As soon as Sarah Burton arrives in the sleepy village of Kiplington, it’s clear that she is going to shake things up.
Sarah (Anna Maxwell Martin) has come to be interviewed for a position as the headteacher of the local girls’ school—but while all the other candidates are dressed in grey, she stands out in bright red.
She tells the school governors, “I want my girls to know that they can do anything—that they don’t have to repeat the mistakes the previous generation made… blindly sending their sons off to be killed in their millions without thought, without question.”
Local landowner and school governor Robert Carne (David Morrisey) angrily denounces her as a “half-baked Bolshevist”. But he is in a minority of one—the others vote to give her the job.
In this early scene, the three-part drama South Riding sets up the conflict between the two characters whose lives will be central to its story.
We are in depression-era Yorkshire—with the fictional county of South Riding standing in for East Riding. Poverty is spreading, the horrors of the First World War linger and another war is on the horizon.
Writer Andrew Davies has adapted the 1936 novel by Winifred Holtby—a feminist, pacifist and Independent Labour Party member.
BBC publicity pushes the idea that it is a topical piece about austerity politics. David Morrisey says, “What’s relevant to a modern audience is that it is set in a time when there is great economic hardship. There are cuts hitting people left, right and centre.”
It is true that the workings of local government, and the impact of political decisions on ordinary people, were at the centre of the novel. But here the theme is underplayed.
A councillor who says that “the way out of a depression is through bold spending on public works” manages to attribute the policy to Adolf Hitler rather than the economist John Maynard Keynes.
When plans are made for new housing, it’s as much down to municipal corruption as Keynesianism.
And the role of socialist councillor Joe Astell, a major character in the book, is much reduced.
He is not the only one, though. The book, subtitled “An English Landscape”, squeezed in a bustling community of some 170 characters going about their everyday lives.
On television this inevitably means many characters have been cut, while others make only token appearances. Instead, the main plot thread, the “love story” between Sarah and Robert, takes up a disproportionate amount of screen time.
It is a shame, then, that this is the weakest part of the tale. It is never really explained why Sarah, a passionate reformer, and Robert, a downright unpleasant Tory, would fall for each other.
He suffers some personal tragedies, but at his core he is a fox-hunting, poor-hating conservative who not only wrecked his wife’s life but wants to wreck others by opposing house building and the renovation of the school.
The two hate each other, until suddenly they don’t. It seems like romance for the sake of romance.
The effect isn’t helped by the fact that the series was produced by what is effectively the BBC’s costume drama department—in the romantic scenes it slips into a somewhat contrived “period” feel.
When we get some respite from the love story, however, the rest of South Riding is immeasurably stronger, and sometimes genuinely moving.
For me, the heart of the story was Lydia, a poor working class pupil from “the shacks”—a shantytown built on a clifftop at the edge of the village.
In one memorable scene, Sarah tells her class to write a poem. “DH Lawrence was just a miner’s son from Nottingham,” she says. “He was just writing about what he saw and felt. Why shouldn’t a farmer’s daughter from Yorkshire do exactly the same?”
Lydia, despite her wonky handwriting, pens a poem about an encounter with a fox—living up to her teacher’s ideals of unleashing the young peoples’ creativity. This glimpse of Lydia’s potential makes her later fate at the hands of the local Poor Relief Committee all the more crushing.
All the series’ best moments come in the shacks, showing ordinary people’s stoicism in the face of crowded, unsanitary conditions, and in the school, where it has something to say about education.
The problem is that these moments are too few and far between. But for all its faults, this TV adaptation can play a useful part in a rediscovery of a relatively little-known but definitely worthwhile story.
South Riding is shown on Sunday nights, 9pm, BBC1. BBC Books is also reissuing the novel to tie in with the series