Monday, May 02, 2011
South Riding started last night on PBS.
Based on a classic 20th Century novel, focusing on the triumphs and travails of a rural community, featuring the splendid Anna Maxwell Martin ( think: Bleak House) and David Morrissey (whose Col Brandon in Sense and Sensibility was, to me, even greater than the great Alan Rickman in the Ang Lee adaptation and who steals scenes left, right and center in Our Mutual Friend and who sings his way opposite David Tennant in the really odd Blackpool and who now plays DI Thorne) the series has the right ingredients to make for a lasting impression and started off with a bang.
Couched in the uncertainty single women underwent after the Great War, South Riding flaunts an experience metaphoric of the shift occurring in traditional women’s roles. Knowing that a large population of young British men had never returned from service and knowing that the obvious role of domestic servitude a la wife and mother was a fleeting prospect, Sarah Burton represents the “other”: the women who recognized that they had to carve a life for themselves outside of marriage and motherhood.
Fortunately, Sarah Burton embraces change and says so with indignation and incendiary purpose when she applies for the position of headmaster at an all-girls’ school in South Riding. The board is pleasantly surprised by her passion and intelligence and her history with their township. For the most part, they believe that the experiences she gained in life and academic pursuit in London will greatly inform the development of the young women in their township. Robert Carne, a once-wealthy but now struggling landowner, believes that she represents the shifting change that has warranted his diminishing circumstances.
The first episode introduces a roster of characters that will serve as the main players in the piece. While concurrently reading the Winifred Holtby novel, the first drastic change I noticed between book and screen is the witling down of the book’s massive cast. Instead, Andrew Davies does what he does best: capture the spirit of the novel and attend to making character traits pervading strongly represented in one or two characters (instead of the novel’s 3 or 4, etc.,).
The political spirit of the novel, the at-odds penchant for passion, change and promise and the stern wills and ethics of both Sarah Burton and Robert Carne help establish the comparison this story often has to George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Other 19th Century literary comparisons can be made to Jane Eyre--- but you will have to watch the series, or read the book, to glean those similarities for yourself.
Overall, a refreshing start-off to a winsome costume drama with lots of heart, feeling, romantic tension and beautifully rendered dialogue penned by one of the BBC’s best writers.