The Casual Vacancy first aired in the UK in February, the very same night as Channel 4’s Indian Summers. The HBO / BBC dramatic series, adapted by Sarah Phelps (Eastenders) from JK Rowling’s novel (which I have not read), trumped Indian Summers in the ratings war. Who really knows if this was like pitting Dumbledore up against Ghandi, or just that the BBC flat-out beat Channel 4? What we do know is that Rowling’s book is very much for adults this time around (gasps! Harry Potter was for kids?). There might not be any children living under the stairs or talking snakes, but from a social, figurative stand-point we may well be in that vicinity.
Welcome to Pagford, a rural English village, and a rather scenic one at that. Beautiful in fact. Had my wife watched this with me, admiring those gorgeous sweeping shots of green land and stone houses, we’d likely be discussing the availability of cottage breaks. It turns out it is not so idyllic on the inside. Locking horns early on at a Parish council meeting are Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear, The Imitation Game) and the chairman Howard Mollison (Michael Gambon, the Harry Potter series) on whether to turn Sweetlove House, a run-down rehab clinic, into a spa boutique hotel of sorts. There is a distinct flavor of the rich wanting to stay rich or get richer, while the poor and the needy or the misunderstand stay clear. I’m sure Howard refers to them as plebs at one point. Barry, on the other hand, is not quite Robin Hood, but declares “We do not look away and turn our back on those in need.”
Barry’s second collapse of the first half hour of the opening show spins us into the plotline that inspires the title. He is a good man for the most part, seems to want to save everyone and everything – nobody else we meet at this stage appears to have this type of passion. Barry’s invisible wife Mary (Emily Bevan, In The Flesh) admits later she probably would have left him – we get a whiff of that when her face drops after opening the fridge where the Happy Anniversary balloon floats out.
Howard, apparently self-aware, is married to the even more biting Shirley (Julia McKenzie, Notes on a Scandal). They want to “raise the bridge and close the portcullis,” though they are not particularly pleasant to anyone within the castle. In particular Shirley who gives backhand, cutting insults as easy as laying place mats. One such “vacancy” candidate, then, is their son Miles (Rufus Jones, Paddington), married unsuccessfully to Samantha (the brilliant Keeley Hawes, Ashes to Ashes), but you have to wonder why. He is a lethargic puppy dog, wet behind the ears, and she is an out-spoken, fiery fox. They have two girls who hardly have any impact here, and I would assume they have a far greater narrative in the book.
There are two other candidates. Firstly, deputy head-teacher Colin Wall (Simon McBurney, The Theory of Everything), who is seen scratching his red, scarred scalp, before getting into bed with wife Tess (Monica Dolan, Pride), a guidance counsellor at the school. And secondly, Simon Price (Richard Glover, Into the Woods), Barry’s half brother, and someone who you meet in real life and instinctively think is a prick. And you would be right. He’s a semi-brutal thug, paying minimal attention to wife Ruth and aggressively engaging with sons Paul and in particular Andrew.
The kids / teenagers play a huge part in the story. Soon shining a light on the community’s wrong-doings, Andrew is allegedly best buddies with Colin and Tess’s adopted Stuart who believes he is a philosophical Casanova but is instead haphazardly clueless. They both have a crush on Gaia Bawden but have different intentions. Given the state of this village, we don’t question why Sukhvinder Jawanda won’t take those headphones off – though she does appear to be getting some stick from other kids on the bus.
And then there is potty-mouthed teenager Krystal Weedon (a stand-out Abigail Lawrie), who chooses not to wear school uniform (“up my minge” is her retort when asked where it is) and seems to be taking care of her own drug-riddled mother Terri and three year-old brother Robbie. Terrie comes off the drugs for a while, but you don’t believe it will last. Krystal is a mixed bag of a character then, described by Tess as vulnerable, and that you have to be careful with her. Who else? Gaia’s social worker mum Kay is assigned to the Weedons, but it takes her a while to crack the hostile surface. Sukhvinder’s parents, Parminder and Vikram, make subtle digs at each other. It takes a late, heroic action for them to finally show a mutual respect they must have once surely had.
Names like Sweetlove and Fairbrother tell us Rowling still has a keen eye on enticing names, but the real magic here might be the drama’s steady pacing, a bit like ice cracking. There are a lot of isolated teenagers and angst-filled adults here. I mean, those three candidates (Colin, Miles, Simon) are in their own way all twats – I am starting to sound like Krystal now. Barry’s online messages from the dead (who is doing that?) are shedding light on these candidates – like a sorting hat separating the Gryffindors from the Slytherins so to speak.
Some of the open discussions between those that have a mutual resentment for each other make for compelling viewing. A lot of big mouths in this town. You don’t know whether laughter is the appropriate reaction sometimes, but it appears to be the natural one. Look at Colin armed with his inhaler, is this a sign of weakness or sympathy? Mary’s “You’re All Wankers” is one of thirty-plus spoiled ballots entries, and she has a point. Some of the locals are clearly focused on the wrong things, are in denial, or are just suffering from pure social ignorance.
A flashback with Barry offering support to a more composed and civilized Krystal implies strong significance of her character. Away from the actual politics (the elite and the plebs), here is a girl who has so many dimensions both as a character and as a narrative driver that she may be the heart of The Casual Vacancy. And fair warning, some of the final scenes are something of a heart-tugger. Whatever laughter there was kind of stops for a while, and the floodgates open (London-based duo Solomon Grey provides a diverse, poignant hum of a score throughout the series). The drama attempts to tie things up fairly well with some hefty remorse, contemplation, and redemption. We are left with a hazy mix of emotions, but somehow feeling touched all the same.
The Casual Vacancy makes its US premiere over 2-nights on HBO April 29 at 8pm EST.