Pemberley (Lyme Park, Cheshire)

Pemberley (Lyme Park, Cheshire)
Oh, to be in England...

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

South Riding with Anna Maxwell Martin

Anna Maxwell Martin in South Riding
I have really enjoyed South Riding, although it is getting mixed reviews online. This 3 part series is based on the 1936 novel South Riding by Winifred Holtby about an idealistic headstrong young woman who goes back to her home riding in Yorkshire to become headmistress at a struggling girl's school during the depression. Of course there is conflict with the town council, two love interests and some interesting girls for the lead character Sarah Burton to deal with. There are a few extramarital rolls in the hay and some heartrendingly difficult to watch scenes if that would put anyone off, but I was transfixed.

The costumes and scenery are amazing and the acting is first rate. It really made me want to read what I understand is a great novel. I will likely pick it up right after I finish my current read (Year of Wonders:A novel of the Plague about the Derbyshire village of Eyam which quarantined itself in 1666-this one would make a good film too). I think to best entice you all to see this one, and help those who need to catch up on the characters before next week, I'll give you the BBC character sketches:

Anna Maxwell Martin as Sarah Burton
Sarah Burton is an ambitious and modern career woman, a headmistress who is determined to show her girls that the future is theirs for the taking. She has returned from London to her place of birth, the South Riding, determined to make a difference and implement change. However, beneath the self-confidence is a flawed and vulnerable heroine, whose ideals will be heavily tested when they come up against the messy reality of life.

David Morrisey as Robert Carne
Robert Carne is a brooding, troubled gentleman farmer. On the surface, he may appear snobbish, obstructive and backward-looking but he is actually just trying to protect the way of life in the countryside that he so believes in and loves. He is equally protective of his delicate young daughter, Midge, who reminds him constantly of her mother, his beloved wife now lost to him. Carne is a man trapped in the past but the world of the thirties is a rapidly changing place...

Katherine McGolpin as Midge Carne
Midge Carne is fourteen and has never been to school. She has been privately educated by a string of governesses who have struggled to control this highly-strung girl. With money tight and Midge clearly in need of company, Robert Carne decides to send his daughter to the local school. It's a serious shock for Midge, being told what to do and forced to socialise with local grocers' daughters! But despite her initial snobbery and fear, Midge forms a deep affection for Miss Burton and increasingly finds school a much needed refuge from her troubled home life.

Douglas Henshall as Joe Astell
Joe Astell is, like Carne, a veteran of the Great War. Unlike Carne it has left him with a deep distaste for its memory and a determination that matches Sarah's to make the world a better place in its aftermath. Born in Glasgow he forged his politics in the shipyards of the Clyde and came to Yorkshire during the Depression to work with the trawlermen of the South Riding. Sarah Burton is exactly the kind of woman he has hoped to meet - passionate, political, free thinking - and Joe can't help but wonder if she might be part of his future.

Penelope Wilton as Mrs. Beddows
Mrs Beddows is a strong woman ahead of her times: she is the district's first alderwoman and a formidable and vocal presence on the County Council. Beneath that surface, however, she is as hopelessly romantic as a young girl, privately battling against the disappointments of life.

John Henshaw as Mr. Huggins
Alfred Huggins is a man tormented both by earthly desires and by the desire to do good. He is a man of the cloth, whose heart genuinely bleeds for the poor of the South Riding, whose eye will always be caught by a pretty girl, and whose soul will be in torment after. In agonies of lust for young Bessy Warbuckle he exposes himself to blackmail and in a bid to get hold of enough money to pay her off, becomes embroiled in a piece of political corruption that may lead to his ruin... 

Charlie May-Clark as Lydia Holly
Lydia Holly is a teenage girl with huge academic potential but very limiting social circumstances. She lives in a railway carriage in a shanty town known locally as The Shacks with her parents and five siblings. Until now, Lydia's had to stay at home and help her mother raise the children but at last she can take up her scholarship at Kiplington High School. Sarah Burton recognises a gift in Lydia. She knows that education could entirely transform this girl's life but will Lydia ever be able to escape the cycle of poverty that has trapped her family for generations?

Shaun Dooley as Mr. Holly
Mr Holly is a labourer with a love for simple pleasures; a warm curd tart or a warm cuddle from his wife will send him to bed with a smile. Even if he has to share that bed with his wife and most of his six children! He lives in a railway carriage in the local shanty town, The Shacks, but he's happy and reckons they've got the best sea views in the whole of South Riding. Mr Holly's own education was curtailed as a boy because he had to work to support his family. Now he dreams his daughter Lydia will fulfil her potential in a way he never could, but when tragedy strikes, everything they both hoped for is threatened. 

Well, you know I will be watching this one for the next two Sunday nights on PBS. And I hope those of you who like to read some of these classics will also enjoy the novel.

Oh, one little explanation for those who watched the first episode and wondered what Robert Carne was doing with the vial and breathing into the handkerchief.  Apparently the character of Robert Carne has angina and he is breathing in amyl nitrite, a vasodilator, similar to the nitroglycerin used these days. You will see him use this again in episode 2 so I thought I would mention this for those who are puzzled.

Cheers and I hope you will enjoy this little gem, but just understand that this is a bit grittier than some of Masterpiece Theatre's more recent offerings. A very interesting look at regular folk's lives in Northern England during the time period between the two great wars.


  1. Loved it! I was really moved by some of the scenes, particularly when Sarah starts to read Lydia's poem and you see that subtle change in Sarah's face when she realizes this young girl has a gift. And when Lydia reads aloud and all the older girls warm up to her - just beautiful! Anna Maxwell Martin is perfectly cast for this role.

    And oh my, the very end - I wasn't expecting that!

  2. Hi Beth, glad you enjoyed it too. I loved Lydia's poem about the fox. I am so looking forward to reading the book after this finishes on PBS. Thank goodness for the BBC...what would we do without them!

  3. I'm currently reading this (I'm just ahead of the first episode), and I've really enjoyed it. Happily, Winifred Holtby has lots of other books!

    You should definitely check it out! (Interestingly enough, Carne's angina isn't mentioned until much later in the book, so I was a bit confused; I just put it down to intense emotional distress, which only made me like him more! ;) )

  4. Hi Read the Book,
    Winifred Holtby sounds like an amazing woman! According to Andrew Davies:

    "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."

    Now that is really amazing. I am putting this book on my list!

  5. She has a novel about a young woman (named Joanna, just like me!) who comes from South Africa to England, and I really want to read it. There have been some shocking plot twists in South Riding (I'm almost done) that I'm not sure how I feel about, but I still think I will read more Holtby!




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