Thursday night does strange things to a TV drama.
If Jericho (ITV) was broadcast on Sunday evenings, in the deadening hours between six and eight, it’d be sprightly and sentimental. There would be cobbled streets with bicycles jingling, and mist drifting over the moors. An apple-cheeked maiden would fall in love with a scruffy labourer and they’d prove everyone wrong in an honest country wedding. In short, it’d be boring.
But this is Thursday night, when the viewer isn’t distracted with dread of the impending Monday. He can concentrate on the TV and doesn’t want anything daft; save that for Sunday, please.
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Jericho is a period drama, but one with a bit of pepper and spark. It’s set in a shanty town in Yorkshire where the West Riding becomes the Wild West. In Jericho, men strut around in duster coats, get into fist fights, and do everything but lean on the fence post, a’chewin’ on a matchstick and touching their hat brim to the li’l lady walkin’ on by…There’s no way you’d catch these men wearing flatcaps and advertising Tetley. It was even sunny in Jericho: women used parasols and men bathed in rivers. It was certainly a different take on Victorian Yorkshire, being neither quaint and damp nor choked with the smoke of satanic mills. It was an edgy Yorkshire and the lively piano music matched the atmosphere with no soft, mournful strings to be heard.
Annie’s husband is dead and she’s had to sell the house and furniture to settle his debts. This leaves her and the children in sudden poverty but she’s no delicate, grieving widow. Annie is gutsy, a kind of Yorkshire Scarlett O’Hara, who shoulders her own luggage and makes her way to Jericho where there are “jobs going” thanks to the building of a railway viaduct.
I kept expecting Jericho to surrender its swaggering atmosphere and descend into plain old period drama slush, but it kept avoiding it, even when Annie stepped off the train and was approached by a gentleman offering his arm. Instead, good old Annie responded to his flirtations with “How about I smack you with this suitcase?” She might have remained quite porcelain-skinned, clean and smooth throughout, her hair always intricately plaited though she can’t possibly have had a ladies’ maid, but this is a minor quibble. It’s TV after all, and we can’t have our leading lady with dull hair.
Our first sight of Jericho was of a valley filled with grubby canvas tents and, rising above it, the monstrous building site of the viaduct. Annie wades into the chaos and sets herself up as a landlady renting out beds to the navvies, although her boarding house looks more like a concentration camp hut, being a draughty room lined with hard wooden bunks. Nonetheless, she props a little handwritten sign in her window and is grimly determined to be open for business: a neat, stern-faced widow in the sweaty, noisy town. I admired Annie and liked how unconventional Jericho was. It reminded me of the Rose Tremain novel, The Colour, where a woman is trying to make the best of life in the mud and clamour of the New Zealand gold rush. Yes I liked it, but I should have known it wouldn’t last.
Official Period Drama Directives began to creep in, infesting the drama with their frills, parasols and meaningful looks. There were toffs up on the hill wandering in their manicured gardens, hinting at broken engagements and lost loves. Oh must we do this, Jericho? Can’t we stay down in the valley where things had a hint of flavour and originality?
There was also a token baddie, Red, growling and grimacing and grabbing at people to hiss, You ain’t seen me. This was also quite tiresome, reducing Jericho to a children’s story where there are such things as goodies and baddies, and the baddies go stalking around at night, threatening the little kiddies. Thankfully, Red was killed off quite soon and we can hopefully dismiss him as nothing other than a scowling, sweating plot device to bring Annie and Johnny together because with Annie’s son, George, lashing out in fear and accidentally stabbing Red, Johnny helps conceal the body and get little George to safety, telling Annie “They’ll come for him. God help him if navvies take law into their own hands!” It’s hard to believe that these salt-of-the-earth men would attack a young boy for defending himself in the dark, but apparently they would, and so Annie is reduced to being tearful and grateful and suddenly the music turned soft and everything had a romantic glow.
Our bold Annie had stopped being a gutsy, independent women and was now indebted to a handsome man – and by candelight, no less. There were so many flickering candles and soft shadows in the final scene it made Wolf Hall look like a floodlit stadium.
Oh, Jericho, you were doing so well.