Bob's Little Escapist Vice: Lark Rise to Candleford

May 5, 2020

Note to readers: This article is a fluffy feature and possibly a complete waste of your time. But it is, anyway, not about COVID-19.


I'm too good for television.


That's snotty and snobbish and anchored at the core of my being, ever since I was a sophomore at UGA and a professor referred to me and my classmates as "the TV generation." I treated that with the contempt it deserved. What else could you expect from a fossil of 40? I was learning about Socrates, reading novels in French and living in cool student digs in the town where we didn't even have a TV. Television was unhip, lowbrow and old-person. (Anyway, who could afford one?)


Later on, I figured out that what the professor had meant was that we were the first crop of kids raised with televisions in the house and it had changed our basic grasp of reality. He was quite right. For all my would-be intellectualism, I knew as well as anyone else my age that the only cure for amnesia caused by being bonked on the head by a coconut was to get bonked on the head by another coconut. My professor and his pre-Gilligan compeers had grown up deprived of that basic tenet of trauma therapy.


Over the years since then I've thought a lot about modern concepts of reality and I expect I've beaten the subject to death in these pages. One of the reasons I call this little place we live the center of the universe is to battle the conviction I've noticed around me that reality is something that's going on somewhere else. That's something I think we learned from TV, right up there with the coconut.


TV showed us important news happenings that were happening importantly someplace else, with the accompanying implication that nothing was quite as important if it happened here and if we saw it with our own eyes. It also showed us more attractive versions of reality in dramas about housewives with magic noses, nuns who could fly and people who looked great in Spandex and flew around the universe in starships. People on the tube talked in one-liners. Fathers knew best. Insurmountable problems were cleared up in 30 minutes. No one was even fat.


It was impossible not to notice that the world we actually lived in was inferior and uglier, and I think by the grass-is-always-greener principle we eventually extrapolated it was also less "real." "Real people" lived in that glamorous world the tube showed us while, poor us!, we were stuck here on the wrong side of the screen with our hick parents who made horrible slurping noises and groans of ecstasy as they drank their stupid coffee. Our house didn't have a swimming pool and our life didn't have a soundtrack.


Later, of course, I figured out that all that was back-assward, that this was reality and everything about TV was fake, up to the skyline behind the anchors on the news shows.


Anyway! Age and experience have humbled me and I'm not as snotty as I was in college, but I still hate television! When I walk into a restaurant where one is on I feel like taking a baseball bat to it. I can say with pride I've never seen a reality TV show but I bet it's worse than the regular flavor. (Anyway the term is an oxymoron.)


As for television news, well! Lately I've learned to hate the phrase "fake news" but I think what comes out of the flickering box should have labels like food does, as in "processed cheese food" to show it's not really cheese and not really food. At the very least it needs to be labeled "Lite." Once a local TV news reporter called me for a rundown on an issue I had reported on in the local print newspaper for months that turned into years. It was dense and convoluted and I said, "How long have you got to work on it?" He said, "Until 2 p.m. this afternoon." He presented his three-minute story on the 6 o'clock news and you can imagine what a bang-up job he made of it.


But enough of this! It's all just a shamefaced lead-in to what I now offer you: A television show.


Some of my FOFs (friends on Facebook) have offered as comfort during the COVID-19 lockdown videos of themselves reading poems, playing the piano, singing uplifting songs. I wanted to offer some comfort, too, and I'm afraid this really is the best I could do. Inadequate as it looks now, I thought I'd better go ahead and churn it on out before the quarantine ends altogether. I'd have it out earlier but I kept getting interrupted by more COVID-19 news!


At my house we don't have actual  live TV but we do stream Netflix or Hulu shows for entertainment. My consumption falls into two categories: Mixed-company stuff with spaceships and FBI investigations I watch with my spouse as an alternative to dinner conversation (I'm sure others have noticed how shelter-in-place has concentrated the marital experience); then girl-type-stuff I watch alone while I cop some after-supper exercise on my beat-up old treadmill. This program I'm fixin' to tell you about, Lark Rise to Candleford, falls into the girlier category.


I happened onto Lark Rise on Hulu after I ran out of BBC's Marple, which is a series of fairly modern adaptations of the Agatha Christie mysteries. Those were wonderful wonderful wonderful, and I didn't know where to turn when I'd eaten them all up. Hulu suggests other shows its algorithms apparently consider similar to what you've already watched, and I sampled one episode apiece of some serious dogs. What's interesting is that we don't have a monopoly in America--the English can produce television just as insulting, crass and mindless as ours.


I thought Lark Rise, also by BBC, was going to be another no. You could see right off it had great costumes and sets--nobody does period pieces like the BBC--but it seemed a little sweet for the likes of me, a little, you know, twee. It's set in 1880-something in the achingly beautiful English countryside, and it centers around the inhabitants of the tiny village of Lark Rise and the bigger town of Candleford. There's a burly blacksmith, a woman who talks to her bees and any number of cheerful rustic villagers who work in the fields, attend harvest festivals and learn an important life lesson every episode. "God bless us every goddam one," I muttered above the chug of the ancient treadmill.


But I didn't have anything else to watch, I wanted to finish my half hour of exercise and I left it on. Fast-forward a week or two and I was a hopeless, slobbering addict. I'm binge-watching into season 3 as we speak.


Perhaps there's something about this strange time we're living through that makes a girl want to wallow in an earlier one. Or maybe I like the show because its country setting seems to me rife with analogies to our own. Or hell, maybe it's just the clothes. Anyway, I'm just finishing the second season and I thought I'd offer it to you if you hadn't heard of it yet.


The  story centers around the adventures of young Laura Timmins when she leaves tiny Lark Rise at 16--there's a new baby in the house and the family needs more room--to go to work in the Candleford post office, where her mother's cousin, Dorcas Lane, is postmistress.


(Photo: Miss Lane and Laura)


Post offices in Victorian times were, apparently, private property and Miss Lane inherited hers from her father, who was postmaster before her. Her position means that Miss Lane--who of course becomes Laura's mentor-- is, even in a pre-feminist England, a woman of some clout and influence in the town. Luckily, she is also wise, kind and devoted to the well-being of all her postal patrons, both the townspeople of Candleford and the villagers of Lark Rise, between whom there are various levels of rivalry depending on the vagaries of the current plot.


The post office property also includes the village forge and that's how Miss Lane happens to have her a blacksmith. She, he, Laura, Thomas Brown the pious postman and Zillah, the cranky old maid-of-all work who is replaced in season 2 by Minnie, the airheaded young maid-of-all-work, all live together in a cozy little ménage that stretched my willing suspension of disbelief a bit thin at the beginning. This is the Victorian Age, where they covered up piano legs for propriety's sake, and Miss Lane is living with a blacksmith? Read any women's fiction at all and you'll know that blacksmiths are right up there with gamekeepers on the Victorian suggestiveness scale. Big muscled arms, black leather jerkins, all that metal, these guys have got it going on, even without an eyepatch.


But maybe the BBC writers themselves felt they had gone a little far with the blacksmith because they never did much with him and he disappears without comment by the second season. Anyway, he didn't figure as a romantic interest for either Laura or Miss Lane. Instead, Laura starts being courted by the squire's under-gamekeeper--we knew there'd be a gamekeeper in there somewhere, didn't we, girls?--and we begin to see by about midway through season one that Miss Lane and the village squire, Sir Timothy, are helplessly in love.


Photo: The Squire and Lady Adelaide


"Love never crosses the great divide of social class," Miss Lane was told by her postmaster father, and thus she turned down Sir T's proposal when they were young, a decision they both now regret bitterly. Now their love is further thwarted by Sir Timothy's subsequent acquisition of a suitably aristocratic bride, the luminously beautiful Lady Adelaide.


I had mixed feelings about all this. Read any women's fiction at all you and you won't buy that crap about the great divide of social class. Remember Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. (Reader, she married him!) But I was not completely impervious to an episode in which The Definition of Love, a poem about parallel lives that may never touch despite frustrated passion, meant to be shared by Thomas Brown the pious postman and Miss Ellison, the pastor's oppressed daughter, is misdelivered to Sir Timothy. The viewer then watches the yearning and pain of Sir Timothy and Miss Lane as, separately, they both read the beautiful lines. Well, I always was a sucker for Andrew Marvell.


Come to that, I think probably the reason I like Lark Rise to Candleford is that I wasted my parents' money and four years of college studying books instead of anything useful and I'm a sucker for literature in general. Lark Rise's dialogue is like something from a 19th-century novel. "Sometimes, when a telegram comes containing bad news, I see in my mind's eye the person for whom it is destined and I feel I am the agent of some terrible destruction," muses Miss Lane in one episode. Thomas Brown the pious postman says in another: "Miss Lane, I find myself in such a state of ill temper, I feel I must remove myself before I say something unchristian."


Photo: Thomas Brown and Miss Ellison

In some class I took on the Victorians it was said that Charles Dickens' characters are all "flat" or one-dimensional as opposed to "round" or real, so that they can be summed up in one sentence, like Mrs. Micawber's, "I will never abandon Mr. Micawber" or Uriah Heep's "We are very numble people." A lot of the Lark Rise to Candleford characters are like that. Thomas is prissily devout and at one point insists on confessing to Miss Lane that, overcome by the moment, he disgraced his uniform by kissing Miss Ellison in the post office. Miss Lane, who is of course a more complicated character, replies: "Thomas, if you feel that you have disgraced your uniform by kissing Miss Ellison, may I suggest that the next time you intend to kiss her, you take it off?"


But Lark Rise plays the one-dimensional thing for laughs, pretty much the way they did it in Gilligan's Island--remember when millionaire Mr. Howell has something wet on his forehead, and has to have Mrs. Howell identify it as "perspiration?" So I'm not really complaining. In some episodes characters get to stretch and grow as a result of plot twists--usually only to snap back to themselves in the next episode but again, I'm not criticizing. An episode about the elder Miss Pratt and her married admirer was cartoonishly funny. One moment Miss Pratt is strolling along under her parasol, telling Constable Patterson coquettishly, "Your knowledge of the local flora is unsurpassed"; the next she dives into the shrubbery like Bugs Bunny as she spots someone she knows. (Constable Patterson has fallen adulterously in love with Miss Pratt after he sees her dispatching a harvest mouse with one mighty blow of her fireside poker, remarking matter-of-factly: "A tedious addendum to provincial life."  


I haven't told you about the Pratts yet. Pearl and Ruby are seamstress sisters who run the dress shop in Candleford and their Dickens sentence would probably be something like, "Get your filthy thieving children out of our shop." They are not initially portrayed very lovingly though of course with time they fill out some and become more sympathetic.


But what is irresistible about the Pratts is: clothes. Presumably as an advertisement for their sewing, or as the uniform of their shop, Pearl and Ruby always dress exactly alike. This means that in every segment, you not only get another extravagant purple Victorian creation complete with feathered hat, you get two of 'em. Sometimes the Pratts even have a costume change during the episode.


There are 10 years between Pearl and Ruby so that the meaner villagers sometimes make snide comments about "mutton dressed as lamb" and "lamb dressed as mutton." But in an episode when Pearl was trying to help Ruby hook a husband, though Ruby got a lovely blue silk dress out of it I was relieved when Pearl's plot failed and the sisters went back to their identical plumage. Anyway, as Ruby summed it up in conclusion: "If we'd married and he'd come to live with us, we should never have got rid of him."


Well, I'm carrying on about the Pratts too much. There are other great characters. One of the Lark Rise villagers is Mrs. Arless, who is fat and feckless and spends the family's grocery money on beer. Naturally I identified. 


Then there's Laura's father, Robert Timmins, a stonemason with extravagant liberal notions such as the right of the common man to dignity, education and a living wage. Meanwhile the vicar lectures that knowing one's place is God's plan and the other villagers vote the way the squire tells them, consider Robert's ideas dangerous and radical, and rigidly oppose any change to the oppressive and unfair social structure that keeps them illiterate, impoverished and virtually enslaved. Reckon why anybody who lives here would identify with old Robert? 


But I present Lark Rise as an escape from the all-pervasive sense of impending doom (APSOID, my spouse has dubbed it) engendered by the global pandemic; let us not degenerate into a discussion of the other bane of this annus horribilis, politics. 


The Lark Rise crew are in varying degrees believable as ignorant rustic villagers. There's one who bears an uncanny resemblance to a Jewish dental student from New York I knew in maybe 1982, but everybody else looks the part (except more attractive, just the way it's done in American TV). Perhaps in the interest of being understandable they don't particularly talk like it, though. I gather most English actors started out doing Shakespeare and that's how they still sound to me. They make one concession to ignorant rustic peasanthood: an exaggerated swallowing of Ts, so they say things like:


"Lih ul Laura, you should have known beh uh. You're in hot wah uh now." 


 But mostly they forget to do it and anyway Hulu offers great subtitles.    


What else do I want to tell you about the show? I guess that the dialogue is just so great, I kept stopping the treadmill to jot bits of it down until I realized I was going to write this review. Mrs. Arless, after she has fallen prey to a scheme to save on beer by buying by the keg, and narrowly avoided debtors' prison, vows solemnly: "Ale will not pass my lips, and I shall not live beyond my means. I will greet life with gratitude and humility from now on." And here's what Pearl Pratt told Ruby after they had both had the same dream.


"Dreams are not contagious, Ruby. it was merely your mention of this grotesque business that has disturbed my mental equipoise."


I don't remember if this was the same episode that a ragged gypsy girl keeps showing up barefoot in the snow and saying, "The wind do blow" (as if practicing it for her Dickens sentence) until it's clear to everybody she's a ghost. That sounds like a bit much for a realistic drama but you can get away with something like that in a show set in the 19th century. I loved that one. 


But back to dialogue. I believe it was Robert Timmins speaking to the gypsy girl who said this one that I wrote down: "Meanin' no offense, Miss, I ain't one for the likes of omens and prophecies."


And I believe it was Queenie the beekeeper who said, so often that you'd think it was going to be her Dickens sentence: "I shall be singing The Tragical Ballad of Lily Lyle, sure to bring a tear to any eye that hears it." That was early on, when I was still thinking Too twee for me. That was twee all right but also kind of funny.


I think what kept me watching, though, was the frisson of recognition I had hearing the tragical ballad of Lily Lyle.  The episodes are sporadically voice-over narrated by an older Laura, and what she said at the end of that one was something about how the villagers' way of life, even to the songs they sang, was soon to disappear without a trace. But "Lily Lyle" hadn't disappeared, it was a version of a maudlin old mountain song, involving a pretty girl who died young and her "little green grave," that my parents used to sing in the car, and they weren't Victorian English villagers but hillbillies from West Virgini.


Well, what else can I say? Obviously the show struck a chord with me. The similarity of the names "Lark Rising" and "Rising Fawn" did not escape me; nor did the fact that the village was eight miles away from Candleford, about the same distance as our hamlet from our little country town. Or that here as in Larkford the PO's your best bet for hearing all the dirt on everybody. 


It has its flaws and inconsistencies. Sir Timothy was too upper-class-twitty in my book for a romantic hero, and (spoiler alert) I was not entirely devastated to part ways with him at the end of the first season when he rode off for London to make a go at saving his marriage. But I chafed a little when the second love interest galloped off in the final episode of the next season on much flimsier grounds. Is Miss Lane so unlucky in love, or does the BBC just not pay its actors enough?


But I'll keep watching. Hell, maybe they'll bring back the blacksmith.


Well, that's about all. I guess I think too hard about, and make too much of, everything up to and including mindless entertainment, but here's one more thought I had about television and reality: There was a time, before I was a supercilious college student, back when I was 12 or 13, maybe, that I was not too good for television. I didn't exactly believe, for example, that people could fly around the galaxy in starships or be transported from place to place in a beam of energy, but I knew Captain Kirk's face as well as my mother's and saw him in my dreams. And I understood that the Texas ranger I was in love with in a Western show was actually just some actor who didn't really talk like my Joe, but that didn't kill the crush. I knew none of it was "really real" but it was pretty damn real to me.


I think that kind of magic thinking, that abandonment to fantasy, is a way kids that age cope with their feelings of helplessness in the face of a big unknown universe over which they have no iota of control. And I extrapolate that perhaps it is COVID-19 and the accompanying APSOID that have gotten me into the mood to immerse myself in the flickering screen once more.


One way or t'other, Lark Rise to Candleford has seen me through the quarantine. I'm sorry I didn't get my review out before the shelter-in-place order was lifted. But not all of us have resumed our normal lives yet, and if you have, maybe you can save up Lark Rise for the next lockdown, like if you break a leg or have a joint replacement.


If, of course, you're not too good for television.

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