Our rating: 4 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
The BBC takes us once more into the delights of small town Victorian living in the third season of their successful Lark Rise to Candleford series, based on the books by Flora Thompson.
The Timmons family have come into an inheritance -- or so newcomer Daniel Parish (Ben Aldridge) claims. A journalist from London, his interest is in documenting the ways in which the money impact the lives of Laura (Olivia Hallinan) and her family. Her mother Emily (Claudie Blakley) is delighted, her father Robert (Brendan Coyle) less so, for he suspects it will mean abandoning their beloved hamlet of Lark Rise and moving into the larger and more boisterous town of Candleford. Their neighbors are distressed at that possibility, and while waiting for news of the finances and whether or not their share is very much, the Timmons family begins to brood. In the meantime, Laura starts to develop a hint of fondness for Daniel that does not please her Aunt Dorcas (Julia Sawalha). The postmistress and go-to woman for news in town, Dorcas does not put much faith in the press or trust Daniel, who seems to have more secrets than he should. Are his intentions honorable or intended to create strife?
When Daniel contributes to a malicious story that slanders the inhabitants of Lark Rise and puts most of the blame on Laura for having written private observations in her journals, he must determine whether or not it is worth his time to make amends -- and do what he can to win back her favor. In the meantime, the marriage of Thomas Brown (Mark Heap) and his wife (Sandy McDade) has become somewhat tedious, leading Margaret (Sandy McDade) to suspect she has become undesirable to her new husband. She goes to Queenie for assistance, creating a ripple effect in the hamlet that follows the change that progress, the arrival of a newspaper, and other newfound challenges and difficulties bring.
The third season is sweet and charming, a perfect return to the faces and places we know and love so well. While Dorcas is no longer the romantic lead, she still remains the driving force behind the show, the pivot from which the wheel turns and the woman to whom all turn in times of trouble. Her tenderness in caring for little Sydney is sweet, and allows her at long last to reveal her motherly instincts, but it is also her guidance of Laura that the audience remembers. Laura is after all the main character, but at times overshadowed by her articulate and charismatic companions. It's hard not to love Twister and his absurdities, Robert and his indignant determination to always be right, Queenie and her eccentricities, and of course the occasionally irritating Miss Pratts, one of which has a secret that might tear her away from her sister forever. Pearl actually became one of my favorite characters this season, because for once we get to see inside her soul as she contends with grief and even reveals a hint of a childish delight beneath her stern exterior. But it is really Minnie (Ruby Bentall) who steals the show this time around. From her girlish crush on Alf to the occasions in which she says more than she ought, the audience has fallen head over heels in love with her.
Beautiful performances and exquisite Victorian costumes run rampant, along with the return of various characters from former seasons -- including Lady Adelaide and Fisher Bloom. In the end, Laura must make a decision between two young men who are passionately in love with her, but she's not the only one to stumble into the midst of romance or endure a bit of heartache. One magnificent guest appearance this season comes from Hattie Morahan as a trousers-wearing suffragist. Filmmakers could have chosen to take her relationship with Miss Pratt in a different direction, but to my delight opted to keep it to a sweet kind of innocence and a genuine friendship. In that regard the series escapes political correctness but still suffers from it in various other episodes and instances. Thomas Brown, while beloved, is something of a buffoon, an unfortunate instance given he is the only one who practices any form of Christian faith. His intolerance and fear-driven responses are contrasted with parish tradition in one episode, in which he objects to Queenie performing a "ritual" to "free the spirit of a woman trapped inside a tree" that has been seeping out its sap. Dorcas manages to calm him down and infer that they needn't fear local superstitions, but enjoy them as a bit of culture. Characters sometimes respond with modern reactions rather than Victorian ones, giving a few plot twists here and there an out-of-period feeling (Emily argues at one point that she would prefer to teach school than raise her children, inferring she was not given a choice and that she was hemmed in by chauvinism -- although certainly not in so many words).
Apart from these modern sensibilities that sometimes caused me to roll my eyes a bit, for the most part the series remains suitable for family viewing. There are rampant superstitions and heathen practices on the part of Queenie, who sometimes seems like the local witch; they range from freeing tree spirits to putting berries and leaves under pillows to generate male interest in wives. Christianity is not widely explored and sometimes poked fun of, simply because Thomas is such a "rigidly religious" man who lacks a sense of humor and frequently overreacts. There seem to be "forces" at work in one episode, in which everyone starts acting unlike themselves; Dorcas suffers the most from it (my parents remarked that it was like she had an alternate personality). Mild conversation revolves around the fact that Thomas and Margaret do not have an active love life; eventually, Twister reminds Thomas that women are beautiful too and God intended for men to "love" them. From Margaret's happiness the next morning, we know the problem has been solved. There are flirtations between man and wife elsewhere, some passionate kissing, and a late episode in the season that revolves around a girl who has become pregnant out of wedlock. Her mother accuses a young man of being responsible. Lady Adelaide confesses to Dorcas that she considered having an affair outside her marriage.
Some stories are brought to a decent conclusions while others merely further explore characters we have come to know and love. It's rare that a series creates such a ragtag group of individuals that at times can drive us out of our minds with annoyance but at the end of the day turn out to be completely likable. There is an episode here and there that isn't as good as the others, but overall it is a solid return to two small communities filled with extraordinary and memorable figures. Alas, only six episodes have been commissioned for the fourth season, which presumably may be its last, but in the meantime we have many friends to visit and antics ranging from practical jokes, runaway geese, and troublesome cook stoves to indulge in. It is after all, our one weakness.