Where would British television drama be without a huge supply of country villages to draw upon for their picturesque settings?
Think about that for a moment. Can you really imagine Midsomer Murders, Grantchester, Father Brown or Doc Martin without an English village as the backdrop?
While they make charming settings for our much-loved TV series, they are also real places, and actress Dame Penelope Keith is having heaps of fun touring around and meeting villagers throughout England in her Hidden Villages series, currently screening on Foxtel’s History channel.
Familiar to older generations as Margot from The Good Life and the ex-lady of the manor Audrey in To the Manor Born, Penelope seems to have been adept at playing the dame of the local scene even before she was knighted officially!
In this series, we get to meet the real Penelope (she’s too approachable and friendly to want to be addressed as Dame Penelope) rather than her snooty characters, and she comes across as a delightful, warm-hearted English ‘gel’ who loves a chat and meeting people.
As she makes very clear, she herself is a villager, having lived in a village for 30 years, so she is in an ideal position to find out about the real life that goes on in an English picture-postcard village.
In a recent episode, she wended her way through the Wessex country of 19th century novelist Thomas Hardy, who wrote so movingly about the rural scene and the people who lived there. She visits Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire, and has fun visiting the community where her series To the Manor Born was filmed.
It’s heart-warming to see how she is welcomed into village life, as she genuinely wants to find out what is special about each community she visits.
When asked by Radio Times if the series had made her consider selling up and moving to one of the villages she visits in the series, this quick-witted Dame didn’t miss a beat.
“I live in a village anyhow and that’s my perfect village!” she quipped.
From her own experience, Penelope has a handle on what really makes villages work for the people who live there.
“In the country there is more of a sense of community and a sense of helping others,” she told Radio Times.
“People say, ‘Oh dear, everybody knows what you’re doing’. Yes, but they also know when you need help.”
That’s what comes across in the villages Penelope visits—while they have had to move with the times, they have retained that personal sense of community where everyone has a place and looks out for their neighbours.
There’s a good precedent in the Bible for the kind of community spirit we see on display in Hidden Villages.
It’s the second commandment—“You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew chapter 22, verse 39).
And you don’t have to live in an English village to know that’s good advice.