BBC’s The Casual Vacancy, the Sarah Phelps adaptation of J.K Rowling’s 2012 novel, has been awaited with baited breath. The novel was received with considerable critical disdain, so the spotlight has been on Phelps to prevent her own work meeting with a similar response. The acclaimed cast including stars such as Michael Gambon and Keeley Hawes also meant expectations were high for the new show.
The first episode exhibits a blend of both the aesthetic and agitated, of the peaceful and the poignant. In one hour we gain a relevant insight into modern day rural life. The opening scene is one of traditional English countryside and instils a mood of tranquillity, with the camera following two adolescent boys riding their bikes through Pagford, a beautiful stone village set in luscious rural landscape. However, this peaceful ambience is soon complicated.
The episode goes on to unfold an intricate plot in which characters’ lives interlock in multiple ways, and as each link is revealed, we understand more of each individual. Deception is lurking in each corner. Howard Mollison, played by Gambon, appears first as the sweet natured owner of the local delicatessen. Yet, in a Parish Meeting, his true greed is exposed. We realise that Pagworth’s residents are divided in their outlooks when Mollison and his wife propose to turn the local clinic, ‘Sweetlove House’, into a boutique hotel and spa. The village hero, Barry Fairbrother, quickly exposes these designs as ‘social engineering’, only to create apartheid between the wealthier residents of Pagworth, and the ‘junkies’ on the outer estates. “We are the guardians of something unique, we do not turn our backs and look away from the people in need”, Fairbrother declares.
Just as this scene fills viewers with admiration for the characters, this feeling is rapidly taken away again in a flash. The next moment shows Fairbrother’s agonisingly sudden death. As the title suggests, it is a death presented to us casually rather than dramatically, making it all the more disturbing. The lingering question of who will replace Fairbrother as Pagworth’s knight in shining armour drives the rest of the episode. Everyone from marijuana smoking school kids to the hard-labouring social worker seems to feel Fairbrother’s absence.
Pagworth’s perfect façade in fact veils a society bubbling with bored wives, snobby seniors and abusive adults. The jarring juxtaposition between the idyllic lives of the village residents and the lives of struggling suburb inhabitants drives the action of the show. Yet, it seems each character, within the village or not, has their own struggles that create a curiosity in the viewer to see resolved. Phelps does an excellent job in crafting a desire to follow the narrative further and see how each storyline turns out. I think I can safely say, I’ll certainly be tuning in time and again.