I'm in danger of sounding like a broken record, but now that the BBC series Lilies has concluded, I feel I have to share some parting thoughts on what became for me, an increasingly involving and important British TV drama.
First up, what made Lilies so refreshing? The show featured mainly unknown actors (I'd seen Leanne Rowe in Oliver Twist, but that was about it) who all performed magnificently. They made those characters their own - and what a team of characters Heidi Thomas, the scriptwriter, had created. I found myself caring for each and everyone, and looking forward to their future lives ... a prospect only to be made possible if the BBC commissions a second series of course.
Second, here was a BBC period drama which did not simply wallow in wistful nostalgia, offering us a bucolic view of English countryside, grand houses and the lives of the rich and titled. Instead, Lilies served us up a thick, meaty slice of urban, working class history, focusing on a comparatively neglected period - 1920/21, a time of post WWI-truama, when modernity, representing a true break from nineteenth century and fin-de siecle cultural values was gradually creeping into the everyday. Yet despite the breaking away from the past, many of the values, phobias and fears of that past, still predominated.
Living on the cusp of change was an uneasy experience for most, no more so than in tight-knit working-class communities, as typified in Lilies - a community where Ruby Moss, one of the most outspoken of the three sisters who are the heart of this TV drama explains, a woman wouldn't be seen dead without her corset - even though it was increasingly apparent that the corset not only damaged the female body, but acted as a restrictive device in terms of how she operated as a free individual within society.
Third, and this is surely important in terms of the BBC's license remit, Lilies was also set in Liverpool - Garston in particular - hence we had a fascinating insight into the rich and engaging history of that particular city. How refreshing not to have yet another London-based tale.
There was also a subtle but exciting subversive edge to much of this series too. We were plummeted into the period's social history - and some weighty topics such as female emancipation, then-illegal homosexuality, and eugenics were introduced seamlessly and skillfully into the narrative - but there was also a vital, healthy dose of anti-authoritarianism in play. So we applauded the Garston community for deceiving the 'Tallyman', whose job it was to ensure that housing wasn't overcrowded, thus facilitating the spread of contagious diseases. We also bridled at the rank hypocrisies and inhumanity of the Catholic Church, as the organisation turned the screws on Father Melia, sending him into exile at the end of the series for having feelings for Iris, but also, and more worryingly, because he cared for orphaned, ailing children on church property, and because he socialised with his parishioners. Similarly, Iris's plans to devote her life to God as a nun came at a price - 300 guineas and a pair of silver candlesticks - news which dinted any hopes she had of taking orders.
This twist in the portrayal of the church was a clever reveal, because up to that point we had assumed Father Melia's kind humanity was representative of the church he worked for (and because of changed modern attitudes), so the final bearing down of the church on him was slightly shocking, even unseemly, delivered by a smarmy, smirking Canon, coolly smoking a cigarette, as he elaborated Father Melia's crimes and ultimate 'fate.'
Then there was the core narrative itself, focusing on the three Moss sisters. Here was a female-centric world - albeit ruled to some degree by the emotional vagaries of their 'Dadda' = and it was interesting and unusual, that the series concluded with the MALES having to make major emotional and personal sacrifices.
As mentioned earlier, Father Melia makes a notable sacrifice. The pain in his eyes is most striking when he is instructed to leave his parish for a long and indeterminate retreat in Ireland. What makes his sacrifice all the more endearing, is that he protects Iris throughout - justifably of course, as their mutual feelings have constantly been kept in check, although one suspects his feelings here are the stronger. But it is Iris who naievely instigates the punishment meted out to Father Melia, as she writes to the bishop to request he act as a referee for her application to a convent, as her priest has refused to do so. Father Melia is unwilling to support Iris's desire to become a nun as he rightly detects her ongoing confusion and truama after a shockingly short and painful marriage early on in the series. But ultimately Father Melia proves to be a true romantic hero because he recognises his fate and succumbs to it, to protect Iris. He now knows the true nature of the monolithic, inhuman organisation he is tethered to, and one hopes he can move away from the Church, continuing his good works within the community, in a second series.
Dadda also sacrifices his chance for love and happiness with the sweet Miss Bird, purely to appease his daughters, who are still grief-stricken at their mother's sad death some years earlier.
His son Billy is making a daily sacrifice, we realise, in having to conceal his true nature, his homosexuality, at a time when loving a man was a criminal offence.
Dear Frank Gadney has seemingly sacrificed hopes of future romantic happiness by adhering to his passionate love for May - who has no appearance of ever loving him in return, despite her difficulties as a single mother. It would be interesting in a subsequent storyline to see Frank pursued by another romantic interest. How would May react?
Even Mr Brazendale, described by Ruby as a class A 'louse', was forced to make a conclusive emotional sacrifice at the close of the series, as his tragically unstable wife attempts to commit suicide. Any hopes he might have harboured of reuniting with May and their child are overwhelmed in that instant by a call to duty - the duty of spousal care, for a woman who has clearly lost her mind in grief and longing for a baby of her own.
Joseph the butcher, now involved romantically with Ruby, is also a character who can further evolve, most especially with regard to his ardent interest in Communism and social justice.
It is interesting therefore, that although the narratives centred on the three heroines are paramount, there is huge potential too in the supporting male cast.
Clearly numerous open questions remain, which strongly suggest the need for a second series:
Will May cope with her status as a single mother, which at that time, entailed social ostracism? Will she recover from her brush with the Brazendales, and will she continue to love the father of her child? What will happen between herself and the long-suffering, long-loving Frank?
How will Iris respond to a world where she was rejected by the Church for being too poor? And how will she cope without Father Melia - or indeed, how will she cope with his return (a more interesting scenario), most especially if she becomes romantically linked elsewhere? Or perhaps, if he elects to leave the Church, (not unfeasible in the circumstances), how would she react, as this scenario could present Iris with a minefield of awkward moral choices?
Will Ruby marry her Austrian butcher, and with her feisty, outspoken nature, might she become a political force to be reckoned with? Or might that relationship become too combustible?
As for brother Billy, there is the permanently festering issue of his homosexuality to contend with, as he is unfairly barred from expressing his sexual preference by society at large.
And, of course, how will the sisters respond to Dadda, should he re-ignite his love affair with Miss Bird, or indeed, simply move on from the beloved memory of his deceased wife in some other capacity? Indeed, the Moss Family still needs to come to terms with its grief for the absent mother .... And, all important, can Dadda stay off the booze?
And finally, baby Victor ... what will be the ramifications within the Moss household, of raising May's child?
Overall, this was one of the best original period dramas I have seen on TV. I hope we get a second series - I fear we won't, largely because the BBC poorly mishandled its promotion and scheduling. I will be annoyed with the BBC for ignoring the fact that this is a good value return for our license fee monies. Not only does Lilies make for strong, compelling TV drama, it is also socially-aware and even informative, brightly illuminating an often-forgotten period of our history.
But most important of all, Heidi Thomas the screenwriter, has created an assembly of heart-felt, emotionally engaging, fully-rounded characters, producing that rare magical alchemy, when the characters genuinely seem to take on a life of their own - to exist beyond the confines of the page or the TV screen. All too often, novels and textual narratives are plundered in the desperate search for those indefinable characters who shine with an essence, a reality, who truly reach out and touch audiences and readers alike. While I am a fan of Adaptation, it is hugely exciting to come across a fresh, original set of characters, vividly drawn and realised, who demonstrate enormous potential for further growth.
The BBC badly bungled Lilies; now they should make amends and reward the show with a second series - and this time, schedule it for a Sunday night, which was the original intention - to ensure that this dynamic, absorbing drama receives the viewers and plaudits it so richly deserves.
Cast - Lilies 2007: (World Productions/BBC Northern Ireland)
Catherine Tyldesley - Iris Moss
Kerrie Hayes - Ruby Moss
Leanne Rowe - May Moss
Scot Williams - Father Melia
Brian McCardie - Dadda Moss
Daniel Rigby - Billy Moss
Stephen Moyer - Mr. Brazendale
Iain McKee - Frank Gadney
Jennifer Hennessy - Mrs. Brazendale
Executive Producers - Tony Garnett, Heidi Thomas
Producer - Chrissy Skinns