The Mill: behind the scenes of the new series

Historical drama The Mill returns to television screens for a second series this weekend

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Focusing on the lives of 19th-century mill workers, the new series covers the years 1838–42: the time of the great Chartist rallies (a working-class movement for political reform and the right to vote), and social and political change following the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which made a distinction between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor.

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Esther (Kerrie Hayes) is about to turn 21 and leave the apprentice house, while tensions are running high between Daniel Bate (Matthew McNulty), William Greg (Andrew-Lee Potts) and Susannah Bate (Holly Lucas). Series two will also introduce new characters, including economic migrants from the south of England in search of work in the booming north – John Howlett (Mark Frost), his wife Rebecca (Laura Main) and their children.

The Channel 4 drama is inspired by the lives of the men and women who worked at Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire. The series’ writers and producers explored the mill’s extensive archive, which describes the workers and apprentices employed by the mill’s founder, Samuel Greg, during the 19th century.

Here, in an interview with History Extra, producer Johnathan Young gives us a sneak preview of the new series:

Q: What can viewers expect from the second series?

A: We’ve moved forward four years from the end of series one to 1838. Esther is about to turn 21 and leave the apprentice house, and it’s a time of economic migration and Chartism.

The biggest Chartist rally took place on Kersal Moor in Salford in September 1838. It was attended by about 300,000 people who marched from all over the North West to demand the vote. Their petition attracted millions of signatures – it apparently took six carts to transport it to the houses of parliament! But it was rejected by the government of the day.

This poses the question: ‘what do you do when there’s a groundswell of opinion that is ignored?’ And it’s this issue that we hoped to address, particularly in the second half of the series.

The rejection of the petition sparked the 1842 General Strike (also known as the Plug Riots) – passionate acts of demonstration where striking workers halted production by removing the boiler plugs from the steam engines in their factories.

This took place in the shadow of the Peterloo Massacre at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, on 16 August 1819, where cavalry charged into a crowd of thousands of people that had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation. So there was always a feeling that the government might send in troops – lives were on the line.

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In the second series, we’re really trying to share a sense of what is going on in the world outside. We also take a more detailed look at slavery, and its relationship with capitalism as the unspoken engine of British economic expansion. There’s also, of course, lots of love, betrayal and sex, and the series has a lot of laughter and joy.

The late 1830s was a really crucial period, when anything seemed possible. The extraordinary growth of Manchester was inextricably linked to the expansion of trade and the increased wealth of the British empire.

Manchester was also a fertile breeding ground for new political ideas: because it was at the forefront of the industrial revolution, it was the first place to understand that the world had changed for the better, and that the political system was going to have to adjust to this new paradigm. There was revolution in the air, but at the same time individuals had to get on with their lives. 

It was also the start of a period when people began to have surplus cash and leisure time – independence. In testament to this, Esther moves into her own home – a cellar in Styal village – where she experiences the joy of freedom. People were starting to find their own voices.

Q: The Mill is inspired by documents from the Quarry Bank Mill archive – how historically accurate is the series?

A: The lead writer, John Fay, read through a lot of the documents in the archive, and found stories that we hope will really excite your imagination. The drama is based on real people, but their stories have been have been combined, elided, borrowed, edited and invented to create a costume drama with something to say to a 21st-century audience.

We’re trying to tell a bigger story than just Quarry Bank Mill, so we have invented material to fill in the gaps and tell the bigger story of the times. The series is broadly truthful, but we wanted to tell other stories as well.

For the sake of making the story more focused, we know we haven’t done everything ‘correctly’. We’ve cherry-picked information from Quarry Bank, but have also brought in stories we discovered that happened elsewhere, and that resonate with our characters.

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Q: What was life like at Quarry Bank Mill?

A: Workers had good healthcare – a doctor was available, and they were inoculated against various diseases. So Quarry Bank workers were generally healthier than those from other mills. Workers were also provided with nice homes.

That’s one of the reasons why, in the end, we didn’t base the series purely on stories about Quarry Bank – we realised it wasn’t a typical mill, as elsewhere conditions were much worse.

Q: How long were you working on the second series, and were there any particular highlights for you?

A: The process took about a year in total, from researching to shooting and editing. One of my personal highlights was building a beam engine, a type of steam engine. Matthew’s character Daniel Bate builds one, so we visited a real engine to learn more about it.

We soon realised we would have to create our own because surviving engines are museum models and they’re far too well-maintained to look authentic – they’re just too clean and tidy. There were health and safety issues too.

We also occasionally bumped into descendants of the Greg family on set – that felt really weird! But they enjoyed watching us. The programme has done wonders for Quarry Bank Mill, so we have a powerful connection with the community there.

Q: Are there any surprises in store that you can tell us about?

A: You can’t stop watching Esther, because you don’t know what she will do next! Her journey is compelling.

Meanwhile, Susanna’s husband Daniel is finding his voice and standing up to William Greg, the father of Susanna’s eldest, and illegitimate, child. That relationship will always be tense, because William is the boss. It’s a time bomb just waiting to go off.

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The second series of The Mill airs on Channel 4 at 8pm on Sunday 20 July. To find out more, and to watch the trailer, click here.