The Casual Vacancy

There was a scene in the first episode of The Casual Vacancy in which a junkie mother lay slumped in a heroin haze while her infant son played perilously close to her discarded needles. It was, it’s fair to say, about as far from the gosh-wow fantasy world of Harry Potter as it’s possible to get.

In other ways, though, this BBC/HBO adaptation of JK Rowling’s first novel for adults feels as divorced from reality as a term at Hogwarts. And deliberately so: Pagford – the honeyed stone rural idyll at the heart of the story – appears to exist in a drowsy, almost dreamlike summer haze, with the camera wont to stray away from the action to linger on, say, a trapped wasp, while the disorientating space-rock soundtrack is quite at odds with the pastoral strings of most BBC dramas.

The Casual Vacancy, then, is setting out its stall as something a bit different from the usual Sunday night fare. The tone is odd, to say the least: many of the village scenes have a cartoonish, Tom Sharpe feel to them (“Remember the tomato blight of ’97? Carnage!” bellows Michael Gambon’s blimpish parish council chairman) but, in its depiction of the tensions between Pagford and the grim outlying council estate, it’s clearly trying to say something serious about inequality and the class divide.

Gambon’s venal Howard Mollison – Dumbledore he ain’t – and his wife Shirley (Julia McKenzie), see it as their mission to pull up the drawbridge and keep the barbarian hordes at bay, and their scheme to turn the village community centre into an exclusive spa receives an unexpected boost when a sudden death opens up a vacancy on the council. Mollison wants his milksop son Miles (Rufus Jones) to take the seat, much to the disgust of Samantha (Keeley Hawes), Miles’ sexually frustrated wife and owner of the village fetish shop. But the deceased’s sadistic monster of a brother also has his eye on the prize.

Screenwriter Sarah Phelps likens Rowling’s story to a Dickensian fable, and with its occasionally awkward mix of comic grotesques and burning sense of social injustice, that’s probably as good a touchstone as any. It’s certainly a lot closer to Dickens than it is those books about that wizard kid.

  

TV extra: 

Indian Summers

Channel 4’s epic new 10-parter about the dying days of the British Raj can’t help but draw comparisons with The Jewel in the Crown, A Passage to India et al. And on the evidence of the first episode, it fully deserves its place at that particular table. Sumptuously shot in Malaysia – the small screen has rarely looked more cinematic – this turbulent mix of colonial tensions, forbidden love and political intrigue in the lush foothills of the Himalayas looks like £14 million well spent.

Vic and Bob’s House of Fools

From the Good Life-riffing titles to the live studio audience, House of Fools may masquerade as a trad sitcom, but it’s really just the latest showcase for Reeves and Mortimer’s patented brand of whimsical scattershot nonsense. Highlights of this week’s second series opener included a conversation about ‘the birds and the biscuits’ with Bob’s Norwegian son Erik, a truly filthy sight gag involving Owen Wilson’s nose, a dig about ‘Ted Sheeran’, several musical numbers and, of course, a fight with pans. It’s maddeningly inconsistent, but never less than watchable.

 

Published in Waitrose Weekend, February 19, 2015

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