South Riding, PBS Masterpiece

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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South Riding

Coproduction of the BBC and MASTERPIECE on PBS
Adapted by Andrew Davies, from the novel by Winifred Holtby
Directed by Diarmuid Lawrence
Starring Anna Maxwell Martin, David Morrissey, and Peter Firth
PBS stations, Sundays, May 1, 8 15, 2011 at 9 p.m. ET/PT

With “South Rising,” Masterpiece ends its fascination with the rich and famous of 1930s London and takes us to the poor and downtrodden of 1930s South Riding in Yorkshire. I conclude from the juxtaposition of “Upstairs Downstairs” with this new three-part miniseries by BBC/Masterpiece productions that, not only do the Londoners speak more clearly and dress more stylishly, but also the Londoners have more depth of character and more involving plots. And I didn’t love “Upstairs Downstairs.”

In “South Riding,” a young, feisty schoolteacher, Sarah Burton, energetically acted by Anna Maxwell Martin (“Bleak House”), returns to her home village to be headmistress of the girls’ high school. She brings feminist and forward-thinking ideals to the disinterested townsfolk. This premise is one of the all-time predictable plots, and in this regard, “South Riding” doesn’t disappoint.

For example, Sarah takes under her wing a brilliant but poverty-stricken student, Lydia Holly (well acted by Charlie May-Clark) and tries to lift Lydia out of poverty and her responsibilities at home, so she can continue her schooling. Yet we do see the terrible poverty in which Lydia lives. Her family’s home is a small wooden shack in a slum. There is no running water, no sewage control. Lydia steals brief moments of peace by sitting on the roof of the shack, reading.

The ever-moody, secretive, debt-ridden landowner and council member Robert Carne (David Morrissey, “Sense and Sensibility”) has a high-strung teenage daughter, Midge (Katherine McGolpin), who is frantically protective of Robert because of a mysterious calamity that befell her mother, Muriel.

Muriel’s tragedy is the linchpin of the story: the reason why Robert is so private, why he is at risk of losing his estate, and why Midge is sent to Sarah’s school. It is also why Sarah has a clandestine romance with Robert. This part of the plot is reminiscent of many romantic novels including “Jane Eyre.”

Meanwhile, momentous change is afoot at the South Riding municipal council, where a proposal to build public housing to improve the lives of slum dwellers leads to backroom dealings that erupt in a ruinous scandal. It is enlightening to see the workings of the council as they struggle with concepts of public responsibility and private ownership. Sarah is an optimistic believer in the value of government in addressing disease, poverty and ignorance, while Robert has very traditional views and opposes the expansion of local government.

Penelope Wilton (“Downton Abbey”) also stars as Mrs. Beddows, a municipal councilor who is one of the few progressive and kind inhabitants of the village. Conversely, Peter Firth (“The Hunt for Red October”) as Anthony Snaith, Mrs. Beddows’ colleague on the council, believes that public service is about bettering his bank account and ruining his opponents.

The novel, “South Rising” was written by Winifred Holtby and published posthumously in 1936. The screen adaptation by Andrew Davies, who is a well-regarded TV miniseries writer (“Little Dorrit,” “Pride and Prejudice”), is disappointingly bland.

So what more can I say about “South Riding?” The settings of the bleak town ring true and help us to understand Depression-era life in Yorkshire. The subject matter of “South Rising” may have been racy and topical in the 1930s, but this tepid production doesn’t make us care very much about the characters.

©Emily S. Mendel 2011 All Rights Reserved.

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