Winifred Holtby’s most famous and posthumously published novel was turned into a film starring Edna Best and Ralph Richardson in 1938; a TV version followed in 1974.
Now it’s back on the box, this time with Anna Maxwell Martin and David Morrissey in the lead roles.
“South Riding is a sweeping, panoramic story about an entire community living on the edge of England in the 1930s, beset by economic crisis, doing what they can to make the world a better place,” explains producer Lisa Osborne.
“It’s deeply attractive from a producer’s point of view for the chance to bring to the screen a little-known novel, set in a rarely seen English landscape, with a great cast of rich and real characters, and with universal themes that make it as accessible to a contemporary audience as it was when it was written.”
Holtby was born in Rudston, East Yorkshire, and it’s clear to anyone who’s ever read her most famous work that it’s set in that general area. Some of the characters are, perhaps, loosely based on real people, too, including Mrs Beddows (played here by Penelope Wilton), the area’s first female Alderman - Holtby’s mother, Alice, held that particular distinction.
But at the centre of the tale is Sarah Burton, who here has 10 years shaved off her age. So instead of being a school ma’am approaching 40, she’s the new, 30-year-old headmistress of a girls’ school, and is intent on improving the education, and therefore the prospects, of the teenagers in her care.
“Sarah Burton is a teacher who was born and brought up in South Riding, which is technically East Yorkshire,” says Anna Maxwell Martin. “She left to go to work in London and she returns to be a headmistress of a local girls’ school. I suppose she is verging on being a feminist, quite left-wing and very progressive and she has big plans for the girls of the South Riding.”
Sarah’s life and work becomes entwined with the residents living around her - in particular that of Robert Carne (Morrissey), a gentleman farmer whose tragic existence only endears him to her, despite their initial aversion to each other. However, he isn’t her only potential suitor: the worthy but ailing Joe Astell (Douglas Henshall) also carries a torch for her.
“Sarah’s relationship with Robert Carne is quite tricky on every level,” explains the Beverly-born, Bafta-winning actress.
“Naturally they have an attraction to one another, she’s very open sexually to him and it doesn’t necessarily end happily ever after. With Douglas Henshall, who plays Joe Astell, they are great comrades and are much more politically like-minded, he is the person she should go for, but as is the way, women never go for men that they are supposed to!”
Holtby’s novel is an epic tale with a wide variety of characters and plots. Screenwriter Andrew Davies has had to condense all of that into just three episodes of drama - so fans of the original tale had better brace themselves because there’s going to be a lot of the story missing.
However, the cast should more than make up for any other shortcomings. As well as those already mentioned, keep an eye out for John Henshaw, Peter Firth and Charlie May-Clark.