TV | The Mill – Bleak historical drama returns

The Mill, a grim and relentless tale of workers at a cotton mill in rural Cheshire, returns for a second series on Channel 4 this summer, and there is little alleviation from relentless bleakness.

This second series sees the arrival of Southern migrant workers under the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, resulting in widespread displeasure among the villagers. John Howlett (Mark Frost), the father of one of the newly arrived families, fails to ease the settling in process with his controversial, self-seeking personality, and he inevitably comes to blows with the more politically minded villagers. To add insult to injury, the workers are reeling from the arrival of a new master of the mill, William Greg (Andrew-Lee Potts). His new initiatives and more ruthless striving for economic success create great ripples of dissatisfaction amongst the workers.

You cannot accuse The Mill of being unfaithful to its depiction of the era, with the series based on the real-life records of those who worked at Quarry Bank Mill. There are constant references to contemporary political events, and its aesthetics are exceedingly grim. However, it unfortunately sacrifices warmth and character for a meticulous presentation of the facts, and it often feels like characters are reciting from history textbooks rather than speaking their own minds.

However, one breath of excitement comes in the form of mill apprentice Esther Price (Kerrie Hayes), whose feisty and flirty personality creates the most entertaining scenes throughout. Sabotaging mill machines and hitching up her skirts for the handsome new shoe maker, all the while tirelessly trying to send money across to her destitute sister in Liverpool, she really is the most enjoyable and admirable character in the show.

It may at times feel like a boring history lesson, but it is certainly a history lesson which feels relevant today. The Poor Law Amendment, which was founded on the principle of ‘less eligibility’ (meaning that conditions for the poor in workhouses must always be worse than any living conditions in the working world), encapsulates an argument that is still evident in the controversy over benefits today. The concern over migrant workers from the South taking jobs and driving down wages echoes today’s concerns about the influx of migrant workers from across Europe. If anything, The Mill teaches us that, despite the time gap of nearly 200 years, nothing has changed.

There are flickers of energy in this relentlessly gloomy historical drama, but for the most part, it fails to bring to life this period of social and economic upheaval.

Jessica Murray

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