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Friday, May 20, 2011

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I've read very different reactions  to this series, very different reviews. Some extremely positive and some rather disappointed ones. I am totally drawn to its story and I loved almost anything, from the brilliant stellar cast to their characterization, from the setting to the costumes, from the plot to Andrew Davies 's screenplay. Maybe, that's because I, actually, didn't read the book, nor knew anything about it, but I really think this is the best series I've seen since the beginning of 2011. Better than Downton Abbey? Well, I liked it even more, I found it more deeply touching and less soap-opera style. A real BBC period production. 
At first, I was not sure I wanted to see it, since my friend K/V had more than once said, both about the novel (which she read) and about the series (that she saw before me): "So terribly depressing! Don't watch it if you are in a blue mood. It could worse the situation" . I usually love being moved to tears by stories I read or watch, I don't mind it at all. But her warning made me imagine a gloomy, dark, hopeless, tragic melodrama which BBC SOUTH RIDING is not. It is romantic, melancholic, even tragic but not hopeless, not gloomy. I just loved it. 

First of all,  I think Sarah Burton is one of the most interesting, gripping heroines I've met in recent drama. She reminded me of Virginia Woolf and her commitment, then of Jane Eyre's sweet firmness with the girls she taught, but  she totally surprised me with being unexpectedly determined and colourlfully bizarre at first sight. Superbly played by Anna Maxwell Martin - whom I remembered as shy, modest Esther Summerson in Bleak House or as sensible Cassandra Austen in Becoming Jane - Sarah Burton bursts into the story and she is lively, intelligent, romantic, elegant, stubborn and modern.

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  in her present. Her Sarah is a brave woman in a difficult time, whose fight for the future of the girls she teaches, not only for herself, is probably the authoress's testament. The love story is intensely beautiful, and can't be ignored , but what convinced me more in this story were its themes such as female education  when "farmers' daughters didn't go to Oxford", when they were not considered a  relevant part of society or life during the economic depression of the Thirties. Well, since I've mentioned it, let's say something of the love story. 

David Morrissey as Robert Carne and Katherine McGolpin as Midge, his daughter
Do you know that Winifred Holtby's love life was rather controversial?She never married, though she had an unsatisfactory relationship with a man called Harry Pearson who proposed to her on her deathbed. Vera Brittain, her long-life friend,  always denied that her relationship with Holtby had been a lesbian one, and certainly no evidence has ever come to light to suggest otherwise. Anyhow, Holtby succeeded in writing a very gripping, though not totally original,  romance. 

Even if you don't know anything about this novel , it is very easy to predict Sarah and Robert are meant to fall in love with each other watching them in the first scenes. Impossible not to notice they are radically different. He sits, as a representative of the local administration,  in the committee judging the candidates applying to be headmistress of Kiplington High School in South Riding. She is one of the candidates. He doesn't like her nor what she thinks about or represents: modernity. Robert Carne has a very sad story, he lives haunted by his of  his beautiful unstable wife, Muriel, now secluded in a very expensive mental asylum. He lives with his weird, delicate young daughter, Midge. 
David Morissey is as brilliant as brooding Mr Carne as he was as Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility 2008. Robert Carne is  a troubled gentleman farmer painfully  and obstinately opposing the inevitable changes brought by modernity, trapped by his marriage to Muriel and his financial troubles, haunted by his sense of guilt. 

Sarah and Robert are an explosive mixture: both passionate and unhappy, determined and strong-willed.  She has kept the memory of her young lover dead in the Great War in her heart for  about twenty years now, she has never loved again since then. He has always loved his wife and does his best to keep her safe and well-treated. However, the attraction between them seems inevitable, they are two terribly lonely twin souls. Unfortunately, they, like other unforgettable star-crossed lovers, are adversed by chance and time.

Among the other characters, I particularly liked

a. Mrs Beddows (Penelope Wilton), a strong woman ahead of her time, generous and affectionate. She is one of the first woman alderman in the district and she is  listened to and respected by the men she works with. 

b. Lydia Holly (Charlie May- Clark)  is an incredibly talented teenage girl with huge academic potential but very poor. 
She lives in  appalling conditions, in a railway carriage in a shanty town known locally as The Shacks with her large family. She obtains a grant to attend Kiplington High School.

All the characters are well played by the excellent cast:  Joe Astell , who shares with Sarah ideals and fears (Douglas Henshall); Alfred Huggins, who is tormented both by earthly desire and by the desire to do good (John Henshow); Midge Carne, who is 14 and has never been to school (Katherine Mc Golpin); Anthony Snithe,  moving his pieces like an expert tactician, with the apparent aim of sweeping poverty and ruin off the face of the Riding and bringing order where once chaos reigned (an incredibly blond Peter Firth). 

So is SOUTH RIDING as depressing as I expected? No, depressing is not the right adjective. A bit sad, yes. But its tone is hopeful, determined and optimistic. I highly recommend it to all lovers of good period series .


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