series title over a blackened landscapeSpouseMouse and I have been enjoying ITV1’s Jericho, an eight-episode drama which began earlier this year.

I hope that PBS or another American network shows it eventually. It would also be nice if ITV were to renew it for another few seasons.

Jericho tells the true story of the construction of Yorkshire’s Ribblehead Viaduct in the 1870s. In the show, it is called the Culverdale Viaduct. British viewers will connect Culverdale with Calderdale.

Jericho is the name of the settlement of navvies (manual workers), innkeepers, publicans and prostitutes. They live in wooden buildings or in tents.

The Blackwood family, who struggle to finance the viaduct, live on a grand estate some miles away. Their agent lives in Jericho and runs it for them on a daily basis.

Amazingly, there is no law enforcement in Jericho. Ralph Coates (The Wire‘s Clarke Peters) is the Blackwoods’ agent. He pays the navvies and has the final say over boarding houses, the pub and the canteen. Everything — including the provision of food and drink — starts, moves or stops with him.

Coates arrives on the scene in the first episode with a reference letter. He is looking for work. He explains that he has 30 years of experience on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. A few episodes later, he tells his full story — a freeman who later fought for the Union in the Civil War and was mistakenly taken into slavery before Emancipation. He was able to escape and sail to England.

Coates works as an assistant to the railway agent. Before long, he is in the top spot.

The idea for Jericho came from Steve Thompson, who previously wrote scripts for Sherlock and Doctor Who. Thompson lives in Cambridge but his mother was originally from Huddersfield, and he remembers travelling by train across the Ribblehead Viaduct.

Thompson told The Yorkshire Post:

It gives me goose-bumps even remembering those journeys. I must have mentioned that in conversation to someone at ITV, and they said ‘Well, if you think that you can get a drama series out of it, let’s go and have a look at a few locations’.

He told the paper that there really was a Jericho railway settlement. All of these working communities had unusual names. The navvies chose the name, some of which came from where they had fought in the Crimean War: Balaclava and Sebastopol, to cite but two. Other names, such as Belgravia, were ironic. Others, like Batty Wife Hole, a bit quirky or fun.

Whilst the Midland Railway Company financed the building of the Ribblehead Viaduct, the business consortium led by the Blackwood family is in charge of Culverdale Viaduct. We discover in Jericho how precarious the Blackwood investment is, even though it will make the family very wealthy afterwards. Looking for new investors when one is flat broke is a continuous financial challenge which trickles down to Jericho.

The navvies are a rugged, violent, capable bunch. There are no guns but plenty of fist-fights. Someone complained to the Radio Times that there are no Irish navvies in the show. The response from Jericho‘s team said that Ribblehead had very few Irishmen on its crew. They’d checked the records beforehand.

It took seven years to build Ribblehead and, because of the physically strenuous work and lack of health and safety standards, 100 died. More died of disease and epidemics which spread through the settlement. Jericho reveals that there was no resident doctor; one had to go on horseback to fetch the nearest physician several miles away.

In real life, those who died building Ribblehead were either buried on the moors or in the churchyard of St Leonard’s in Chapel-le-Dale.

Thompson told The Yorkshire Post that finding outdoor settings for authenticity was difficult:

We had a pretty decent budget, but even ITV couldn’t run to building a new and very solid viaduct. We had to cheat a little. But one day, I did have the most extraordinary experience of my entire career. Last February I walked into an empty field in Yorkshire, with the producer, director and the designer, and they turned to me and said, ‘Here it is then, where would you like us to put your town?’. They built an entire shanty town in the middle of nowhere between Huddersfield and Sheffield, in fact, it was so far from any facilities, that the cast and crew became shanty-dwellers themselves.

Weather conditions complicated filming. Clear days meant that parts of Sheffield showed up in the camera shots. The film crew used CGI to remove those. Mists and fog, on the other hand, deadened the sound, making a clear audio track challenging.

Another issue was finding a suitable house for the Blackwood family and their servants — their ex-slaves who work for room and board but no pay.

Fortunately, one of the production crew volunteered the use of his family home, currently for sale but vacant. Whilst it is no Downton Abbey, it doesn’t need to be. It’s a perfectly suitable Georgian house with ample gardens. Thompson had period furniture and curtains installed. It works remarkably well.

As for the people who lived in the settlements in real life, Thompson explained that they were people looking to forget their pasts and build a new future. We see this rather dramatically with Annie Quaintain (played by Jessica Raine), a widow with two children. She is flat broke after paying off her late husband’s debts. They have no choice but to leave their town and move to Jericho to scrape by as best as possible.

Coates’s character, Thompson said, was based on a real-life navvy known as Six-fingered Jack. Peters, who plays Coates, told The Independent:

“It was a surprise to me to learn that more African-Americans were living here before the American Civil War than after,” the US star said. “I hope the series sparks more investigation into a history which has been closed off to us. It might help address some of the problems we have today.”

He told the Radio Times:

“There were hundreds of black cowboys, but because we look at what Hollywood puts out, we feel, ‘that’s the cowboys’. Hell, no! Hell no!,” Peters said.

“We are at a point where I see that we have all been educated with certain information that perpetuates the stifling of people of colour and class.”

How true. Peters also told the magazine that Thompson wanted to write other story lines, had he ‘been left to his own devices’ (‘Cowboys of the Dales’, 2-8 January 2016 issue, p. 16). For now, it looks as if those will have to wait.

Jericho is the first drama of its kind. Although people travel across incredible viaducts such as Ribblehead every day, television and cinema have left the story of navvies and others in railway settlements largely unexplored. It really was like the Wild West, only in Yorkshire. As such, it is a fascinating subject for television.

The Express tells us:

The Ribblehead viaduct – 104 feet high, 440 yards long and with 24 soaring stone arches – towers majestically over the moor just across the border from Cumbria into North Yorkshire.

By the time the first series of Jericho ends, it will only just have been started.

Here’s hoping the series will be back next year for Season Two. It’s much more interesting than watching street gangs and brooding detectives — and it’s based on fact not fiction.

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