Camera up on an old man telling us his name is Bert Middleton, and he’s the second oldest man in Britain. He sternly tells the offcamera person interviewing him that this is the last thing he’ll ever do, so they’d better get it right. He briefly loses his place and the interviewer prompts that he was talking about summer 1914. He begins to giggle gleefully at the memory and recalls that that’s the summer the bus came.
Fade to an old photograph of young Bert and the other villagers lined up to welcome the bus. Fade to their flesh-and-blood selves as they disperse post-photo. The bus pulls up, and off gets a lovely young lady who quickly catches Bert’s eye. He, by the way, is twelve years old at this time, which is a crazy time in your life no matter what your sex. The young lady looks to be in her mid- to late-teens. He follows her as she walks through the village and watches her embrace the reverend, who we’ll later learn is her father. Older Bert, in VO, tells us her name is Martha.
Bert runs across some amazingly picturesque fields, and then we cut to his older brother, Joe, who’s pumping water and then carrying a big tub full of it through a manor house. BVO explains that Joe had gone to work in the ‘big house’ as step one in ‘Operation: Get the Hell Out of Here.’ Bert continues that nobody ever seemed to leave this place, not for long. His father left the parish twice and hated it. Bert runs to a pond in the middle of a field and lays in the sun, dreaming of Martha, who’s out for a walk of her own.
Joe, his duties at the big house done, finds his brother by the pond, which is apparently their usual meeting place. The boys get ready to go for a swim. Well, Joe does, but Bert’s a bit scared. Joe does not help by telling him about someone who drowned there, though he does it in a rather playful way, pretending to get sucked under as well, which draws Bert into the water to look for him. Bert starts to panic when he can’t find his brother, but then Joe surfaces, and urges Bert to swim, which Bert finally does. Aww, that was kinda sweet. Later, while Joe’s getting dressed, Martha spots him from afar and can’t help but stare at Joe’s bare bum. Bert spots her and she runs off. Joe tells his brother they have to go home, which doesn’t excite Bert in the least. Joe promises he’ll look after his little brother. So, we know what their homelife is like now.
Their father, meanwhile, passes by Martha as she’s walking down a street in the village. She gives him a cheerful hello, which he thinks is completely suspicious. So suspicious, he asks her why she’s saying hello. Clearly these are not outgoing folk in this town.
The Middletons sit down for dinner. Well, mum and dad get to sit, the boys have to stand, and since Joe’s 19 now, he objects to that. Dad basically tells him to suck it up and then orders his meek wife to ask him about his day. He brags about how much he got done, but when she asks about the sheathing, he says nothing, so clearly he didn’t get that much done. He tells Bert sternly that he wants him in the field at three p.m. sharp the next day. He notes that his youngest is shivering and asks what’s up, so Joe admits he was teaching his brother how to swim. Bert, looking terrified, tries to escape, but Dad tells him to sit down and then shows him his work-toughened hands before expressing his disgust at the boys for larking about and swimming. He completely loses his temper and drags Burt off the chair by his head before hauling him upstairs and locking him in a small linen cupboard. Bert yells for Joe, but Joe knows this is a battle he can’t win, so he escapes. Dad plonks a chair down in front of the door to wait for his eldest, while his wife tiredly starts cleaning up dinner, after giving us an excellent, weary, ‘great, this again?’ look.
Late at night, Bert’s awake in that cupboard, and Mum’s awake in her room, twisting her wedding ring. She goes downstairs, where Dad’s still waiting for Joe, and urges him to come to bed, adding in a little hand action as enticement. Soon after, Bert, who was starting to doze off, hears his parents going at it. That poor woman, having to do that to protect her children. Afterwards, Dad drops off to sleep, and Mum steals out of bed and waits downstairs for Joe to come home, which he does, at daybreak. She tells him she wants him to have his life, and says he needs to do whatever he can to find it.
Dad comes out, unlocks the cupboard, and leaves for the day without giving Joe a second glance. Bert asks his brother not to leave them and Joe pulls him close.
Later, Dad’s out threshing when Mum joins him with lunch. He pauses long enough to eat and drink what she’s brought, and then goes back to threshing. As she turns to go, he reminds her that the boys are his sons, and they should be in the field with him.
I’m sure Bert would really rather be in the field with his dad just now, because at school, he’s being given a beating by his teacher for being a southpaw. They were so weird about things like that back in the day. After several smacks on the offending palm, Bert grows some serious balls and yanks his hand away before the blow can fall, so his teacher removes his jacket to get down to a serious whuppin’. Thankfully, in comes another teacher, Mr Eyre, who’s the very image of a clean-cut young man at the time. The beating recommences, as Bert looks pleadingly at Eyre, who clearly wishes he could intervene, but has no place to. This poor kid’s life sucks.
At the big house, Joe hauls water for the young lady of the house’s bath. As he pours the last tub, she appears and tells him she wants another. While he’s bringing it in, the master of the house comes down the stairs, forcing all the servants to stop what they’re doing and turn towards the wall. Downton Abbey this is not, and in a way I appreciate that, because this is actually what it was like to be a servant at this time. You were not buddies with your employers, that’s for sure.
Joe makes it upstairs with his heavy tub, and the blonde young lady pets her little dachshund and says her mother wants water on tap soon. I’m sure he’ll be glad to hear that. But this isn’t for his comfort, because the young lady, Caroline, rather bitchily wonders where he’ll end up, if that happens. Not much he can say to that. As he walks past her after filling the tub, she puts her lips up right next to his ear and whispers ‘poor Joe.’ She doesn’t know the half of it.
Bert’s been kept after school so he can copy out ‘My left hand is not the right hand.’ Oh, see what they did there? I wouldn’t have expected that teacher to be a bit clever. Poor Bert can’t even manage that with his right hand, but thankfully Eyre’s come to the rescue. He asks Bert if he can draw and urges him to try looking at the writing like a drawing he’s trying to copy. He observes that the kid’s tired and Bert admits he didn’t sleep much the night before. He suddenly asks what time it is and, when he hears it’s three, tiredly says he was supposed to be with his father in the fields at three. Eyre takes the blame for Bert’s lateness, saying the kid would have been finished by now if he hadn’t interrupted, so he copies out the line on Bert’s slate himself. He holds it up for Bert’s inspection, and then observes that it’s too neat, so he erases it and writes it out with his left hand, which is both endearing and funny. The two of them laugh over the mess he’s made.
Bert finally makes it to the fields, where his dad notes his beaten palm and then sets him to threshing while he hits the pub. Great. Dad’s an abusive alcoholic. Figures. He’s also in debt to the owner of the local pub, of course. The barman cuts him off until he can pay his tab, but then unwisely turns his back to serve another customer, giving Dad (his name’s John, let’s go with that) a chance to grab a bottle and gulp down almost the entire thing like he’s just come out of the Sahara. Holy shit. There’s alcoholism and then there’s ALCOHOLISM. We’re clearly dealing with the second one. Everyone stares, but then one of the other men walks over, erases John’s considerable tab from the chalkboard where such records are kept, hands him a damn glass already, and gives the barman a banknote to cover all the costs. One of his sons, who looks to be about Bert’s age, wonders why his dad just did that, and the man jovially says John’s his neighbour. So, enabling a serious drinking problem is part of being neighbourly? That’s good to know, I guess. John, looking a bit mortified, grabs his glass, takes it and the bottle to a table, and starts knocking the drinks back.
Martha’s made her way to the school, where Eyre’s interviewing her for a job. Apparently she’s been tutoring rich kids for the last year and now she wants to be with her dad. Eyre kindly asks her what she thinks and she plainly says there’s work to do. He seems to admire that answer. I want to know what this guy’s position is at the school. Is he a teacher and that other douchebag is the headmaster? Or is it the other way around? Or are they both teachers? I just wonder why he was unable to intervene on Bert’s punishment in one scene but can make a hiring decision in another. I guess it doesn’t really matter. Anyway, in comes John, drunk as anything, to demand to know what Eyre did to his son. Eyre, clearly knowing what he’s dealing with, sits down to hear John out while John rants about the uselessness of an education. ‘Does writing every feed anyone?’ he sneers. Why, yes, John, actually, it does. And it tends to feed them far better than illiteracy does. Eyre, with a touch of the condescension that always colours interactions between the educated and the uneducated, says he knows how hard things are for John right now. That pisses John off, but Eyre won’t be cowed, and he goes on to say that a boy needs an education.
Unable to take his rage out on Eyre, John marches to the field to yell at Bert for laying out the hay or whatever it is they’re cutting, wrong.
Later, John arrives home to find his wife smiling proudly over the delicious dinner she’s been able to prepare with the help of Joe’s wages. John refuses to eat it, instead going right to bed. As he goes, she reminds him that pride is a sin, and he tells her he’s going to hell, then. Yes, John, you probably are, though not because of pride alone.
Thankfully, Grace has two growing boys who are only too happy to have some beans and liver. As he tucks in, Joe asks her if she’s eaten, and she clearly lies when she says yes.
That night, John’s in bed shouting about how he has to keep paying over and over again for one mistake. Grace tells him, obviously not for the first time, that she forgives him. We have no idea what they’re talking about, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess: death of a child somehow due to John. Or an extramarital affair. It’s clearly something big, since it’s been weighing on both of them for some time, and we later find out they’ve been in this house for generations, so it wasn’t losing the family home or anything. We’ll have to see. John accuses her of guilting him constantly, and she gets fed up and angrily tells him that’s all in his mind. ‘Must it always be my fault?’ he shouts. Yes, John, when you’re responsible for it! Bert listens, cowering in his bed.
Daytime. Bert and the village kids collect stones from the field of the man who paid his dad’s bar tab. The Good Neighbour flips him a coin.
At school, it’s picture day. And what a glum bunch the kids appear to be. After one shot is taken, Eyre steps in and tells the kids he wants them to run to the end of the lane and back again as quickly as they can. One kid can’t run for some reason, so Eyre leads him in running in place, rather cutely. Professor Douchebag throws a complete hissy fit that everyone hilariously ignores. The kids return, Eyre tells them to get back in their places and jump in the air, and at that point they take the picture. Wow, I didn’t know they had high-speed cameras in 1914. I’m pretty sure that picture should just be a bunch of blurs.
Big House. Joe approaches the mansion, a shotgun broken over one arm. What’s his job here, anyway? I would have thought footman, what with the water fetching, but why’s he wandering around with one of the guns? Caroline and her mother, played by the absolutely marvellous Juliet Stevenson, are strolling through the gardens. Also approaching is Martha, who walks up behind Joe and asks if he’s planning to shoot the two ladies. He smiles and introduces himself, and she does the same. Caroline’s mother, Clem, heads their way, commenting to Caroline that it’s just not on for Martha to show up uninvited and then talk to the waterman before she speaks to them. Waterman? Was that actually a job? And at what point does that include shooting things? Clem advises her daughter to rise above Martha’s rudeness and not mention it, so she won’t have the satisfaction of knowing she’s gotten under their skin. I think they’re projecting some serious cattiness onto Martha. Honestly, I don’t think she did this on purpose to be obnoxious, I think she just wasn’t aware of the precise way the social niceties work in this community. Though she did work at an estate before coming here, so maybe it was intentional.
Martha finally reaches them and Clem says they were just discussing the mole catcher problem. Somehow—and I think this was a bit of sloppy writing—Martha knows exactly what Clem means and says Joe would know. She calls Joe over and asks him why mole catchers die. So, was ‘the mole catcher problem’ a common term in 1914? Maybe. Still seemed rather awkward. Joe says it’s from strychnine, which they use to poison the moles, but it gets on their hands and slowly seeps into the skin and gets breathed in, and you die a horrible death. Hands up: who thinks Joe’s going to die of poison gas in the trenches? That foreshadowing is the only reason I can think of for the bizarre turn this scene’s taken. Caroline looks disturbed, and Clem sends him off. This whole time, a young man, presumably Caroline’s brother, has been watching from the house, clearly checking Martha out. Caroline checks Joe out as he leaves.
Bert and one of his friends run through the village to the local bathhouse, where all the ladies gather for a soak and some gossip. There’s a loose shingle, and Bert climbs up on the roof to peek down through it while his friend keeps watch. Inside, one of the ladies talks about how crazy fertile her husband is and how she calls him Henry the Fecund. Heh. She climbs into a tub with her two littlest and gives them baths. One of the young girls asks what it’s like to be married. Grace wearily imparts some wisdom her mother told her back in the day: look after your husband as well as you can, and if he’s not happy for reasons you can’t understand, there’s always something you can do. The girl’s confused by that, of course, so all Grace says is that you can mother him. Martha comes in to take a bath, and of course she picks the tub right under Bert’s spyhole. His eyes practically bug right out of his head.
And then on the way home, he stops in the lane to jerk off. Jesus, Bert, you couldn’t at least duck out of sight? John spots him and yells at him to come inside, where he orders Bert to tell his mother what he was doing. Bert clams up, and Grace looks confused, so John helpfully supplies the info: he heard Bert was stonepicking for the good neighbour. Grace listens in silence, flinching, waiting for the blow to fall. John tells Bert to lie on the floor, and just when I brace myself, expecting him to start kicking the kid, he instead points out all the parts of the stone floor that have been worn down by many, many generations of the family. He reminds him that they’ve been living there for a long time and he’s not about to let it go.
The boys are out tending the kitchen garden, pulling potatoes. Martha wanders by and Joe tosses her one before Bert heads off to look for elderberries to use as a pest repellent. Martha offers to help, glancing meaningfully at Joe and adding ‘if you want me to.’ Of course he does. They go elderberry searching.
Sometime later, Grace is giving Joe a bath in the cottage. She tells Bert to get in as well, and he does, reluctantly, but refuses to take off his shorts. Mother and big brother laugh good-naturedly at his sudden prudishness.
And some other time, Joe and a friend of his note Bert and the other kids getting a rugby game going. Or maybe it’s a game of Red Rover or something like it. They join in. While they play, John walks by and pauses to watch for a bit, then keeps going. Martha also walks by and checks out Joe.
Back at the Big House, Joe’s back to toting water. As he passes by a window, he sees Martha wandering around outside. Caroline sees her too, and notes to her little dog that she’s early for lunch, and they must rise above. That son of the house checks her out as well.
Over lunch, out of absolutely nowhere, Clem asks Martha if she’s a suffragist. Martha responds that she’s a suffragette, by which I take to mean she doesn’t just agree that women should have the vote, she actively fights for it. Oh, of course she’s a suffragette. Nearly every show set during this time period has a suffragette character, and she’s almost always the outspoken newcomer with no time for conventional social rules. I find it a bit disappointing this show’s going such an expected route there. Talk turns to some of the more appalling moves made by the militant suffragists, such as the placement of a bomb during a coronation concert, which I’m not even sure was done by a suffragette. Another son, who’s apparently in Parliament, wonders if such women should really have the vote, and Martha counters that she’s no more unworthy than the drunk or the wifebeater who has it now. ‘Politics, politics. This is a home, not a public place,’ says Clem. ‘Is it?’ says Martha sharply. Woah, hold up there, sweetheart. You are a guest here. What an unconscionably rude thing to do. I’m starting to think she may have been canned from her last job and that’s why she’s here now. Clem, her feathers thoroughly ruffled, says the suffragists are reckless and foolish. ‘Reckless and foolish,’ Caroline parrots lazily. Is she on something? Martha pipes up that she admired Emily Davison, who was a suffragette who tried to grab the bridle of the king’s horse at the 1913 Derby and managed to get herself trampled to death. And the well-heeled spectators were far more interested in the fact that the favourite had to scratch, handing the race to a 100-1 longshot. Martha thinks she was brave and Clem asks if that will really help their cause, because who wants to give the vote to women who act crazy? Politician son says he’s lost any interest in her and is more interested in what’s coming. Caroline asks what that is and is told it’s war. She asks her little dog what he thinks of that.
Some other guy at the table starts talking about how he’s going to start making waterproof boots. Riveting stuff. Politician son is a bit of a dick about the boring turn of the conversation and Clem calls them all out on talking both politics and business before waving off the butler, who’s about to pour Martha some wine. ‘She’s a Methodist,’ she tells him. ‘They don’t.’ Martha looks a bit put out. I kind of feel like she deserves it for being such a bitch earlier.
After lunch, that younger son, whose name, I think, is George, takes Martha on a cheerful walk to look at some children’s graves. These people suck at dates. Apparently these are some very young plague victims from his family who were buried by their mother back in the day because plague victims weren’t allowed in the churchyard. Man, the reverend back then was a total dick. She, reasonably, wonders why he’s showing her this and he says this is part of his history, and shows that they belong here. I can think of less creepy ways of illustrating your family’s long history in the area, but Martha seems somewhat touched by it.
Bert looks on from a distance and then reports back to Joe, telling him he saw Martha kissing George. As Joe goes away, upset, Bert gets a twisted little smile on his face. That’s what happens when you unwittingly mess around with a pubescent’s crush.
Politician son (going by IMDB, I think he’s Edmund) shows his father a newspaper with a rather tiny article about war being declared on Germany. I’d think that might warrant a bigger headline. Allingham senior, by the way, is rocking a black headscarf and not so much rocking some crazy scars on one side of his face, so clearly there’s some story here. He has no reaction at all to this news and merely asks if the bank holiday’s over. Edmund says it is, takes his paper, and leaves.
Word of the war has clearly gotten around. Joe enters the cottage, and his mother hugs him tightly and desperately before he leaves. Once he’s gone, she begins to sob.
Joe goes to the pub and meets up with his friend, who comments that they might get dirty (the same line he used before they joined in the Red Rover game). That helps break the tension.
Bert’s back on the roof of the bathhouse, watching the girls. He sees Grace come in and whisper something to a friend of hers, who puts an ear to her belly as they both giggle. Oh, dear, poor Grace. Another girl comes in and announces that she’s gotten a proposal. She goes on to bitchily tell Martha she’d better get a move on, or risk being one of the ‘great unenjoyed.’ Bert slips and goes tumbling off the roof, luckily landing unharmed and somehow managing not to get caught by anyone.
Because he’s apparently now determined to incriminate himself, he goes home later and asks his mum if he can listen to her belly. Christ, kid. John stares at his wife in shock.
Over dinner, things are tense. At this point, I have to admit, the accents get in the way, so I have absolutely no idea what Grace says to Joe. I think (and if I’m wrong, tell me) that she’s trying to tell Joe that they’ll be able to manage just fine if he wants to go off and do the noble thing and fight for his country, but John not so respectfully disagrees, in light of the baby on the way. The impending sibling is news to Joe, and he’s not happy about it, so he shoves dinner aside and goes to leave. Grace rushes out after him and tearfully begs him to get the hell out of there, telling him she can’t bear it if he’s not free. Jesus, this is heartbreaking. She tells him she wants him to go, and he throws his arms around her.
The next day, he goes to join the line of local boys and men getting ready to join up. Bert gives him a baleful look as he walks past. He sneaks into the building where they’re doing the recruiting and spies on the tests. Prof Douchebag comes in and is immediately rejected for being too short. Clearly mortified, he tries to protest, but he’s sent away by someone who actually has more power than he does. You just know that this is the worst thing that could happen to him, because he’s totally the type who immediately imagined himself covered in glory on the battlefield, all but winning the war singlehandedly and being worshipped by all and sundry, and in that one second all those images and hopes were dashed. Though, in reality, he’d probably piss his pants at the very first battle, because he’s just a bully who enjoys having power over those weaker than him a little too much. Eyre, on the other hand, is the quieter type who’ll definitely join up because he thinks it’s the right thing to do, and he’ll not seek glory but will probably be an excellent soldier and acquit himself well. Amazing, isn’t it, that even though we haven’t spent much time with either of those characters you just know some things about them? That’s some damn fine storytelling right there. Or maybe I’m just projecting. I’m working on a historical fiction novel set during this time, so it could be that too.
Students stream into the school while Eyre and Prof Douchebag talk about the coming war. Douchebag, of course, tries to spin his rejection in his favour, telling Eyre it’s best for the school that they don’t both go. Eyre just kind of nods. Bert stops in front of Prof Douchebag and says good morning, while eyeing him up with a knowing smile. Heh. In class, Prof Douchebag asks what the Vikings came in. All the answers the kids supply are shot down, including longboats, because they actually came in ANGER! Ooookaaaay. Prof Douchebag hammers a desk and screams and then calms down and continues that the Vikings then pillaged and razed and took the honour of the women. I sense he’s using the Vikings to channel some other anxiety, but I’m not quite sure…
Speaking of anger, in comes John to yell at his kid and drag him out to the field, where apparently the hay or whatever has mildewed and is now ruined. Well, John, maybe if you’d watched the kid instead of drinking like a fish you’d stand a chance here. He starts slashing at some of the still-standing hay, and then throws the scythe in anger and frustration.
Joe’s stalking through the woods with his shotgun, and Caroline’s stalking Joe, along with that dog she’s always carrying. She approaches him, hesitantly kisses him a couple of times, and before you know it the dog’s running off and the pair are getting busy right on the ground in the middle of the woods. I have to say, I don’t find this terribly credible either narratively or historically. I can see him going for it, because he’s upset about the (alleged) loss of a chance with Martha, but for a woman in her position to be so reckless seems unlikely. Also, when last we saw her, she was listless to the point of almost being brainless, so a rebellion of this type seems way outside her scope, no matter how many times she checks this guy out while he’s bringing in her bathwater. An illicit kiss I could buy, but sex in the woods? Not so much.
Back at the farm, John burns the ruined hay in an enormous bonfire. Inside, Bert checks on his sleeping brother.
The young men of the village are getting ready to join up and march off to war. John sits at the kitchen table, stubborn. Grace sews nearby. They hear the band strike up and Grace shoots up. She asks John to come with her, and you can very clearly see the conflict on his face, but he remains stubborn. She goes alone.
The men march past the applauding villagers, following a band. Joe’s friend asks his girlfriend to marry him and she says yes, of course.
Poor Bert, meanwhile, is being kept after school by Prof Douchebag, who wants him to write out lines. Bert can’t do it, and he begs the teacher to hit him instead, so he can go see his brother off. But Douchebag, milking the only little bit of power he has for all its worth, refuses to oblige. Asshole.
Grace reaches the high street in time to see her son march past. He waves and throws her a kiss, and she smiles and applauds, but once he’s past, she allows herself to look worried.
At the cottage, John lays down on the floor, running his hands over the grooves worn by generations of his family. He begins to cry, listening to the distant marching music.
Bert, fed up, turns and runs out of the schoolroom. Calling for his brother, he runs towards the high street, where the bus carrying the soldiers is just pulling away. Caroline’s poor little dog has reached the street as well, clearly lost and confused, and a group of boys spot it and begin throwing stones at it, because it’s a German dog. The poor thing squeals in pain, and Bert screams at them to stop. Thankfully, they do.
Later, Eyre, who I guess is leaving later or something, develops a picture of the boys marching off, with Bert at his side. As soon as the picture comes out, he shows it to Bert, pointing out Joe. Bert grins, happy to have one last look at his pre-war brother. And in the present, Old Bert looks at the photo and happily says that it’s as if you were there. A bit heavy handed, but I’ll give it a pass because the rest of the show’s so good.
Definitely some interesting things happening here. I’m a little disappointed they went the predictable route with Martha and, to some extent, John, but there’s clearly some work being done to make them more complex human beings, and I really appreciate that. Especially after Selfridge and Downton. Back next week with episode two!