Sunday 28 May 2017

Programme of the week: South Riding

Paul Whitington

No one does period literary dramas quite like the BBC, and this three-part saga is very nicely made.

Adapted by Andrew Davies, 'South Riding' is based on a 1930s novel that its author never lived to see published. Yorkshire-born feminist Winifred Holtby was only 36 when she was diagnosed with sclerosis of the kidneys and given months to live.

Although she'd had several novels published, they'd met with only moderate success, and as Holtby's condition worsened she battled to finish 'South Riding', her story of a spirited feminist who returns to Yorkshire to run a girls' school on modern principles.

The book appeared in 1936 and was widely praised, but, sadly, Holtby had died just months before. It's since become a classic, and this lavish adaptation stars Anna Maxwell Martin as the redoubtable Sarah Burton.

This 20th-century classic is a rich and panoramic portrait of a Yorkshire community in the 1930s, and while Sarah's story brings to light the kind of social changes that modern women now take for granted, it also carries surprising and refreshing echoes of our own time.

And it's worth remembering that though women were given the vote in Britain in 1918, it was on a very limited basis.

In order to vote, women had to be over 30, either householders or the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5 or more, or university graduates -- in other words, not working class.

The Suffragette movement remained active through the 1920s, and women were only granted the vote on the same terms as men in 1928, some eight years after American women. It's against this backdrop that Holtby and her heroine Sarah Burton were operating.

In the bitter aftermath of the First World War, 30-year-old Burton comes home from London to Yorkshire to become headmistress of a struggling high school for girls.

She is the very image of a modern woman who would have been much more at home in our world than the 1920s or 1930s. She's full of ambition, passion and a determination to take her life into her own hands and rise above the social constrictions of her time.

But her homecoming turns out to be more complicated than she thinks, and, before long, her ambitions are in conflict with her feelings for the kind of man least likely to have won her heart -- Robert Carne (played by David Morrissey), a handsome, haunted and very unhappily married gentleman farmer with whom she constantly clashes.

But she finds allies in Joe Astell, a socialist agitating against poverty, and the area's first female Alderman, the formidable Mrs Beddows.

'South Riding' is a rich and moving story, and a testament to its author's indomitable spirit.

The cast also includes Douglas Henshall as Joe Astell, Penelope Wilton as Alderman Mrs Beddows, John Henshaw as Councillor Huggins, Shaun Dooley as Mr Holly and Peter Firth as Councillor Snaith.

The drama continues next Sunday at the same time.

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