There was once a time when period dramas were glossy, often joyous affairs.

The BBC excelled at them, and they usually involved an adaptation of a well-known book, perhaps by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen or one of the Brontë sisters.

How times have changed.

Now it’s all about grit and grime – the Beeb’s recent The Village certainly didn’t shy away from showing the squalid conditions in which some members of the working class lived during the early 20th century.

Now Channel 4 is getting in on the act with The Mill, its first factually inspired historical drama.

“It’s an incredibly exciting project,” says Julia Harrington, Channel 4’s Commissioning Editor for History. “It’s the story of an emerging community, full of friendship, humour, rivalries and secrets.”

Set in 1833, The Mill tells the story of two groups of people – the Gregs, a wealthy family of mill owners, and the downtrodden folk who work for them.

As we’re about to learn, the Gregs are regarded as philanthropic characters who use their money for good. That’s not quite how they’d be regarded today; the clan not only used slaves on their cotton plantation in the West Indies, they also forced ‘child apprentices’ to work for board and lodging only, often for up to 12 hours a day, in Quarry Bank, their Cheshire mill.

Donald Sumpter, Claire Rushbrook, Jamie Draven and Kevin McNally are among the stars, but stealing the show with a powerhouse performance is Kerrie Hayes, who plays Esther Price, a young Liverpudlian who makes a stand against the poor treatment and living conditions of her fellow workers.

“There was a lot of life at the heart of her,” says Kerrie of Esther, “and what an impact her life had on those working at the mill because she was one of those that spoke out. she was almost like a poster girl.”

The 26-year-old actress, whose previous projects include Lilies, Good Cop and Nowhere Boy, admits she had to do lots of research to get the period details just right.

“I knew absolutely diddly-squat about the era, because it was not something that we did at school.

“So when I was mooted for it, I had to do some research. I was looking at photographs of people. I hadn’t even considered this time before.

“As soon as you think about period drama, your mind goes to corsets and whatever, but these are literally rags, which was interesting...”

So, are there any moments we should look out for? “There’s a lot of chaos going on in episode three, but to be honest, there’s always somebody crying, getting hurt or being angry – that’s pretty much the whole thing,” grins Kerrie.

“It sounds harrowing, but to be honest, it surprises you.”

She isn’t about to give the game away by telling us how – we’ll just have to tune in to find out.