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Stepping back in time for drama and documentary

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: August 03, 2013

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Monty Python's Flying Circus sprang to mind while watching Channel 4's new Sunday night historical drama, The Mill. In one sketch Graham Chapman enters a Victorian parlour to announce "there's trouble at t'mill..."

But it doesn't take the Spanish Inquisition to reveal that the trouble at this mill is that this is an extremely dull but worthy drama.

The script was, apparently, based on contemporary accounts of life in a 19th century mill, Quarry Bank in Cheshire and the programme was actually filmed there.

At the height of the Industrial Revolution it was once part of one of the largest cotton spinning businesses in the country.

Today the property is in the care of the National Trust and serves to remind us of the price paid for progress by ordinary mill workers.

Mill owners Samuel and Hannah Greg (Donald Sumpter and Barbara Marten) and trying to balance the need for profit and the necessity to get the most out of their workforce which includes many young girls and children.

Their son, Robert (Jamie Draven), is determined to drive the business forward employing young engineer Daniel Bate (Matthew McNulty) to keep the equipment in prime condition.

Conditions are harsh at the mill – one young lad loses a hand when it becomes caught up in the belt of a machine. For the girls, there are other perils – particularly the lecherous attentions of foreman Charlie Crout (Craig Parkinson).

It's a hard knock life at t'mill. On the face of it the young workforce have bed and board rather than living in the workhouse. But the hours are long and the work is perilous and arduous.

For all its worthy intent – the words of the rebellious Esther (Kerrie Hayes) are her own – it lacks the kind of Dickensian edge that would make it really compelling.

You can take historical events and turn them into appealing TV – take BBC One's The White Queen, for example.

Or take Caligula with Mary Beard, (BBC2, Monday). The Roman emperor had a terrible hangover and was heading for an afternoon bath in AD41 when he was attacked by soldiers. Stabbed 30 times, the 28-year-old Caligula was dead. Rome's third emperor had been in power for less than four years.

It is a story of "intrigue, murder and dynastic power", says Mary.

I'm hooked. And we haven't even had the credits yet.

This Cambridge Classics professor knows her stuff, but also brings the story to life in a populist, but not dumbed down way.

There is the legend of the emperor who made his horse a senator, slept with virgins, young boys, other men's wives and even his three sisters.

"If we were making a porn movie, Roman-style, we'd be bound to cast Caligula in the lead," says Mary.

Instead Mary gives us a real sense of who the man was. Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was the nephew of the Emperor Tiberius and Caligula was a childhood nickname meaning "Little Boots" or "Bootikins". It was a nickname he came to despise in later life.

But he had a tragic history. A father and two brothers murdered and his mother starved to death.

"The closer you were to power, the harder it was to survive," says Mary.

Caligula, in sort, had become a byword for "sexual excess and perversion".

He was a psychopath and one of Rome's biggest villains, but the truth is some way from the over-the-top TV and film portrayals. There is some element of fact in the legend of Caligula but Mary Beard wanted to show us "not just the monster, but the men".

It certainly made for fascinating and entertaining television.

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