Sunday Watch: Country Matters – The Little Farm


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Tragedy is clasically defined as the fall of a person from a high position. When such things happen to ordinary folks, it’s usually defined as a domestic tragedy. In the utterly excellent Country Matters I would go so far as to further define it as a tiny tragedy. It affects the lowest among us, and its effects only take place within a very narrow compass, but they are no less devastating, no less destructive for all that. And the emotions they can rouse are every bit as violent.

‘The Little Farm’, based on an H. E. Bates short story, comes from the second series of Country Matters, in 1973. It’s a three-hander, between Tom Richard (Bryan Marshall), a hard-working farmer living alone in the middle of nowhere, Jack Emmett (Michael Elphick), his part-time hand who takes and sells his milk for him, and who is taking advantage of Tom’s slow honesty and his inability to read or understand figures, and Edna Johnson (Barbara Ewing), Tom’s new housekeeper/companion and eventually lover.

It’s a very slow story whose path takes time to develop. The very fact that Jack is played by Michael Elphick clues us in to his being a rogue before we hear him talking about betting, and twitting the near silent Tom in a very familiar all-men-of-the-world-here-well-I-am-but you-ain’t manner. Tom’s been lonely since his mother died, and the house is a pigsty. He advertises for a housekeeper/companion and, based on her photo, chooses Edna, a tall, slim, attractive woman, who is handsome rather than beautiful.

Edna, an honest, astute and forthright hard worker, transforms the farm. Tom’s innate decency and his slow, almost fearful love for her attracts her. She’s equally astute as to how Jack is ripping him off and sets to rectifying the situation.

Jack is unhappy about losing his easy mark. He tries to pin it on her, a stranger, interfering with his friendship with Jack, we wuz alright till you came here, poking your nose in. He’s a schemer, a conman, and beneath the outwardly cheery manner, he’s a nasty piece of work, a piece of vicious slime. He hates Edna, but at the same time he wants to screw her, is continually flirtatious with her. In the end, he threatens that he will find out what she really is.

And he does. Edna has fallen in love with Tom and shares his bed – in a touch of unexpressed genius it is her bed he shares: Tom still sleeps in the bedroom he occupied as a son and when she came installed Edna in his mother’s room, the one with the double bed – and is in all respects his wife, save in one. Her secret, which undermines her resistance to the despicable Jack, who is out to destroy Tom’s relationship for his own ends, once he finds out she is already married, and has run away from an unhappy marriage far away.

Of course, he can be persuaded to keep his mouth shut if she’ll…

So the inevitable climax comes. Edna sneaks away in the very early hours, leaves forever, leaves a letter explaining why. But Tom is illiterate, it’s been clearly established without being spelled out for us. In a flash, the final dimensions of this tiny tragedy are understood and the story plays in the shape we have already understood: the only person available to read the fateful letter to him is Jack. So we hear Edna’s voiceover, as her bus slowly meanders down country roads, explaining about her marriage, about not being free to give him what she has given, but that for all her life remaining she will love him. And then Jack reads out that she has run away because she has been taking and keeping the money Jack has been giving her for Tom’s milk and eggs.

Oh, you bastard, we want to cry, and to have a means of crushing the words in his lying throat, especially as he then rips the letter to pieces, in case someone else might one day read it to Tom. Poor Tom, whose life has fallen in on him so unexpectedly, who cannot comprehend that the woman he loved, so good and true, could betray him.

The adaptation is, I am led to believe, extremely faithful, and the performances are both natural and powerful. I must praise Bryan Marshall as Tom, for extracting the most from the least material, and having the least to work with. Michael Elphick is the same Michael Elphick we know from his later career and Barbara Ewing rises to the intelligence of Edna, but it is Tom, who is and remains a very limited human being that Marshall raises from being an inert lump to the figure who can be the centre of the tragedy, and for whom our heart breaks. Without a word we know he will never be the same again.

I keep saying it and I will again for the three remaining episodes but it is an artistic crime that this series should not be fully available, and that there should be five episodes not available at all, except by travelling back in time to watch them on ITV, on Sunday nights.

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