Judge Bryan Byun could easily be a 19th century English farmer; he's already semi-literate and bathes once a year.
Set in the Oxfordshire countryside in the 1880s, this rich, funny and emotional series follows the relationship of two small, contrasting communities: Lark Rise, the hamlet gently holding on to the past, and Candleford, the market town bustling into the future.
I doubt that many American viewers—at least, those over the age of 30—can avoid comparing the BBC costume drama Lark Rise to Candleford to our own Little House on the Prairie. Set in the late 1800s, they're both affectionate rememberances of a more rustic, pastoral time, telling gently nostalgic stories revolving around family and community. The two series are even presented from the point of view of a young girl named Laura. It wouldn't be unfair, in fact, to think of Lark Rise as analogous to a Little House spinoff where Laura moved to the neighboring city—call it Walnut Grove to Mankato.
None of this is a bad thing, of course; it's actually kind of interesting to view Lark Rise to Candleford through the lens of Little House and compare country life in Merrie Olde England to that of Old Timey America. So many of the concerns of the good folk of Lark Rise and Walnut Grove are essentially the same: meeting the demands of everyday survival, overcoming the occasional crisis, and navigating the social and political currents of their times.
The differences between the two shows, however, are what's really interesting about watching Lark Rise to Candleford as a Yank. What Americans recognize as the gulf between affluent and poor—between the Olsens and the Ingalls—is to the British a class difference, and the way the characters inhabit their social ranks is informed by the obligations and expectations of their roles, whereas Americans might focus more on the disparity in wealth and privilege.
The Ingalls of our little English hamlet are the Timmins family, headed by Robert Timmins (Brendan Coyle, Downton Abbey) and his wife Emma (Claudie Blakley, Cranford). Our narrator and protagonist is Laura (Olivia Hallinan), the oldest Timmins daughter, who has gone to neighboring Candleford to be apprenticed to the town Post Mistress, Dorcas Lane (Julia Sawalha, Absolutely Fabulous). Candleford isn't exactly London, but it's a bustling metropolis compared to humble Lark Rise, and much of the series has to do with Laura, innocent and wide-eyed, adjusting to life among the middle class Candleford residents, many of whom, predictably, look down their noses at country mouse Laura.
Unlike Cranford, the recent British series it closely resembles, Lark Rise to Candleford is more episodic, offering little slices of life that, for the most part, wrap up by the end of the episode. One of the more engaging running plotlines, though, has to do with the perpetually penniless Caroline Arless, whose merchant seaman husband has left her to care—poorly—for their brood. Played by the amazing comic actress Dawn French, Caroline is an unrepentant (or more accurately, occasionally repentant) scoundrel and grifter, and the sticky situations she winds up in, invariably by her own doing, make for some of the comic high points of the series.
Of course, as amusing as Caroline's antics are, as with most of the show's lighthearted moments, the humor only thinly covers an underlying sadness—the misery of poverty, the grim realities of poor country life with disease, death and destitution always hovering overhead. Episodes involving political and class differences, domestic violence, and alcoholism keep Lark Rise to Candleford from being merely a wallow in nostalgia. Lark Rise is a nice place to visit, but I would most certainly not want to live there.
Lark Rise to Candleford has previously been released in individual season sets, but this Complete Collection compiles all 40 episodes of the show's four seasons on 14 discs. Being a fairly recent production, video quality is consistent throughout, and while not stellar—there is a noticeable amount of fuzziness and grain—is very watchable, with strong, vivid colors and deep earth tones. Part of the show's appeal is the beauty of the English countryside, and it's represented quite honorably here. Audio, presented in Dolby Digital stereo, is clear and very adequate—Lark Rise isn't exactly a loud show.
Special features consist of several featurettes. There's a half-hour "The Making of Lark Rise to Candleford" feature and shorter ones covering various aspects of the story and production:
• "Lark Rise to Candleford at Christmas"
At the risk of beating this comparison into the ground, anyone who enjoyed the simple country pleasures of Little House on the Prairie and also enjoys British period melodramas like Cranford and Jane Austen adaptations will want to spend some time among the folk of Lark Rise and Candleford. It's a beautifully shot and acted story that's grounded in an earthy humanity.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
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