The Mill: Bleak House

Hey, remember that completely bizarre celebration of exploitation and land rape that featured in last year’s Olympics opening ceremony?

London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony video. ‘industrial revolution” Then I will kiss. from Ian Burnett on Vimeo.

Well, now we’re going to get it in miniseries form! Welcome to The Mill, the latest entry in the grubby-people-vs-upper-crust-employers drama field, which most recently welcomed the equally bleak The Village. It’s early days yet, so let’s see if this one measures up.

It’s very, very early in the morning. A chilly man starts ringing a bell, rousing the mill workers. Any stragglers are roughly tossed out of bed by a rather harsh matron (Mrs Timperley). The ice on the washing water is broken and some of the kids (and they really are kids, a lot of them) start playfully splashing each other. One of the women, Esther, yells at them for daring to enjoy themselves for a moment, which we’ll soon learn is a tad hypocritical of her. The workers troop through the dark streets to the mill, where the day’s work begins, under the eye of the weaselly overlooker, Crout.

While the machines run and bobbins wind, Crout wanders around and selects one of the young women, Miriam, who looks spookily like my co-worker’s wife. He whispers something in her ear that makes her look terrified, but nonetheless she starts to move off the floor, trailed by Crout and watched by many of the other young women, including Esther, who looks alarmed.

In the back, where it’s quiet, Crout gets ready to get seriously pervy. Miriam threatens to tell on him, but she says it pretty weakly, so naturally Crout doesn’t listen and starts sticking his hand up her skirt.

Meanwhile, out on the floor, one of the boys, who really is old enough to know better, walks past one of the machines, stupidly flinging a rag about. It catches in one of the wheels, dragging him upward as he screams in pain. The screams bring Crout back onto the floor and he quickly sets about trying to free the kid and shutting down the machine.

In a posh house nearby, two posh people, Samuel and Hannah Greg, are having breakfast. Samuel, the owner of the mill, suddenly notes that the machinery’s gone quiet and goes out to investigate.

Crout wraps the injured boy’s arm while Esther scolds him for not being around to look after things. Samuel comes in and gets a quick rundown of what happened as the boy, Tommy, is dispatched to the apprentice house. He’s taken by Miriam and Esther, who yell for a doctor before lying him down on a table.

Later, once they’re back at work, Esther watches someone cleaning up Tommy’s blood. Crout swings by to remind both her and Miriam that they’re well at the bottom of the social and employment scale, so nobody would believe a word they say and it’s probably best that they keep their mouths shut.

At the apprentice house, Mr Timperley, the warden, is bitching about what poor timing this accident is. Apparently there’s an inspection visit the next day. He suspects the kid did this on purpose, because what 12-year-old isn’t willing to embarrass their employer by causing horrific injury to himself? Hannah, who’s there to assist the doctor, tells him to shut up or she’ll have him fired.

At lunchtime, Mrs T serves up actual slop straight into each apprentice’s hand (including a bit of extra for one girl who’s pregnant). Pregnant girl, Miriam’s sister Susannah, asks how Tommy is and hears he lost his hand.

On their way back to the mill, Esther urges Miriam to report Crout for what he was doing when the accident happened. She promises to back her up, but Miriam’s reluctant, probably because she knows just how true what Crout said really is.

The Greg son, Robert, who has some stupendously anachronistic hair that practically dwarfs the rest of his head, is ushered into a debtors’ prison somewhere, where lies Daniel Bate, a brilliant engineer. Robert asks Bate if he ever wonders how a man with his skills ended up in a debtors’ prison. I’m guessing he knows, Robert. Presumably it had something to do with debt? Robert thinks it’s more political, because Bate’s a bit of an agitator, which means he’ll never find a job. Except with Robert, of course. Robert wants him to build the best power loom in the world. No pressure, then. Bate agrees, because what choice does he have, really? He does, however, turn down Robert’s offer of a ride to his new home, despite the fact that it’s 12 miles away. Bate says he hasn’t had a chance for a walk and fresh air in almost a year, which is exactly why he should take the lift, because no way would someone who’s been chained up in prison for a year could walk 12 miles just like that. They’d find him passed out halfway.

Turns out he turned down the ride because he wanted to go and beat the crap out of his ex employer, John Doherty. Well, that’s a smart thing to do right after getting out of prison.

Twangy violins accompany Bate to his new home.

Samuel and Robert worry about the parish visitors coming the next day, as Hannah tends to little Tommy. He comes around for a moment, but then passes back out and Hannah can’t seem to rouse him.

As he approaches the town, Bate sees two men carry Tommy out of the apprentice house on a stretcher. He then passes all the exhausted factory workers heading back to the apprentice house for the night, many of them coughing (I remember hearing once that a lot of them had respiratory problems from constantly breathing in cotton dust and bits of fluff). At the apprentice house, the kids ask after Tommy, but all they know is that he’s been taken away somewhere ‘more comfortable.’ Well, that could mean anything.

Once the Timperleys finish leading them all in prayer and lock them into their lodgings, Esther gets up and goes to wake Miriam to tell her she thinks Tommy’s dead. And what’s Miriam supposed to do about it if he is? She’s still pushing for Miriam to report Crout, and while I see, from my position of modern-day comfort and privilege, why that immediately seems like the right course of action, I can also understand Miriam’s reluctance to make a fuss. Her options in the world are not good—if she speaks up and nobody believes her, she’ll lose her job and wind up on the streets. No other factory would hire her, so she would basically be forced into begging or prostitution, which were not a great or long-lasting professions for a young girl at that time. She’d be dead pretty quickly, either from disease or starvation or something worse. And let’s not forget, she has a pregnant sister as well. So yeah, I can see why she wouldn’t want to rock the boat here. But Esther is one of those characters who really only understands her own selfish motivations, but thinks she’s being noble and acting for everyone else, so she can’t believe Miriam won’t do anything, which is really just making me hate Esther early on. She’s just such a stock ‘fiery agitator’ character, unable to see anyone else’s point of view. Tiresome.

The discussion between the girls starts to get heated, and Susannah tells Esther to just go back to bed already. Esther asks if Susannah’s baby is Crout’s. Susannah scoffs at the idea she’d let him lay a hand on her, but then asks Miriam what happened. Esther tells her that Crout took her into the back when the accident happened, and one of the other girls tells Miriam not to feel bad, because that’s just what Crout does. Like that makes it any better. Esther decides they’ll tell the visitors the next day, and this will all be taken care of. Susanna informs her that these visits are seriously only lip service, and nothing ever comes of them, but Esther thinks it’ll be different this time, because someone died. Like that’s the first time that’s ever happened in a factory. Esther tells Miriam that if she doesn’t tell someone, Esther will. Poor Miriam starts weeping, clearly scared out of her mind.

Robert greets Bate for his first day of work and asks him to build a prototype of the latest loom design so the world can be a better-clothed place. He tells Bate to get whatever he needs, then casually mentions that Doherty was attacked the previous day. He makes it clear he won’t have such nonsense in their town and Bate nods.

Time for the parish visit, which is being conducted by Dr Holland, a clergyman, and the Greg men. They walk through the factory, greeting workers by name, which I will say is fairly impressive, and introducing Crout. Holland asks Miriam if she’s happy at the mill, and she looks terrified, especially under the glare of Crout, who’s hovering near Esther. Bate is checking the place out, and Esther tells him to take a look at the loom where Tommy was hurt.

Lunchtime, and this time it’s actual soup in bowls instead of slop in hands. This is because they have to put on a show for Holland, who comes to ask about how their lessons are going and to rather patronizingly ask if the food’s good. Miriam quickly says that it is (and we also learn that she and Susannah have a brother at the mill too, so even more reason for her to want to keep her head down). Holland asks Miriam what her working hours are. Six am to 8 pm. Wow. How do they have time for these so-called lessons? Holland asks if she has any complaints and she shakes her head. The men go to leave, and Esther gets up and claims Tommy’s dead. Samuel says Tommy’s actually recuperating at the Greg home. Esther tries to recover from that and tells them that the accident only happened because Crout was busy up Miriam’s skirt. Sigh.

Miriam is dragged before Holland, the Greg men, and the other visitor, whose name I didn’t catch, all of whom ask her if Crout touched her. She says he didn’t. She’s sent away and Crout brought in. They ask if what Esther says is true and he says it is, but that he was searching her for bobbin waste. Robert confirms that they have had problems with petty thievery in the past. So, looks like Crout’s off the hook.

Naturally, he heads right back to the mill to menace Esther, who has the nerve to turn and glare at Miriam, who didn’t want her getting involved to begin with.

The visitors are now visiting Tommy, who’s being tended by Hannah. They commend the Gregs for so charitably bringing the boy into their own home. While they’re there, Hannah recruits them as guests for an upcoming event with her anti-slavery society. Once they’re gone, Tommy weakly asks Robert if he did all right. Robert nods, kindly.

At the apprentice house that night, Susannah comforts Miriam, who feels guilty for leaving Esther swinging, but she couldn’t say anything because of Susannah and her baby. She says that Crout knows who the baby’s father is, and he could tell, which would result in Susannah losing her job and having to leave the village, which Miriam can’t bear.

Esther comes in and demands to know what Miriam said to them. Susannah tells her to leave Miriam alone and reminds her that these people basically own them until they’re 21. Esther says they don’t own her, though, legally, they do, and things quickly escalate into a shoving match between the two girls, until Miriam throws herself into the middle and begs Esther to leave off, because Miriam’s pregnant and all. The two sisters rush out and Esther wails that if the others had backed her up the powers that be would have had to listen. She wails that she can’t do this on her own, completely ignoring the fact that nobody asked her to do this at all. These women mostly just want to keep their jobs, not starve, and come out of all this with their limbs intact.

Morning. The bell rings, but when Esther reaches the mill gate, Crout slams it in her face, claiming she’s late and she’ll have to come back after hours and work overtime with him. Great. Esther turns and sees Bate watching from a little distance away.

The doctor checks up on Tommy and says he’ll pull through. Hannah asks how he’s feeling and he admits he’s lonely and sad, having nothing to do all day but think of his dead mum. The doctor gives him a tincture to take for melancholia, and he’s sent back to the apprentice house, riding on Timperley’s back until they’re out of sight of the Greg house.

Robert and Crout travel to the nearby town, where there’s a protest underway, led by Doherty who’s calling for the passing of a bill ensuring a 10-hour workday for kids.

Inside the grand building where the protest is being staged, a royal commission has been convened, and Crout and Robert have been called to give evidence. They ask Crout about corporal punishment (he claims it’s never used at the mill), intimidation, and whatever else he wants to say. He tells them that he’s a self-made man who’s raised himself from apprentice to overlooker, and he’s sure the workers at the Greg mills are very well treated.

Outside, Dougherty talks about how the carriages of the wealthy mill owners are built of children’s bones and lined with their skin. Well, yes, infant skin is the softest, you know.

Robert’s turn to give evidence. He tells the commission that reducing working hours would require shifts, which is going to be a struggle in rural mills. In towns, kids will just go from mill to mill, while adults will have to lengthen their working hours. And decent mills will have to lower production, which will make England less competitive. He says he’d rather see a kid working in a mill than starving by the roadside. Yes, but would you rather see your child working a 12-hour day in a mill, Robert? I’m guessing not.

Esther’s working her overtime, and of course Crout wastes no time getting pervy with her. She runs from him and threatens to chop his fingers off, but though she talks a big game, she clearly knows it’s hopeless. Luckily, Bate shows up all of a sudden to work on the loom that injured Tommy. Crout tries to send him away, but Bate refuses to listen and gets to work. While the men are otherwise engaged, Miriam sneaks a spanner out of his toolbox. Crout, his rapey plans foiled, tells Esther to get back to work. She does, and Bate observes that Crout seems to have his eye on her. Esther sassily tells him that his arrival saved Crout’s life. He chuckles and says he thought as much. While he gets to work and Crout goes off to lick his wounds somewhere, Esther steals away.

At the apprentice house, the kids are all gathered around Tommy, welcoming him back. One of them gives him the gift of an apple, which is sweet, and another asks what the big house is like. He says it’s like heaven. And then he nearly poos himself. I have no idea what that was about.

Bate finishes up just as Ester’s done, and notices he’s missing a spanner. He knowingly says that someone else must be using it, and he and Esther leave.

The following morning, the bellringer goes to ring, but the bell is missing something rather important: the clapper. He races around hilariously, trying to figure out how to ring this thing without the clapper, while outside Robert wonders where the hell everyone is and inside the apprentices snooze away. Esther wakes and smiles in a very self-satisfied way. This girl has no sense of self-preservation, does she?

Bellringer finally finds a bit of pipe or something and starts banging on the edge of the bell.

The Timperleys go into the dorms and start rousing everyone, but Esther, of course, sasses that since she can’t hear the bell, they can all stay abed. How is she not fired yet?

Robert collects Crout and tells him to come up to the apprentice house to get everyone moving. Crout the confused does so, but again Esther refuses to play along, reminding them that the rule is they have to be through the gate before the bell stops. Or, you have to be through the gate when your employers tell you to be, Esther. They finally start making their way to the mill, the Gregs looking annoyed and helpless. As she passes Bate, Esther puts the spanner back in his toolbox and he says he hopes she doesn’t come to regret that. Oh, she will.

Later, Esther heads to the privy, where Crout follows her, demanding to know where the clapper’s stashed. She claims not to know, but he pins her to the seat and starts undoing his trousers. She offers to tell him where it is in exchange for him leaving her alone, and then she somehow produces it from…somewhere and whacks him right in the balls with it. Now that I can get on board with! Let’s all hope she caused some permanent damage. As she emerges from the privy, she’s immediately met by Miriam, who’s brought Robert. Esther hands over the clapper, and he takes in the man writhing on the floor and, not unkindly, tells her she’ll probably go to jail for this.



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