The Mill, a historical four-part drama set in rural-industrial England in the turbulent year of 1833, is Channel 4’s first factually inspired period drama. It tells the story of the workers and owners of Quarry Bank Mill, and is a tale of hardship, brutality and inspiration, all based on real people and real events. Chief among the protagonists is Esther Price, a teenage girl who dared to stand up to the system. Here, Kerrie Hayes, who plays Esther, reveals a little more about this extraordinary, moving and arduous project.
What was it that attracted you to the role of Esther?
When I heard about the character, but before I read the script, I thought “She’s just a mouthy Scouser,” but then I read it through. There is a rhyme and reason to everything she does. She doesn’t overdo it; sometimes she just lets herself be a little girl. She’s got a real sense of humanity about her – she isn’t somebody who’ll just get into a fight for no reason. She picks her battles, and she shows her weaknesses as well.
Did you enjoy the historical aspect – the fact that you were playing a real character?
It was mental. I’ve always wanted to play someone who actually existed. I loved getting to do that. But it freaks me out a little bit. It’s not like she was someone really famous – the fact is that she only existed on a few bits of paper. And I’m trying to make her a bit more emotional, because no-one actually knew what she was like. She was judged by her actions. But a picture would have been nice, that would have been really helpful.
What is it that motivates her to stand up to the system?
I think it’s the complete anonymity. You’re not a name, you’re not even an outfit or a hairstyle, you’re just a number. You’re given absolutely no thought. If you were to get ill, nobody would feel sorry for you, they would just see you as a piece of broken machinery. To feel like that would just be the worst thing. She had nothing to lose – at least if she tried something, she could feel that she was someone.
What was it like filming in the actual Mill where Esther herself had worked 180 years ago?
I’ve been to these National Trust places before, and you go into the rooms and they tell you the history of them, and it spooks you a little bit, it makes everything a bit real. On my first day, in my first scene, Esther got locked up in a room as punishment. I was nervous enough as it was, and about halfway through the scene I was told that it was the actual room where the real Esther had been locked up. I had no idea. That was scary. Given the scene, knowing that that happened, and that happened there, it was like going on a ghost hunt. It felt like I was stepping on someone’s toes, it was haunting.
It’s so weird, touching things that haven’t really been changed since she touched them. It did freak me out a little bit. I wouldn’t stand in that room any longer than I’d have to. Even when we were filming the exterior scenes at the Mill, if we were doing it when it was quite dark, when one of us needed a toilet break we’d have to walk a long way on our own. With the echo of my clogs, I thought someone was following me at one point. So I never wanted to go to the toilet on my own. But overall, it was really useful, filming where she had actually worked and lived. It helped me to discover her.
Did you do anything else to help you get into character?
I did actually. One thing that struck me was how far removed they were from vanity, and how it affected them physically. In preparation for the part, I stopped wearing makeup, and I only washed for hygiene’s sake. I didn’t wear nail polish, and even the clothes I wore were just loose tracksuit bottoms and a comfortable top. I went to see my mum and she nearly had a heart attack. I was walking around like a complete slob. But in actual fact it really helped me. I’d go into a shop and feel as though people were perceiving me in a certain way because of my appearance. I also wanted to get out of the habit of going to the toilet to fix my make up or make sure my shirt was right. And it really helped. When we were on set, and dressed up to look highly unattractive, that didn’t matter anymore. I forgot what my face looked like. Esther had absolutely nothing to do with vanity, and I wanted to wipe that out from myself as well.
The costumes were also pretty basic, weren’t they?
The clothes were basic. And so thin. They had a basic dress, and an apron. They didn’t have any underwear. And then the bonnet was just for decency, not for keeping you warm. And then you had a shawl. But they were all hand-me-downs, and they were mended by the apprentices. And the costume designer, Joanna, made a choice to not wash the clothes throughout the shoot. And in most productions, you are taught not to get any food on your costume or anything like that. But here it was encouraged. We could sit on the floor, make holes in our clothes, everything. And she urged us to keep the clothes on all day, from the moment we got in to work until we went home.
How long was the shoot?
Just over two months, in February and March. It was freezing as well. We thought it was pretty bad working outside, but when we got inside, and they made us take our shoes off, it was so cold. There was no heat at all in the mill room. The feet were the worst. You lost all feeling in them. It was painful. You had to block it all out when you were filming. But when we weren’t filming, we’d all be standing on towels or tiny scraps of material – anything to keep the cold off. We were given coats and hot water bottles between takes, but in the end it got to the point where we stopped asking for them, because we preferred to get used to the cold rather than taking things off and suddenly getting really cold.
It’s a really big production, with a really great cast. You’re the central character in the whole thing – is there a pressure, being the lead in something so big?
No, because I didn’t actually realise until we were doing it. At the beginning I just thought that all of the characters had their own stories. It wasn’t until nearer the end of shooting that I realised that maybe her character was a bit more central. Every character does have their own story in this, and I like that. Nobody is pushed aside. Even the bad guys, you get to see the heart in them. So actually, it didn’t faze me, because I didn’t realise until the end, I didn’t feel like I had to carry any responsibility.
You had the original weaving machinery specially rebuilt for the series. Did you become pretty adept at working it by the end?
No. We were doing it at less than half the speed that they were doing it. When the fella showed it to us, and we were practising, he kept saying to us “No, you’re getting it wrong. You’re getting it wrong.” He really wanted us to get it right. There were so many things to do. We were doing it loads slower, and it was still too fast for us. So no, I didn’t get used to it.
It was obviously quite a tough shoot, both physically and emotionally. How did you relax in your down time?
To be honest with you, we didn’t do anything. Maybe we had a bowl of chips and a glass of wine. And then go to bed. Isn’t that boring of me? But yeah, it was emotionally quite difficult a lot of the time. Shooting some scenes, we just couldn’t talk to each other. Sometimes we’d be laughing and joking, but sometimes, if the material was quite intense, we’d just have to go sway and sit somewhere else and just not talk to anyone, because it was mentally draining. If you’re shooting an emotional scene, and it’s taking a long time, keeping yourself in that frame of mind for 12 hours was mentally draining. And on days like that, we’d have our dinner together and then just go to bed. There was nothing else we’d want to do. And the hotel where we were staying, there was nothing there. There was a shop about 20 minutes down the road and that was it. So there was no stimulus at all. We had a telly in the room, but that was it. But that was really good for keeping us focussed. So we were just getting up early, working all day, coming home and going to bed.
It sounds like acting is the modern day equivalent of working at The Mill!
[Laughs] Yeah, absolutely! I think on this job, it did sort of feel like that, because there were so few sets, and we were in the same costume every day. Honestly, we got so excited when we went to Chester one day; it was the most amazing thing. We could see other people, and cars! Even if we got given a new bit of costume it was exciting. And we would shoot the walk to work, or working in the Mill room every week, to get extra footage, so it did become quite monotonous.
They also created the illusion of cotton and dust in the rooms by using these big fans to blow what I think were tiny bits of paper around the room. After a while, your mouth got really dry, and it would start to make you cough. And if you walked too quickly, you’d get all this stuff in your eyes as well. It did affect us all. A lot of the crew had masks on, which obviously we couldn’t do.
Would you say it’s the toughest job you’ve done?
Yeah, I would. When they told us what year it was going to be set in, I had no idea about it at all. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what things were like in 1833. The whole reality of it, and the fact that we had to physically get in there and not be prissy, we had to get involved and get cold, it was very interesting. It was the hardest job I’ve done because of that. We all had to get dirty. But that was really interesting, and really useful.
The Mill starts on Channel 4 on Sunday 28 July at 8pm.