Last month, I watched Dame Penelope Keith (To the Manor Born, Executive Stress) perform in a Zoom production of A Christmas Carol. When the curtain came down, I remembered that I still wanted to watch her travel documentaries. I decided to check out Penelope Keith’s Village of the Year on streaming platform Acorn TV. The program is a follow-up to her other successful travel documentaries, Penelope Keith’s Hidden Villages and Penelope Keith’s Hidden Coastal Villages, which are also available on Acorn TV. You could very well get through a lot of staycation time by binge watching these programs.
Village of the Year is Acorn TV’s first competition series, putting the call to find the best village in the United Kingdom. Keith hosts the 24 episodes, and she is joined by three judges: archaeologist Alex Langlands, garden designer Juliet Sargeant, and craft expert Patrick Grant. Each episode represents a heat or qualifying round among four unique villages, after which only one village can move forward to the semi-finals. Keith is not a judge on the panel, but she helps to keep peace among the judges and ensure they reach a final decision during the deliberations.
I admit that I wasn’t sure about this village contest premise before I clicked the Play button, but the introduction hooked me right away as Keith explained it. With every episode, I really wanted to find out which village would advance and ultimately be crowned “Village of the Year.” Part of that excitement is because the villagers on camera are quite polite and friendly. It’s easy to imagine having a quick chat with one of them on a future vacation when you’re lost or you hope to make a new acquaintance.
But the main reason I wanted to keep watching was the format of the show. It was structured in a way that was genuinely fun to watch. The map at the beginning is a cute animated map not only indicating the village in focus, but it was also decorated with drawings of animals and cute landmarks. That touch from the start is a neat way to keep it family friendly and lively.
The playful spirit of the artwork carried through into other elements of the show. Keith is an amazing narrator and host, reacting with a sense of humor to whatever adventures she and the judges are having. When she gets a demonstration about beach rocks and fossils, she quips that she is not the only fossil on the beach. Keith, Langlands, Sargeant, and Grant appeared deeply interested in the local traditions and activities, which would in turn pique my interest about a topic to Google later. Thus, they are effective in helping viewers to regard each village with curiosity and a zest for learning something new.
Typically in documentaries I’ve seen, interviewees are introduced in a straightforward way. For example, normally you might see “Tez, Ceramic Artist” when the camera first shows the new person. But in Village of the Year, there was a quirky spirit to the introductions. As Tez appears on the screen with a radiant smile, the caption reads, “Potty about clay.” Similarly, Debbie who specializes in baking dog biscuits is described as “lets sleeping dogs lie.” Meanwhile, garden maze designer Giovanni is “hedging his bets.” The production team makes good use of every second to keep the documentary engaging and funny without becoming corny.
There were only a couple of villages where I scratched my head and wondered why they were on the shortlist. Certainly the village residents were nice and active, but there was nothing particularly unique to make the location village of the year material. That said, nearly all of the villages presented some truly incredible features and interviews. I was particularly struck by the innovation of a few villages to revitalize their communities, such as in Dolgarrog, where a closed aluminum factory was converted into a commercial surfing lake.
Although Village of the Year ends with only one village as a cash prize winner, all of the villages taken together represent the best of U.K. hospitality, history, and culture. It is an excellent resource for figuring out your list of places to visit once you transition from staycation mode to regular travel later in 2021 or 2022. So, join Penelope Keith on this exciting travel documentary to get your list started now.