South Riding and one of the greatest literary heroines

Friday 18 February 2011, 10:07

Kate Harwood Kate Harwood Controller, BBC drama

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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.

Anna Maxwell Martin as Sarah Burton in South Riding

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.

Anna Maxwell Martin as Sarah Burton in South Riding, surrounded by schoolchildren

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 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 2.

    I take no issue with anything in your assessment of the novel, Ms Harwood, but I do query your claim to have helped "push a passion onto the screen", since this suggests that this BBC production of the novel is the first ever. It would surely be disingenuous to ignore the fact that South Riding was first brought to television by Yorkshire TV itself in 1974, starring the wonderful Dorothy Tutin.
    Andrew Davies' adaptation will no doubt be wonderful - I yield to no-one in my admiration for his abilities - but it will not be the first. Credit where it is due, surely!

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    Comment number 3.

    Where were the East Yorkshire accents? This production would have been so much more authentic with attention to detail on this - the Hull and East Riding accent is one of the most 'preserved' in the UK due to the geographical location. Instead we got general 'ee by gum' Yorkshire.
    For the real thing, see the series on Sarah Beeny's renovation of Rise Hall

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    Comment number 4.

    With reference to:At 11:27am on 20th Feb 2011, cestrefeldian wrote:

    I also recall the excellent 1974 production. However I seem to recall it was called 'East Riding'; or is that just my elderly mind playing tricks. Perhaps someone can clarify this point for me please.

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    Comment number 5.

    With reference: 4. At 12:55p.m. on 21st Feb 2011, Norman43 wrote:

    Norman, Wikipedia (not always 100% reliable, granted) says as follows:

    South Riding is a novel by Winifred Holtby, published posthumously in 1936.... The book is set in the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire: the inspiration being the East Riding rather than South Yorkshire....
    It was adapted for television by Yorkshire Television in 1974, starring Hermione Baddeley as Mrs Beddows, Dorothy Tutin as Sarah Burton, Nigel Davenport as Robert Carne and Judi Bowker as Midge Carne.

    I particularly remembered it because, apart from Top of the Pops, it was the first programme I watched on our new-fangled colour TV!

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    Comment number 6.

    It was such a delight to watch....I can't bear the thought of a week's wait until the story unfolds further. Such superb, convincing acting (a refreshing change from the predictable acting skills of most today's stars e.g. Judi Dench, Maggie Smith etc.). Excellent script, great camera. All round brilliant ! Good old BBC dramas..they are unbeatable.

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    Comment number 7.

    Another nostalgic, middle-class view of history. With the fiesty, female character carrying the moral certainty of the left, who is pited against the conservative male attitudes of the right. Do they get together, as I haven't read the novel?

    If the BBC want to get to the heart of the social political life of the 1930's why not do The Road to Wigan Pier?

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    Comment number 8.

    Well, just watched the first episode to the end, and appears to be a misreading of Keynsian Economics based in a 1930's romance centred around Thornfield Hall.

    When did the BBC stop informing and educating. Watching When the Boat Comes In on Sky, and may be 35 years old but the script still crackles compared to this BBC offering...

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    Comment number 9.

    I have to admit I was disappointed. Poor lighting didn't help but I just couldn't warm to any of the characters. Nasty landowner, idealistic woman...... perhaps it is a 'grower'?

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    Comment number 10.

    While I found last night's South Riding enjoyable after much anticipation, it wasn't really a patch on the 1974 version starring Dorothy Tutin. This modern one is too rushed, too breathless, too cynical and cold. The original series was spread out, deep, compassionate, a better reflection of the wonderful novel which contains so much that is worthwhile and human. I just hope this latest version leads viewers to read the book.

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    Comment number 11.

    Enjoyed the first episode but there did seem to be a few anachronisms in speech of which, to me, the most obvious was the use of "transparency". This is a recent usage and I don't think any official would have used that word in 1934 in the same context.

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    Comment number 12.

    Thank you: 5. At 13:08pm on 21st Feb 2011, cestrefeldian wrote:
    in answer to my query about 'East Riding', that clears that point. I also recall that my wife and I were also impressed with the young girl who took the part of Lydia Holly from The Shacks. We couldn't recall her name but now know it to be Lesley Dunlop who now plays Brenda in Emmerdale.
    Being well past my 3 score & 10 I must admit to being quite pleased I can recall so much of the 1974 production.
    Thank you.

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    Comment number 13.

    Nice programme but was I the only one to notice that the calf born towards the end of the programme had a modern plastic ID tag on its left ear? A bad error BBC. No tags in the 1930's, in fact no plastics! Even in the 21st Century, when we are forced to comply with EU regulations in Agriculture. we are not technologically advanced enough to produce ready tagged livestock at birth. Try harder next time! :0)

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    Comment number 14.

    We loved this BBC Drama and cant wait for next week.So proud of my niece Charlie May Clarke who plays the part of Lydia Holly from the Shacks.Well done to all the other actors too.

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    Comment number 15.

    I was stunned by the earlier TV adaptation (mentioned by someone above) so I will inevitably judge this production against that one, which was brilliant. So far, I'm impressed, but I do hope Davies continues to capture the spirit of that time, even with the subtle little digs at our current 'climate'.

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    Comment number 16.

    Thought the original version in 1974 was far superior.

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    Comment number 17.

    The series is interesting to watch and compare with the original 1974 version, of which I have just bought the DVD.The story stands up well with the passage of time - meaty,dramatic and poignant.I'm impressed with the costumes and the background.Penelope Wilton is convincing,and the part of Sarah is also well-portrayed.The story is difficult to tell onscreen without it coming across as
    too intense and hard to watch.I think the 1974 version is superior,but then
    with the closing of the 20th Century,times are bound to change and actors/actresses embrace new styles of their craft. I will continue to watch and
    enjoy the story.May I add that Peter Firth,a much underrated actor,was also a welcome sight in this adaptation.

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    Comment number 18.

    I loved this book when I read it 20 years ago and subsequently sought out the film with Ralph Richardson, which at least had the benefit of being somewhat contemporaneous as it was made in 1938. This production has an impressive cast and great settings - although the lighting seems all wrong, with flashes from candles, gas lamps and even daylight interfering with foreground action. However, it is too short. It looks expensive - so perhaps that is the only guiding reason for giving this marvelous and important work only 3 episodes - but I cannot help regretting that the viewers will miss so much of the story. Perhaps if it makes them seek out the book it will be worth it?

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    Comment number 19.

    I'm somewhat puzzled about the geography in this second episode. In the last part of the episode, Sarah was going to her sister in Bradford for Christmas, and intended to stop off in Manchester on the way. Even though there is actually no South Riding, (there are North, East and West) I assume this fictional South Riding is intended to represent South Yorkshire, in which case, it's difficult to see how or why anybody would ever consider travelling to Bradford from the South Riding via Manchester. I've not read the book, so don't know if this is an author's inaccuracy or if it's this TV production team.
    It doesn't really spoil my enjoyment, but I do feel that programme makers have an obligation to be factually accurate, particularly in historical drama, and it's disappointing to see such a lapse.

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    Comment number 20.

    The book makes it plain that Sarah's sister Patricia lives in Bradford-upon-Avon in Wiltshire – hence Sarah has to travel via Manchester, crossing the Pennines. I don't know why the TV adaptation curtailed the place name, because, as you say, it makes it seem very confusing and strange geographically. But she's going to Wiltshire.


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