The Pride of Pagford Parish
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
The Casual Vacancy, based upon J. K. Rowling’s novel of the very same name, is anything but casual. The scathing portrayal of the absolute hypocrisy that guides class warfare in a small English town makes for a naturally gripping, intricately crafted drama. The town of Pagford at its appearance seems like the cover of any English tourist brochure, with its wide green fields and little stone cottages that promise everything you want from such a place. It promises peace, tranquility, quaint little coffee shops with fresh flowers in their windowsills every morning. The town of Pagford and towns like it are often sold as being these picturesque hamlets that, unlike all of the typical rude city folk who are too busy with their lives to pay any attention to you, are gentle and sweet folk who want nothing more than to form a bond with you and make you a cake while they’re at it. It’s not difficult to see how that imagery of gentle folk with little cottages would sell so well to those who are perhaps trying to escape the frigid frivolity of their frenetic lives. Yet they are buying a deception. As picturesque of an exterior that Pagford presents, its interior is almost maddeningly filthy. The stereotypical simple folk of the country don’t exist in Pagford, where its citizens function as a microcosm of a society that prides itself on being civilized while asserting its right to prey upon those deemed less worthy.
The privileged citizenry of Pagford clamor for progress, a progress that is defined for the benefit of the community and in practice is executed for the benefit of a few. That clashing dichotomy is indicative of the thematic struggles that lie at the heart of The Casual Vacancy. The physical embodiment of that clash is over a community center called Sweetlove House, a refuge for those considered to be the dregs of society, the outcasts. The head of the Sweetlove family had donated the home centuries ago in act of philanthropy, but his descendants are concernedly less generous. They find the injustice in them living in what they call “squalor”, denied of their birthrights to a home that could instead be turned into a lovely spa and who could possibly be against a lovely spa? Gentrification at its surface sounds like a fine idea. Turning an old, decrepit neighborhood into a modern society seems as harmless as anything could possibly be. As always with almost anything that sounds even a tad bit too good,the hidden costs of gentrification essentially turn it into displacement. The Sweetlove supporters on the Pagford Parish Council see the spa as a beacon of progress that will bring in revenue and “societal enhancements.” The opposers see the project for what it truly is, a vanity business designed to make bitter aristocrats even wealthier. Not only will it remove shelter from those who need it the most, it will raise the costs of living around the community, dealing a further blow to those who have shelter but are still at the bottom of the societal ladder. A few will become wealthy but Pagford, in a cruel twist of irony, will become poorer, enslaved to the so-called progress of gentrification that only exists to serve the wealthy.
Leading the fight against this insipid idea of a spa replacing a community center for the “undesirable junkies” is Barry Fairbrother. A kind social worker, he’s incensed that this project is even being conceived about at all, let alone realistically being considered as a legitimate development option. Barry, unlike the Mollisons and their like-minded cronies who simply turn away from those in need without even sparing them a single glance, actually has to work with those so-called undesirables on a regular basis. He can see through them and find their desires, regrets, aspirations to be just as real as anyone else’s. There’s a compassion within Barry that is exceedingly hard to find these days, a compassion that is seeped in legitimate empathy to help others who are less fortunate than him. He gets no materialistic support from these efforts in any way. He just does so because he feels that it is his moral obligation to do so. Rory Kinnear is simply superb in the role and within about a single scene he manages to capture the audience’s sympathy. When he drops dead out of nowhere due to a brain aneurysm in the first act, the emotional heft of that moment hits hard and Kinnear’s performance is a good chunk of why it does.With his death, there is now an empty seat on the council, the casual vacancy that gives the story its name. With the council divided evenly on the fate of Sweetlove House, the race is on to fill Barry’s seat, with the fate of Pagford’s poor hanging delicately in the balance.
To have a community center alone as a protagonist simply wouldn’t work and The Casual Vacancy’s best sequences are in relation to the youth who find their paths crossing that very building. The central figure here is a girl named Krystal Weedon, played with absolute ferocity in a star-making performance from Abigail Lawrie. She’s a sixteen-year-old who has a certain “reputation” around town and she even shows up at school with complete disregard for even basic uniform rules. It’s easy to dismiss her as simply another “teenager with loose morals” who isn’t civilized enough for the likes of the Mollisons, the latter of whom seem to believe somehow that allying themselves with the Sweetloves will have a guaranteed rise in social status in store for them. But Krystal’s life is much harder than anything people like the Mollisons have ever had to face. Her mother Terri is a drug addict and having Sweetlove there is a way for her to continue her treatment without having to accrue the additional expense of going to Yarvil for treatment, an expense she cannot afford. She has a younger brother named Robbie, whom she has to take care of like a mother because she simply cannot trust Terri to be clean. Barry was one man who actually cared for Krystal, even offering her a job so she could help out her family even further. Without his support, Krystal finds herself to be more alone than ever before. The lengths to which she goes to find some semblance of security for her and Robbie’s futures is heartbreaking, her hands grasping any potential semblance of hope that she can find.
Sarah Phelps’s screenplay for the three-part miniseries is in large part faithful to Rowling’s novel, small changes made throughout for the sake of condensing the story. The most evident alterations arrived at the climax and while the reasoning for those changes is understandable, it weakens the translation from page to screen, which otherwise works exceedingly well. Phelps keeps the focus tightly wound around the election and Krystal’s story, which largely works within the timeframe of three hours. That very timeframe, however, is my largest complaint by and large with The Casual Vacancy. In that sense, it shares the same key flaw as the novel from which it is adapted. In the book, there is a sense that Rowling dispensed her great gift for complex characterizations for certain characters while others are left scratching the surface for more depth. The amount of story within its pages nevertheless is dense enough to have played out over several episodes. That would have allowed the characters more room to breathe and become known while in some cases even retaining the majority of their book plot (Sukhvinder’s story being largely left out was especially painful for me). Rowling noted that after the monumental success of Harry Potter, she wanted to write about her personal experiences with poverty in Britain and that personal touch is evident throughout the narrative. There’s a righteous, accurate anger that is present throughout The Casual Vacancy, the author’s disgust at society’s hypocrisy exceedingly evident. The walls of Pagford, for all of the mighty stones that comprise them, are remarkably hollow, as if a single blow of righteous wind would send them toppling over. The privileged citizens of Pagford boast their thinly veiled desire to preserve their privilege and further oppress the already ostracized. The righteous wind does indeed blow those walls to bits, sending the privileged scrambling, worried about their own secrets exposing them for the fatalistic hypocrites that they are.
Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+The vast shots of Pagford are beautiful
+“Not till I have had my coffee.”
+The disdain from the officers towards Terri
+Council members finding language more offensive than displacement through gentrification
+“That’s apartheid… because people don’t fit the aesthetic. We do not turn our backs and look away from people in need.… Is the Legacy still of benefit? Vote to protect it.”
+Using the laziness excuse to cast further disdain upon those in need
+Kaye and the social worker agency was a welcome, if brief, look into that world that functions at a far lower capacity than it needs to, in one part due to massive budget +Using Barry’s voiceover as a connective device works really well
+“You should all be looking over your shoulders, Pagford.”
+“The best way to deal with failure is to learn from it … or so I’m told.”
+“It’s a side effect of being overweight.”
+“Kierkegaard is dripping with ejaculate.”
+“She’s vulnerable.” Tess, you all are.
+“…suffocating in bourgeois mendacity.”
+The cut between Terri admitting she’s hungry and the picky eaters at Miles Mollisons’ house raising their nostrils at a full plate of food.
+“What an unpleasant image.”
+“You’re a right good girl, Krystal.” The amount of tears at this moment…
+“People have to be responsible for their own choices.” Parminder annihilating Howard about the public health cost of his obesity was a greatly satisfying moment, complete with this gem of a line: “You’re practically mainlining fois gras into your eyeballs.”
+“Shit, that really spiraled.”
+“What’s your legacy gonna be?”
+“The real casual vacancy is the grave.”
+The “Please drive carefully through the village” sign
+“People will have to pass by us as they make their way into the church.”
Arf asleep in Sweetlove House
+“He’s a natural, effortless charisma.”
+“I put all my faith in Doritos.”
+“You wouldn’t know a code of ethics if it punched you in the throat.”
+“I’m gonna exercise my right to extreme apathy.”
+Sukhvinder narrating the episode’s endings
+The connective device of Vikram running through Pagford
+“Raise the drawbridge and raise the portcullis.”
+“Yeah, well he’s not you, is he Howard? They broke the mold when they made you.”
+“They’re not voting for you, Colin. They’re voting for Barry.”
+“It’s not right.”
+“Robbie. His name’s Robbie.”
+“We’ll have cake.”
+“May the best man win.”
+YOU’RE ALL WANKERS!
+“By the way, I’ve left you.”
+“You’ve got nowhere else to go.”
+“I don’t want the children to see this.”
+“You look like Pagford people to me.”
Name: The Casual Vacancy
Number of Parts: 3
Based on: The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling
Executive Produced by: J. K. Rowling, Neil Blair, Paul Trijbits, Rick Senat
Produced by: Ruth Kenley-Letts
Written by: Sarah Phelps
Directed by: Jonny Campbell
Starring: Rory Kinnear, Emily Bevan, Michael Gambon, Julia McKenzie, Rufus Jones, Keeley Hawes, Hetty Baynes, Abigail Lawrie, Keeley Forsyth, Simon McBurney, Monica Dolan, Brian Vernel, Richard Glover, Marie Critchley, Joe Hurst, Michele Austin, Lolita Chakrabarti, Silas Carson, Ria Choony, Simona Brown, Julian Wadham, Emilia Fox
Music by: Solomon Grey
Edited by: Tom Hemmings
Cinematography: Tony Slater-Ling
Production Company(s): Brontë Film and Television
Distributor(s): BBC (UK), Warner Bros. Television Distribution (Worldwide)
Image Courtesy: It’s HBO NL