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The BBC miniseries South Riding, a faithful adaptation of Winifred Holtby's novel, will charm fans of British and historical dramas, and of love stories for all ages. South Riding features an idealistic, spunky heroine in the form of Sarah Burton, played by the winsome Anna Maxwell Martin (who starred in director Andrew Davies's earlier spot-on period piece, Bleak House). The time is the early 1930s, when England is still reeling from the awful effects of the Great War, and, like the rest of the world, is struggling years into the Great Depression. South Riding focuses on a small, working-class town in Yorkshire, which just happens to be the hometown of our inspiring young heroine, who returns as headmistress of a local, failing girls' school, full of idealism and opinions. Britain's unforgiving class system is in strict effect as Sarah tilts against windmills to try to give all of South Riding's young women a chance at education and realizing their dreams. Davies's direction is unassuming yet brisk, as the viewer learns the history and lay of the land quickly, with Sarah's pushing back, gently but firmly, on the prejudices and sexism that shaped English society for centuries. With elements of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, To Sir with Love, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Lark Rise to Candleford, South Riding gives viewers a heroine to root for, and a lush historical period to immerse in. The acting is uniformly splendid, including Charlie Clark and Katherine McGolpin as two special young students who start at the school the same time as Miss Burton. And the town's mostly disapproving power brokers, including David Morrissey as Robert Carne, provide a formidable challenge for Sarah's modern ideas. Yet for all her willful independence, Sarah Burton also is drawn to the sparks of romance--which makes South Riding a satisfying journey for anyone who loves a good historical love story. --A.T. Hurley
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Top Customer Reviews
There are two different ways of rating this mini series. Taken in isolation it is absorbing and entertaining and is certainly worth Five Stars, and this is what I have based my rating on. However, there is no way that a book of this complexity can be adequately translated into three hours of TV viewing so of necessity, only some of the major strands can be picked up and to some extent developed in this time period. I would imagine that the previous TV series from the 1970s which ran to 13 parts was much more satisfactory in this respect. Therefore based on a judgement of how well the series reflects the book, we are probably looking at Two Stars.
The beauty of the book, which does translate to a large extent into the TV adaptation, is the superb portrayal of the diverse characters within this rural community. Some are major and memorable characters such as Lydia, the brilliant scholar from the shacks (temporary slum housing scheduled for demolition) with a difficult family background who like Sarah is new to the school - when her mother dies she struggles to keep her scholarship place at the school.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
There is politicking in the British style, especially through Alderwoman Beddows (Penelope Wilton). Council meetings do some havoc on the community and individual family situations. As a result, not everything turns up a bed of roses. There is struggle with recession. A truth quite realistic on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1930s. A nice period piece. Sit back and enjoy the characters and the interaction. Rural strength of people in a beautiful Yorkshire setting.
Character depth within the people of South Riding hamlet makes this worthy of 5 stars.
If this three part miniseries is guilty of anything, it is of having too much story to compress into its limited timeframe. Ostensibly the tale covers an entire town's worth of characters and story lines and three episodes is not adequate time to present them in an in-depth way. The heart of the story involves a local girl (Maxwell-Martin) returning to South Riding to take up a position as the school mistress. Headstrong and independent, she immediately clashes with some of more traditional town leaders--including Morrissey. You know immediately where this battle of wills is headed, but credit the writer and actors for maintaining a credible conflict without an easy resolution. This is, by far, the most intriguing aspect of the story as Morrissey is haunted by an unresolved relationship in his life. Maxwell-Martin may be a little progressive and modern for this tiny 1930's village, but she plays with a wide eyed conviction that keeps you on her side.
The story, however, also extends to subplots about an illicit affair, a land grab scheme, an impoverished girl making good, unrequited attraction and a number of other narrative elements battling for screen time. The talented supporting cast is very much underserved by the script that has little time or interest to develop them beyond the most superficial qualities. As such, much of the drama and impact of "South Riding" is limited. The second episode is probably the most engaging with the Maxwell-Martin and Morrissey pairing being explored at length. But even that plot point comes to an abrupt end. The complicated and overstuffed plot points, however, all come to tidy conclusions in a rushed ending filled with pat solutions and cliched narration.
For its faults, though, this is still a handsome production filled with terrific actors. I'm glad I watched it, and I found it entertaining and pleasurable. Is it the best that BBC or Masterpiece Theater has to offer? Not even close! But if you enjoy this type of entertainment, this show has its share of charm even if it's not particularly substantive. A good effort that simply has too much going on and, thus, leaves the viewer wanting more story and character development. KGHarris, 5/11.
Firstly, the pros. Anna Maxwell Martin is bright, beautiful and interesting. Her costumes are so lovely I want them for myself, and she is a stellar actress. I have no complaints about her performance whatsoever (although I do have some issues with the character). David Morrissey is also excellent. He has a knack for portraying both the absolutely repulsive (ie. Bradley Headstone in 'Our Mutual Friend', Stephen Collins in 'State of Play') and the terrifically endearing (ie. Colonel Brandon in 'Sense and Sensibility') and sometimes both at once (friendly/murderous Nazi Gunther Weber in 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin'). In 'South Riding' he's utterly convincing as a brusque Yorkshireman. Other stand-out performances include the always marvellous Penelope Wilton, and Charlie May Clarke, who plays impoverished and heavily accented student Lydia Holly with such authenticity it's hard to believe she's not real.
The landscape is breathtaking, and the sweeping cinematography very impressive. The score is very dramatic too. In short, the production values generally are excellent. Unfortunately, once you're fully invested in the characters and in love with the scenery, the director abruptly pulls the rug out from under you. For the sake of brevity, I'm going to list the awkwardly resolved plot points that left me scratching my head:
*I found myself wondering if I had missed an episode, or at least some vital piece of the action, as love interest Robert Carne (David Morrisey) and his horse abruptly plunge off a cliff. One minute he's enjoying the bracing Yorkshire rain, the next we're told his horse has been found on the beach below. Are we to assume he's dead, or hope he's alive? Apparently the former: there's a sudden funeral. His body must have washed up at some point (I can't be sure - all we see is a dark shape bobbing in the waves as children play on the beach), but the sequence of events at this point is so confused it's hard to work out what's actually happened. When the action turned abruptly from the graveside ceremony to Carne riding breathlessly along the cliffs, I thought for a moment he was crashing the funeral to exclaim "that body isn't mine!". It turned out to be an awkwardly inserted flashback, complete with dodgy CGI, to explain how he'd died (mudslide).
*Ms Burton (Anna Maxwell Martin) announces at the funeral that she knew Carne well, and was not ashamed to say it. The problem is, she didn't know him well. She helped him deliver a calf, and they had a single date (followed by a late-night tryst that ultimately didn't pan out, due to a mysterious heart condition that is never adequately explained). The chemistry between the two is palpable, but the relationship isn't explored in enough depth to make Carne's death truly devastating. The romance began pretty abruptly (something along the lines of "would you like to come to my room?"), and the only reason it wasn't a shock was because we've all seen tv shows before, and we all know the main guy usually hooks up with the main girl. It could have been handled with more grace, but I guess delivering a calf with someone is the sort of icky/lovely bonding experience that rapidly accelerates the relationship to Stage Two, whether you like it or not.
*Socialist Joe Astell's declaration of love for Ms Burton comes completely out of the blue, and lacks resonance. I was never quite sure what he was doing in the story, or what his relationship to Ms Burton was, but in the final episode she emphatically declares that they are "just friends", then emphatically kisses him. Then the mudslide, then Astell's proposal (of sorts), which is confusing and ill-timed, as though the director is trying to tie up loose ends we didn't even know were there.
*After her father's death, Carne's daughter Midge, whom the first and second episodes imply is prone to psychosis and cruelty, inexplicably decides to live with her grandfather, whom neither Midge nor the audience has ever met until the last five minutes of the program. This, despite her father asking the beloved and familiar Mrs Beddows to raise Midge in the event of his death.
*Carne's mentally ill wife, who is usually doped up and restrained when he visits her in the asylum, is suddenly released after his death and returns home to Midge and the grandfather. Throughout the marriage she was suicidal and promiscuous, and Carne announces shortly before he dies that it doesn't looks like she will ever be well enough to leave the asylum. So what's the deal? Is she recovered? Was it a madwoman-in-the-attic type scenario, the psychologically unbalanced wife imprisoned by a husband who is himself no angel, or is she genuinely in need of full time care? The story never lets us in on her diagnosis, but I'm not confident that she's fit to raise a daughter, and we don't even witness the reunion. It's unsatisfying. Moreover, Ms Burton seems to have formed no lasting bond with Midge despite claiming to 'know' her father, and it's unclear why Midge is so indifferent about Mrs Beddows.
*Lydia Holly returns to school and becomes a teacher, which is as it should be. The circumstances are bizarre, though. After the sudden death of his wife (presumably due to a botched abortion?), her father decides, apparently on the spur of the moment, to propose marriage to a decent-looking woman we've never met before. Why she accepts the offer of a destitute widower with four or five kids - including an infant - and living in what can only be described as a converted tram is not clear, but it does wrap everything up in a neat little package, which I guess was the point.
*Married councillor Alfred Huggins' relationship with Bessy Warbuckle is disturbing, in that I can't tell whether she's supposed to be intellectually challenged or not. She's sophisticated enough to seduce Huggins, but blithely announces her pregnancy as though he'll receive it as happy news. Either way, once her scheming fiancee has extorted a large sum from Huggins, she seems to vanish from the story. Huggins gets his comeuppance in the form of a major financial loss, but it's not clear why the eccentric and corrupt Alderman Snaith gets away with his machinations, or really what he has to do with the story at all, except as a plot device. I may have actually missed something there, because I don't totally get what happened in the end.
Ultimately, the various storylines converge in a tangled mess in the third and final episode, and resolve themselves unsatisfactorily or not at all. Everything winds up very suddenly, and it left me puzzled and frustrated. It wasn't the story of triumph over struggle and poverty that I had hoped it would be. I didn't necessarily anticipate a happy ending, but an audience is always entitled to a satisfying one, because we've engaged with the characters and invested in the story. Sarah Burton's motivations remained a mystery, and her militant feminism and defiant attitude too often came across as unprovoked irritability. Though she succeeds in drawing promising student Lydia Holly back to school, she fails to engage with her on her level, or to present realistic solutions to the problems of a critically impoverished single-parent family. While Lydia triumphs, fellow student Midge Carne is abandoned to an indifferent fate.
Despite it's visual beauty and glossy production values, the meaning of this story is obscured in a confused conclusion, and I'm disappointed.
Let us hope that this BBC trend does not continue!
P.S. There is a 1974 version (DVD issued in 2007), with the late great actress of British theatre, Dorothy Tutin, playing the Schoolmistress. Highly rated, this "South Riding" is on four discs and in thirteen episodes, an indication of what viewers are missing. Unfortunately it is available only in PAL, so unless one has a multi-region DVD player, one will be unable to see it on this side of the Pond.