Sunday Watch: Country Matters – Craven Arms

Firstly, apologies are in order for lateness. It is not a good start for a new feature to present it hours later than it may be expected, but unfortunately, this has not been a good week, and part of that not good week was needing to leave shift a few hours early one night and repaying the time. Which, to my disgruntlement, had to be this morning, from 10.00am – 12.30pm.

How many among you remember ITV’s Country Matters, or indeed have even heard of it? Once upon a time, and that time was 1972/3, it was an immensely popular, if short-lived, series, the kind of event TV that would have people staying at home to watch it rather than meeting friends.

The series ran to 13 episodes, a first series of six, a second series of seven, an anthology series based on short stories by A E Coppard and H R Bates, set in the 1910s and 1920s. They were beautifully staged and shot, on location in beautiful rural settings, set to the gentle pace of the countryside in that early part of the Twentieth Century, and yet the stories themselves were naturalistic, and often grim in the subjects they espoused, with a sensual and earthy sensibility. It also featured the cream of Britain’s actors and actresses, many of whom went on to long and highly-regarded careers.

It was a classic of its time, and one episode in particular, ‘The Four Beauties’, the last of the series, has remained fresh in my mind ever since.

It was the urge to see this again that led me to star looking for a Country Matters DVD and to the shock discovery that it has never been released on DVD in the UK. For that matter, the series doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry and imdb doesn’t have a full run of information on every episode.

Luckily, I discovered that the series had been put out on DVD in Canada of all places, albeit in a double-DVD set that contains only eight episodes – and of course this doesn’t include ‘The Four Beauties’. Earlier this year, I got it through eBay, and now comes the time to watch it.

As it’s late, and I have tasks to perform, I’ve allowed myself only one episode today, the series 1 opener, ‘Craven Arms’ based on an A E Coppard story set not many years after the First World War. Unless it’s to indicate that the story was set in Shropshire, I have no explanation of the title.

The episode is a four-hander, with only one minor speaking part and silent extras, or rather it’s about three couples, with one partner common to all relationships. This is painter and teacher David Masterson, played by an exceedingly young ian McKellen.

Masterson teaches a weekly art class, amongst which attendees are the sisters Kate and Ianthe Forrest (Prunella Ransome and Susan Penhaligon, pre-Bouquet of Barbed Wire), who have no appreciable art talent, and Julia Tern (Marilyn Taylerson), who is very talented but who, despite Masterson’s fascination with her, remains detached and distant.

In contrast, the bubbly and uncomplicated Ianthe has no objections whatsoever to being kissed in the woods on an outdoor sketching walk (observed and passed by with silent amusement by Julia), but Masterson’s more involved relationship is with Kate, who is in love with him and is not averse to being kissed in the cloakroom after class, but whose attitudes, beliefs and morals are directly opposite to those of Masterson.

For an episode of only 46 minutes, ‘Craven Arms’ covers an amazing amount of ground, most of it in relation to Masterson and Kate. he is against marrioage, against caging, wants to be free to do what he wants, which is to get Kate into bed, which she is happy to promise to do just as soon as they are married, but ntil then her virtue is unassailable.

In a sense, it’s a simple story: which one will get their way? But the episode’s gift is to make the shifting relationship more complex than just that. Julia, initially, produces a head-sketch of Masterson that makes him appear to be noble and god-like to an extent that embarrasses him, yet when she comes to tell him she is leaving to go to London and Art School, she also makes plain her absolute indifference to him.

Ianthe, after getting pissed off at the attentions Masterson pays to her older sister, forgives him and the show implies that she enjoys a roll in the hay with him (there is a shortage of young men around after the slaughter of the trenches).

But Kate is the resistor, and this produces some odd effects. Both the original story and the tv adaptation were written in more male-dominated times than our own, so the episode gives Masterson free reign to spout his childish demands to do what he wants (i.e., remove Kate’s blouse and bloomers), and more than ample space to whine that she won’t let him get his end away.

In this, he comes over exceedingly weak and decidedly petulant, forever complaining and insulting her for the crime of not dropping them.

I’m afraid this leads to a somewhat confusing ending. Kate goes away for several months. Masterson sends her a final insulting letter ending things permanently, to which she replies with ignorance of several of the things he’s accused her of. Then, months later, they meet again, at a museum of Kate’s choice where Masterson immeditely throws a fit about everything being dead (no comment!) and reciotes her the opening of a play he once started which is no more than a defence of his position, whilst prtomoting his weakness.

She’s come back to make things up to him, he might just get her lily-white body if we understand things rightly, but during this recitation her face goes steadily sadder and disapproving. Only then he rushes her out, wants to buy her a present, a ring, an engagement ring, freeze-frame on his laughing face. I ewonder if there’s a book of Coppard’s short stories in the Library.

Until that point, I was utterly absorbed. The writing was good, the filming excellent, the direction unobtrusive and the cast perfect. It didn’t hurt that all three woman, even in full court blouses, ankle length dresses and hats and coats were evidently lovely, but the last thirty seconds took an unexpected and confusing turn.

I’ll probably mix and match series so don’t necessarily expect more Country Matters next Sunday, when we’ll be back in the proper slot. But the series is what memory and reputation made of it, and I shall enjoy my next visit to the country.


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