Masterpiece began airing its final presentation of the Classic Season with Part One of South Riding, based on the novel by Winifred Holtby. Being entirely unfamiliar with the novel, but intrigued by the previews and the stellar cast (not to mention how much I love the 1930s!), I didn't know what to expect. In short, I loved it and can't wait for next week. Now on to the LONG post. :) Here's the episode one summary from the PBS website:
It's 1934, and Sarah Burton, the new headmistress of Kiplington Girls High, is returning to her native, conservative northern town, bringing fiery determination to empower her girls and yank the sorely outdated school into the future. But everything from her fashionable ensembles to her anti-war sentiments and modern ideas attract the disapproval of the stern, brooding landowner, Robert Carne, who doggedly clings to a vanishing way of life even as the past tightens its malicious grip on him. Oppressed by overwhelming debt — and his absent wife's portrait hanging in the estate he can no longer afford to upkeep — he is forced to send his beloved but unstable daughter, Midge, to Kiplington Girls High, where again, he crosses swords with Sarah.
The Depression has hit hardest in the local slums, the Shacks, where Sarah's other standout student, Lydia Holly, is trying to overcome the squalor that surrounds her. A development scheme to provide sanitary housing, advocated by Sarah's ally and admirer Joe Astell, pits him against the reactionary Carne. But Carne's animosity toward Sarah is alleviated, however temporary, when the two share an exhilarating, intimate encounter at the very boundary of life and death.
Host Laura Linney mentioned in her introduction to this episode that an entire generation of young men was lost in World War I, leaving a "surplus two million" women without husbands and therefore traditional lives as wives and mothers. Author Winifred Holtby was one of those women, who made a name for herself as a novelist and journalist, and the heroine of her most famous novel is an unconventional teacher determined to fling open the doors of the world to her young students, determined to teach young women that above all they not allow themselves to be limited by birth or convention.
Anna Maxwell Martin. Martin is a familiar face to fans of British drama. She played the role of Bessy Higgins, Margaret Hale's best friend in North & South, followed by her breakout role for Masterpiece Classic audiences as Esther Summerson in the fabulous, amazing, epic, and beloved Bleak House (fun fact - also scripted by Andrew Davies). Martin is a wonderfully expressive actress, with a rather magnetic screen presence, all qualities put to excellent use as she introduces audiences to the fiery, forward-thinking Sarah. From her fashionable, colorful (I want that red dress SO BADLY! Yes, I love it so much it deserves TWO photos!) ensembles to the passionate energy she exhibits in her interview for the position of girls' school headmistress, it's clear that Sarah is a woman who will not be denied, determined to make a difference in the lives of her pupils. Sarah may be a native of the South Riding area of Yorkshire, but it's abundantly clear that she is returning to her hometown determined to change it - and that drive meets with stiff opposition from more conservative, set-in-their-ways townsfolk.
Chief among those who cling to the old ways is Robert Carne (David Morrissey), a local landowner, whose manner is as stern and brooding and stormy as any ardent fan of Jane Eyre's Rochester could wish. Morrissey (deservedly) gained notice among Masterpiece viewers with his portrayal of Colonel Brandon in the 2008 miniseries version of Sense and Sensibility. I've got to admit, in fairness to Morrissey, I really underestimated his ability to play the tortured soul so well. Carne is barely getting by financially, is haunted by memories of his wife, Muriel (Lydia Wilson), who was clearly unbalanced, and has the rearing of an emotionally unstable young daughter, Midge (Katherine McGolpin).
I loved the way the film sets up the introduction and conflict of ideals between Sarah and Robert. Sarah, dressed to the nines, is running to catch a train to the headmistress job interview, while Robert is first seen on a horse, racing to the same destination as he makes up part of the interview committee. First of all, WHO DOESN'T LOVE A MAN ON A HORSE? But beyond that deliciously enjoyable moment, the scenes nicely juxtapose the the clashing ideals and ways of life that are being brought to bear on the South Riding community. Modern vs. traditional - I just thought those moments were really well staged and visually stunning.
Midge is an interesting character. I need theories on her behavior, so chime in with comments. Is she crazy like her mother, or is she unstable because she thinks she killed her mother? That somehow she's responsible for her mother's death? Because that's how I read Midge's crazy behavior in the scene that introduced her. Thoughts? Also, while the child is clearly, desperately in need of some positive reinforcement, did it unsettle anyone else just a bit the way she "flips a switch" to become all quiet and functional at school? What sort of crazy family are the Carnes, exactly? OH THE DRAMA! I love it. :)
Admittedly one of the primary reasons I was excited about this program was the presence of actor Douglas Henshall, playing war veteran and activist Joe Astell. Henshall first came to my attention as the dearly loved and missed original team leader Nick Cutter on Primeval, followed by a fantastic turn in the Masterpiece Contemporary drama Collision. Earlier this year he appeared in the theatrical release The Eagle, and later this summer it looks like he'll be appearing in a new episode of Inspector Lewis (YAY!). First of all, and I just need to get this out of my system - Henshall's accent is absolutely TO DIE FOR in this show. Seriously, I could listen to the man talk rubbish ALL DAY and be perfectly happy.
Astell is one of the board members who interview Sarah for the headmistress position, and I loved watching his face react to her unconventional answers. You could see him thinking this, this is a woman whose interesting, this is someone I would like to know better. And happily for Astell and myself, his unspoken wish comes true when the two sit together a musical evening showcasing local "talent." :) During the patriotic medley at the end of the program, Sarah - much to her chagrin and embarrassment - is overcome with emotion. Astell's quiet and kind demeanor draw forth the story of the fiance killed in the war, the man whose loss changed her life forever, by forcing her to make a life for herself, instead of the one she'd planned to live at his side. I loved the moment the two of them shared, quietly bonding over the shared pain of loss and scars sustained through the war. Robert is all nice and brooding, don't get me wrong, but I needed more Joe in this episode. Oh that accent...it just kills me. :)
In addition to exploring the changing roles that were opened to women in the 1930s, South Riding is a glimpse at a small town and the effect change, secrets, and gossip can wreak on a close-knit community. One such plot thread that will be interesting to see the consequences of is the minister Alfred Huggins' (John Henshaw) inability to keep his pants zipped. He indulges in an affair with Bessy Warbuckle (Janine Mellor), exposing himself to blackmail when she turns up pregnant with another man willing to marry her, both desirous of being paid off. It will be interesting to see how Huggins' frantic desire to maintain his "good name" in the community backfires as its guaranteed to do in a drama of this type. And I just have to say, while I'm enternally grateful that the scene where Huggins and Bessy get it on in the alley refrains from being explicit, seriously what was up with the noises Huggins was making?! I really thought the man was going to drop dead of heart failure - it would've been interesting to see what the show made of that, hmm? :-P
Another plot line sure to prove critical to the storyline is how the town council handles South Riding's slum community. Astell is at the forefront of the drive to develop a new, affordable and sanitary housing development, which pits him against anyone opposed to rapid change (i.e. Carne) or those only looking for financial return (i.e. Anthony Snaith, played by Peter Firth). I am familiar with Firth as a rather casual viewer of MI-5, but I've never seen him in a period drama so that change of scenery is nice.
Sadly, councilwoman Mrs. Beddows (Penelope Wilton) is introduced and then practically dropped from the hour's activities. I adored Wilton's turn as Isobel Crawley earlier this year in Downton Abbey. Mrs. Beddows promises to be a possible ally for Sarah on the town council, though she tempers her support for Sarah's endeavors with an injunction not to "move too fast," because that's simply not the way things are done in South Riding. Wilton is a joy to watch on-screen, her characters are so full of life, and I am hard pressed to think of an actress better-suited to the role of lone woman on a council of men than she.
The slums is home to Lydia Holly (Charlie Clark), a scholarship pupil at Sarah's school who quickly proves to be one of her most promising students. A bit rough around the edges, and sensitive about her less-than-privileged background, Lydia is hungry for knowledge and affirmation, and education could be her ticket out. I look forward to seeing the teacher/student relationship develop between Sarah and Lydia, as Sarah is sure to be a fierce advocate of anything that will benefit Lydia's future. I loved the scene where Sarah has Lydia read her poem in front of the class, and the glowing look that overcomes her when her efforts are applauded. As Kaye reminded me on the Facebook feed that developed on my wall regarding South Riding, the school aspect of this series has a very Dead Poets Society feel to it.
Sadly for my Douglas Henshall-loving heart, the end of this episode sets up Robert as the romantic forerunner in Sarah's life. *sigh* Because of course, Sarah and Robert are going to fall in love because they take such an instant dislike to each other - and those Pride and Prejudice-esque sparks, when they fly they can be pretty irresistable. But I have to say, Morrissey is proving much more adept and interesting in the role of tortured, angst-ridden male lead than I expected. However, I have got to comment on the turning point scene. Sure, I love drama of Sarah's car running out of petrol, and in her search for help she comes across Robert attempting to help his prize cow deliver her calf (which was in breech? I think?). After all, nothing says love like taking turns STICKING YOUR HAND UP A COW'S UTERUS, RIGHT? RIGHT?!? Um, eewww. I freely admit in respect to situations like this I am a city girl through-and-through. :)
And perhaps my favorite twist - the closing scene where it is revealed that Muriel is alive. YES. CRAZY WIFE IN THE ATTIC (whoops, I mean asylum) FOR THE DRAMATIC WIN. I approve. I feel like this proves Holtby must have possessed an appreciation for the Brontes and Jane Eyre, therefore I like her.
I thoroughly enjoyed the start to this new series, and I cannot begin to tell you how exciting it is to see a story that is fresh and new and unknown (to American audiences, anyway) presented on Masterpiece. Fast-paced and engrossing, and thanks to the prolific Andrew Davies smartly scripted, I found the first hour of South Riding to be smart, engaging television. I adored all of the period detail - the 1930s were known for such fabulous clothes! And the filmmakers did an excellent job with the use of color (particularly with Sarah's ensembles) and light to showcase the push-and-pull between tradition and progress. The 1930s is such a meaty decade, full of terrific story possibilities, and a time period I'm admittedly biased towards - I couldn't be more thrilled to see period dramas exploring this time, bring something fresh and gloriously different to my TV screen. Here's hoping the next two installments live up to the promise of the first.
I am so looking forward to the continuation of this series next week. And then, after that, a re-viewing of the miniseries on DVD, which should be the unedited, full three hour version. Based on last night's runtime which clocked in at about 50 minutes, like Upstairs Downstairs it looks like Masterpiece cut about ten minutes per hour from South Riding to allow for the introduction and ADS. *sigh* Frustrating, but not unexpected given PBS's history with editing. I am hoping of course for more scenes with Douglas Henshall, and really all of the secondary characters that populate this drama.
If you watched last night's broadcast I'd love to hear your thoughts!