When, as a voracious teenage reader, I first read South Riding I took many of its themes for granted and thought it was a great story folded around a great love story.

But re-reading it when I was wondering whether to develop it as a drama, I found the resonances go so much deeper.

I am the controller of series and serials for BBC Drama production and, just occasionally, I get the chance to help push a passion onto the screen.

As the title suggests, South Riding is a portrait of a community.

But, as Andrew Davies has so brilliantly realised in this three-hour adaptation, this is a community into which blows one of the greatest literary heroines ever created.

Sarah Burton, superbly played by Anna Maxwell Martin, is as real a character as ever lived: modern, quixotic, romantic, intelligent, infuriating, elegant, colourful and as wrong as often as she is right.

She bursts into the story - and onto the screen - like the "little firecracker" the older, wiser Mrs Beddows describes her as.

Having lost her fiancé in the First World War she has turned her back on the past to become a teacher, throwing herself into the cause of female education.

Full of hope, she thinks she has it all worked out, but life has other plans and she finds herself sideswiped by love - love for a man who ironically cannot escape his own past, and it is this love that almost undoes her.

The great novelist and journalist Winifred Holtby wrote the novel in 1934 and died in 1935, only for it to be published in 1936 and become a huge success.

Often novelists write about the recent past but Winifred - maybe seeing her world with an intensity born of the fact her health was failing - set this novel right slap in her present.

Yet she still managed to give it an epic sweep and a tone that is hopeful, determined, campaigning and optimistic.

When I read it as a girl I connected with the love story but now, just as much, it is the themes that move me.

It is astonishing to be reminded that, when young women are doing so brilliantly at school and at university, only 70 years ago, a proper aspirational education for all girls was a novelty.

As one of the Holtby family told me at a screening a few weeks ago, Winifred was, at the time, disparagingly referred to as "clever".

She also reminded me that, in the 1920s, "farmers' daughters didn't go to Oxford".

But, as Winifred shows us, female education isn't about feeding the mind of the bluestocking but about making women a relevant, dynamic part of society.

I hope that you find this a thrilling, involving, passionate drama but I also hope it brings you to read Winifred's brave, moving, pioneering novel.

Kate Harwood is controller of series and serials for BBC drama.

South Riding is on BBC One and BBC One HD at 9pm on Sunday, 20 February.

For further programme times, please see the upcoming episodes page.

Watch exclusive behind-the-scenes interviews with cast and crew, and a special video on the costumes on the South Riding programme page.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • Comment number 55. Posted by lisa

    on 17 Mar 2011 11:46

    First and Second episode had me rivetted and anticipating a great ending , wish I had read the book as I was terribly disappointed with episode three . Everyone I spoke to in work agreed that this was an anti climax and that the BBC should have concluded the series with at least one more episode so that everything was not finalised so quickly. Loved David Morrisey , shame there could not have been another series

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  • Comment number 54. Posted by Peter Street

    on 14 Mar 2011 21:40

    I don't know about dark interiors. Presumably a good many South Riding houses were still without either gas or electricity - probably Mr Carne couldn't pay the bills even if he had them, and its looks as though he didn't. Even with gas lighting there were a good many dark corners. It's rather a relief to find this production getting that right - most wartime-set TV dramas are, following the lead of the fifties Rank and other colour flag-wavers, grotesquely over-lit. (And while we're on about anachronisms, why does a BBC website object to my spelling of colour?)

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  • Comment number 53. Posted by Silverwhistle

    on 11 Mar 2011 19:03

    Josquin:
    Well, I don't think anyone usually carries a letter around for days, and more or less learns it by heart, unless love is in the offing.

    I tend to think that when term ends she'll get herself up to Glasgow to see the poor lad. He's on a waiting list to go into a sanatorium, after a hæmorrhage. I don't think she'd want any more regrets about getting things wrong and leaving it too late.

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  • Comment number 52. Posted by lbeagle

    on 11 Mar 2011 16:15

    Almitra@49 - Another one: no one in England "checked out" of an hotel in the 1930s. They "settled up" or, more usually, "paid the bill".

    I have a more general gripe. I watched successive episodes on different very modern televisions. To begin with, I thought there was something terribly wrong with the contrast: then I realised that one was supposed not to be able to see what was going on - except when a door was opened or the action was outdoors.

    What, exactly, was the point of the film being made in the dark?

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  • Comment number 51. Posted by crosser

    on 11 Mar 2011 07:31

    Almitra @49
    Yes, I nearly switched off at "Have a nice day"!
    Silverwhistle @50
    So Joe may get his just deserts in a "fictional" denouement!

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  • Comment number 50. Posted by Silverwhistle

    on 9 Mar 2011 20:32

    Josquin:
    "Kate Harwood mentions the fact that "gorgeous Dougie Henshall" had been cast as Joe and yet Sarah rejects him."

    Mind, at the end of the book, Sarah has been carrying a letter from Joe in her handbag for several days, and has re-read it so much she almost knows it off by heart… He's ill again, but he could last a few more years.

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  • Comment number 49. Posted by Almitra

    on 9 Mar 2011 20:23

    I was also very disappointed with this 3-parter. Has anyone else noticed but in the era this story was meant to depict, nobody said 'have a nice day' in that awful American way nor did they say 'that's a first'. Shame on you Andrew Davies who I assume did the screen/script writing. I also agree this was condensed to the point of almost disappearing.

    Penelope Wilton shone as did David Morissey, Dougie Henshal and of course Anna Maxwell-Martin.

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  • Comment number 48. Posted by crosser

    on 9 Mar 2011 14:32

    I was disappointed in this serial. I felt that most of the characters (the exceptions being Mrs Beddows and Robert Carne) were unconvincing, and there were occasional anachronisms which were distracting.
    Kate Harwood mentions the fact that "gorgeous Dougie Henshall" had been cast as Joe and yet Sarah rejects him. In my opinion, David Morissey is even more gorgeous!

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  • Comment number 47. Posted by suekey

    on 8 Mar 2011 20:06

    Very upset to see the horse on the beach in South Riding, please reassure me the horse is alive and unharmed.

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  • Comment number 46. Posted by Josie52

    on 8 Mar 2011 18:34

    I very much enjoyed South Riding; I haven't read the book but did see the 1938 film with Ralph Richardson a long time ago.

    My only criticism of the production was the scene where poor Robert Carne falls over the cliff with his horse. At the top of the cliff the bit on the horse's bridle is a Pelham, with double reins. By the time the horse goes over the cliff and lands in the sea it's managed to change the bit on it's bridle to a Snaffle with one rein.....what a clever horse!!!

    I wish my horse could do that!! (Not fall over a cliff, I hasten to add!)

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