain pedants noted that the uniforms of so-and-so wouldn’t have had, during that period, those particular epaulettes, or the fields wouldn’t have been ploughed during that month, and so on and blah-de-blah.

I’d argue that focussing on such trivialities is nitpicking, particularly when considering that compared to the brain-deadening Jeremy Kyle Show, Cash in the Attic, Homes Under The Hammer or Neighbours, Land Girls seems positively Shakespearean in its artistry. Be grateful for small mercies, folks.

On that note, and with the proverb ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ in mind, consider those generally awful daytime alternatives and thank goodness that BBC One has made a commitment to producing another series of this fairly satisfying drama, faults and all. These new episodes are currently in production and are due for broadcast sometime in 2011.

There were no extras on this 2-disc DVD set.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/134075-land-girls-series-one/