Don’t be taken in by the bucolic charms on show in Pagford, the setting for this BBC and HBO funded adaptation of JK Rowling’s best-selling novel The Casual Vacancy. Beneath the sun-drenched shots of rolling green fields, gently meandering rivers and rustic stone cottages lurk deep divisions and dark secrets just waiting to be uncovered.
Yes, it’s yet another British drama where the inhabitants of a seemingly idyllic community have their dirty laundry cruelly exposed by an unexpected death. Is the ancient curse that causes a resident of Midsummer to drop dead each week catching?
The main focus of The Casual Vacancy, for those few who have not read the book, centres on a battle over the fate of local community centre, Sweet Love House. Devious council chairman Howard Mollison (played with vile relish by Michael Gambon) plans to turn it into a wealth health spa that will not only further line his pockets with cash but also put an end to the blight of “plebs and junkies” streaming into the village from a nearby council estate.
What he doesn’t plan for, however, is the opposition of village saint Barry Fairbrother (a superb Rory Kinnear), a local solicitor who makes an impassioned speech about how the house must remain open for the “enjoyment and betterment” of the people of The Fields. Unfortunately, Barry unexpectedly pops his clogs midway through the first episode, opening up a casual vacancy on the parish council and an election that threatens to spark a class war in this ostensibly peaceful community.
An early use of juxtaposition to contrast Pagford’s picturesque façade with the fetid vagrancy that hides in dark corners notwithstanding, it’s hard to see how this miniseries betters similar dramas that have come before. The story holds ambitions of exploring timely themes of poverty, class divides, crime, domestic violence, addiction and a country generally dismantled by austerity, but these kind of slow burning dramas hinge on having believable characters with intriguing plot arcs.
It’s here where The Casual Vacancy falls short. Aside from one interesting scene in which a social worker is refused permission to remove a child from his squalid environment because the social services lack the budget to do so, the story is without insight, painting its characters in the broadest of strokes and failing to build the kind of gripping mystery that will keep viewers hooked.
The viewers will still undoubtedly flock in their millions, of course, if only because the schedules are so lacking in appealing alternatives right now.
Speaking of unappealing alternatives, BBC Three launched their new horror-themed game show I Survived a Zombie Apocalypse last night.
At first I thought the creators had taken inspiration from Jurassic Park and literally used fossilised DNA to genetically engineer their own horde of ravenous flesh-eaters to devour unwitting members of the public for our viewing pleasure.
Alas, those blasted over-cautious Ofcom regulations have struck again and forced us all to endure this rather uninspiring mock reality show instead.
Set six months after a nationwide epidemic “transformed” the majority of the UK population into the living dead, ten contestants – who have all seemingly been put through the same personality vacuum before entering – are dropped into an abandoned shopping centre where they must complete a series of mildly perilous challenges and avoid coming into contact with the “zombies”. Anyone still “alive” after seven days will be whisked off to a tropical quarantine zone as a reward.
Clearly envisioned as a companion piece to Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set, with a premise that attempts to satirise reality TV and modern technology (the zombie apocalypse is caused by a dodgy 5G mobile network), what emerges is a poorly executed revival of Punk’d, only this time Ashton Kutcher and his “white trash” persona have been replaced by the equally offensive Radio 1 DJ Greg James.
May the zombie hordes rise up and takes us all.