Interview: ‘The Mill’ writer John Fay on Series 2

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The Mill writer John Fay discusses the second series of Channel 4’s historical drama.

Currently airing at 8pm on Sunday nights on Channel 4, the new six-part series focuses on the lives of the mill workers against a backdrop of turbulent social, political and industrial change.


Series 2 covers the period between 1838-1842, starting three years after the end of the first series. Why did you choose these dates?

“There were two political developments in the years following the conclusion to the first series (set in 1833) that we thought it was important to cover as they really resonate with our own times. The first thing we wanted to focus on were the effects of the Poor Law Amendment Act, which began to exhibit themselves around 1838.

“The second was the economic recession, caused by the banking crisis in America – again, this didn’t happen until 1837 so we had to skip a few years to make the most of the strong parallels with today. Moving forward a few years also allowed us to look at the rise of the Chartist movement, which aimed to secure the vote for all men.

“It’s a time when people are starting to stand up for themselves and to say that they have the right to choose who represents them in Parliament. So it’s a fascinating period in which the working classes weren’t just mobilised to fight austerity, but also to march for democracy. Of course it’s also great to see how our characters have developed in the time that’s passed and how relationships have grown and changed.”


What did you enjoy most about working on the series?

“The whole period is replete with fascinating stories so it was hugely enjoyable to research. It’s also been brilliant to be able to deal with contemporary issues in a historical setting. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, for example, blamed the poor for their own poverty and criminalised those who were unable to work, citing laziness, idleness and vice.

“It’s fascinating that we’re having the same debates today – skivers or strivers, shirkers or workers? Immigration is also a key topic of discussion today that we cover in the second series of The Mill.

“During the 1840s England was a country that was really split in two halves. We had the North, which was booming because of the Industrial Revolution. But then there was also the impoverished South, populated by agricultural labourers who couldn’t find work. They became immigrants in their own country – they had to leave the South where they were born and bred to move up North and follow the work.”


What’s so interesting about working class history?

“When I was a kid we were taught history in a way that was all about the famous and the rich and powerful. It’s important to demonstrate that history is also about the people at the other end of the social scale – that their lives and actions are important too.

“The real-life Peter, who we’ve named our character after, for example, didn’t even get the privilege of a surname in history – he’s just a footnote. We don’t know when he was born, but we know exactly when he died because he was executed for leading a slave rebellion at the Greg plantation in Dominica.

“This story is true and relevant and we wanted to celebrate it alongside exploring the legacy of the Greg family. The Peter in our story is the fictional son of this real person, although as far as we know none of the freed slaves from the Greg plantations were ever brought to work at Quarry Bank.”



What’s it like to film at Quarry Bank Mill?

“It’s very inspiring but as it’s not a custom-built set there are certain restrictions on what you can do. For example, it would have been great to spend more time in the weaving sheds, as weaving was an important process that went on in the mill. Unfortunately the practical implications of the space meant that it was pretty much impossible to film there.

“You have to respect historical buildings like Quarry Bank Mill and work around them, but this means that you don’t have the total freedom of a writer with a completely blank page. But there’s an upside to that too – there’s nothing more terrifying than that completely blank page.”


Has the set increased in size?

“Yes. The first series was based around the Apprentice House, focusing on the harsh reality of child labour, but in the second series we’re addressing other issues and we’ve stepped into Styal village – the village built by the Gregs to house their workers.

“We see our central characters from the first series start to leave the Apprentice House, gradually move into the village and start their own families, so the set had to expand. But we don’t lose the Apprentice House – it’s still there, inhabited by the next generation.”


Do you prefer working alone or with other writers?

“In Series Two, Episode 3 was written by Ian Kershaw and Debbie Oates, Episode 4 was written by Alice Nutter, and Episode 5 was written by Steve Fay and Tony Green. It was great to have an opportunity to work with other writers. Writing is a great job – and I love my job – but the downside is that you do tend to feel a bit isolated.

“You’re stuck in your room with your computer all day, every day, day-after-day-after-day, so it’s been great to have a writing team along with me this time and to collaborate. It’s been a fantastic experience.”


What did you find most surprising when you researched the period?

“I was shocked when I fully considered the size of the Chartists’ petitions – the first petition had over 1.3 million signatures while the second was signed by over three million working people!

“Today, you sign a petition with the click of a mouse, from anywhere, at any time. But in the 1840s, obtaining that many signatures must have been a huge logistical operation – they didn’t have printing facilities available to them and many people couldn’t read or write. They overcame all these practicalities, but then the petitions were ignored by Parliament.”


What do you think of Series 2 so far ? Let us know below…