In a Land of Plenty
Wednesday, January 24, 2001 by Ian Jones
This time last year BBC2 were in the middle of screening their much-hyped adaptation of Gormenghast. It ended up falling way short of expectation. The supposedly breathtaking special effects just looked ludicrous on the small screen, while too many dreadful celebrities turned up to mutter one sentence before dying. It was an attempt by the Beeb at filming a supposedly unfilmable text just for the sake of it. One year on and we’re almost half way through the transmission of another supposedly unfilmable book on BBC2, but this time the results are blissfully different.
In a Land of Plenty is already one of the best pieces of drama on British television ever. It shares its refreshingly simple premise with another acclaimed BBC series, Our Friends in the North: following the fortunes of a group of characters over time. However this is not an original drama but an inspired treatment of a novel by Tim Pears, and focuses on a family rather than a group of friends.
The Freemans have already in just a few episodes lived through the late 1950s and the whole 1960s. The ageing father, a factory owner and mixed-up disciplinarian, has quickly lost his moody and compelling wife who sleepwalked out a window. Mary Freeman was stunningly acted by Helen McCrory, who cleverly depicted suffocation at marrying into such an inheritance and a mansion where her husband insisted on conceiving each child in a different room.
She was an important trigger for all kinds of conflicts and tension within the family; but her disappearance so early on hasn’t meant a paling in the series’ intensity, for now her four children have grown up enough to themselves become the focus of attention. In Simon, James, Robert and Alice we’re handed pretty obvious representations of different traits: ambition, introspection, strength and defiance. If this is all a bit formulaic, each is incredibly well acted by the youthful cast. The stand-out so far is Shane Fox as James – a demanding part, impressively played with a rare subtlety you find in actors in their teens.
Most of the action takes place in and around the sprawling house and grounds. The episodes are vividly photographed, turning the mansion into a world in itself where time passes – the furniture and decor change – but nobody notices. The series has so far sustained a powerful tone and atmosphere, one of allusion, mystery and misunderstanding. There are no neat resolutions or comeuppances, no characters seeking revenge or appeasing betrayal.
This avoidance of neat storyline signposts adds to the series’ distinct mood, which in turn is compounded by the way the scenes unfold and drift by at a slowness which is surely completely unique on contemporary television. Each episode must only have at best a dozen pages of dialogue; context and meaning are provided by beautifully shot sequences depicting through features and gestures what the family are feeling and thinking, and a stunning original soundtrack – one of the most tasteful and appropriate I’ve heard for a very long time.
Not that there aren’t evolving plot concerns and themes. Dad is running the factory and grooming his eldest son, Simon, to take over. All the kids are well into adolescence – both James and Robert are eyeing up the housekeeper’s daughter. Tragedy is mixed with wry humour: when Simon goes off to work in the factory, he has to first serve time down in the stores. Here he finds his superiors, who keep emerging, ruffled and out of breath, from a secret room. The time finally comes when Simon is to be “initiated” into this room – but it turns out to be simply a place where they all gather to play air guitar to Deep Purple.
Gormenghast was a bloated production gorged on pathetic special effects and blustering actors all out to upstage their colleagues and prance about with birds on their heads. In a Land of Plenty triumphs thanks to understatement, exceptional acting from a cast mainly of unknowns and bold and brave experimenting with image and language. It’s intriguing, extraordinary, desperately moving television, it’s running for 10 weeks, and it’s going to be the most incredible series the BBC have dared to make for many years.