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Wednesday 24 Sep 2014

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South Riding – Andrew Davies

Writer Andrew Davies (Bleak House, Sense And Sensibility, Little Dorrit, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes) returns to BBC One this month with a brand new three-part drama based on Winifred Holtby's novel South Riding, a rich and panoramic portrait of a Yorkshire community in the Thirties, that carries surprising and refreshing echoes of our own time.

Here Andrew Davies shares his thoughts on the novel, its author and working with Anna Maxwell Martin who also starred in Bleak House.

"I was approached by Kate Harwood (BBC Controller Drama Series & Serials) to write South Riding. I had never read it before I started working on it. There was a series back in the 1970s with Dorothy Tutin in the main part, but now really seemed like the right time to do it again.

"South Riding was quite a difficult one to do partly because it's a big book and a big ask to cram such a lot of characters and story into three episodes.

"The other thing is that the novel isn't very conventionally written and I kept finding that Winifred Holtby seemed to skip from scene to scene. There was quite a lot of filling in the gaps to be done in terms of Carne's [played by David Morrissey] and Astell's [Douglas Henshall] relationship with Sarah Burton [Anna Maxwell Martin]. So I found I was having to do quite a lot of creative work which I actually enjoyed.

"What's a bit unusual about South Riding is almost all the characters are idealistic in one way or another, they don't think it's a waste of time to make the world a better place. They all feel they can actually make a difference, and they do: I think Winifred Holtby sort of modelled it on Middlemarch in a way. They get disappointments and sometimes you aim for the absolute heights and then have to be content with smaller steps.

"There's a terrific element of hope for the future in South Riding through Lydia played wonderfully by Charlie May-Clark.

"I think people will find South Riding a nice change from some of the dramas which have been done in the past. It's nice to have something that isn't all upper class and set in a big country house, and it's fine to take in the whole of the community which is, of course, what Winifred Holtby was trying to do.

"I was staggered by Winifred Holtby's confidence and ambition. I think it's to do with her friendship with Vera Brittain, they both worked as nurses in the First World War, and I think that gave them a sense of 'there are such a lot of things in the world and you either do something about them or you don't' and so they encouraged each other to be enormously ambitious, mostly in terms of politics and progressive causes.

"Winifred Holtby went on a lecture tour of South Africa in her early 20s – most people in their early 20s are still living with mum and dad these days – but she was off lecturing the South African government about what to do! This kind of enormous ambition and feeling is just wonderfully inspirational.

"She died very young and so never had the chance to see her life through; but to write a novel like South Riding in your middle 30s is very impressive, and it's rather poignant wondering what she would have achieved if she'd lived as long as say I have.

"There are masses of modern resonances in South Riding. It's very much a time of shortages and cuts, a community trying to deal with a recession, and rather excitingly, the South Riding council is taking the exact opposite line to David Cameron and Mr Osborne – they are trying to stimulate the economy with a big programme of public works, road building, new schools, new hospitals and so on, very much the kind of thing President Obama is trying to do in America, but in our story it's just David Morrissey's character [Robert Carne] who is saying "we've got to have cuts, we can't spend any money". So these things are very live at the moment.

"It's nice to have Anna Maxwell Martin in such a different kind of part because in Bleak House her character was quiet, very subdued, although very deep underneath, but Sarah Burton is a wonderfully fiery, combative character, impulsive and liable to get into rows with people and Anna does that beautifully.

"There's always a danger that Sarah could seem strident and annoying, but Anna manages to make her very likeable. She laughs a lot and I like that because I hadn't imagined the character laughing a lot. She gives Sarah a kind of lightness and gaiety which makes her very endearing; I think she is really charismatic. Also you can just believe her as a wonderful teacher, when she talks to the girls; you just think 'wow, I wish we had a teacher like that when we were in school'."

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