Douglas Henshall, Anna Maxwell Martin, David Morrissey
1. It’s A Unique Take On Our Past
South Riding is the story of a woman who doesn’t fit into her own era: a schoolteacher named Sarah Burton who’s determined to make her mark in the hard years of Depression-era Yorkshire. But this isn’t just another “gritty” tale of Northern strife. The tell-tale sign that we’re in for something unique is the fact that South Riding itself is a make-believe place. A gorgeous, sprawling slice of England that sprung directly from the imagination of novelist Winifred Holtby.
Yes, it’s based on the real landscapes of Yorkshire, but the fact that it’s also an invented realm, filled with big characters, sinister secrets, blazing confrontations and an often dream-like atmosphere, gives South Riding an almost fairy tale air. Well, a dark fairy tale at any rate, with Sarah Burton as its charismatic heroine.
2. It’s No Ordinary Love Story
South Riding’s main story follows teacher Sarah Burton as she brings colour and energy to her school, inspiring the students and jolting the locals with her verve. And also rubbing local landowner Robert Carne up the wrong way. He’s a solidly old-fashioned sort of man, as keen on the past as Sarah is on the future, and he takes an instant dislike to Sarah’s no-nonsense, free spirited manner. He’s also a handsome and brooding sort. So far, so Darcy.
Except South Riding doesn’t follow the predictable route. Without giving anything away, this isn’t just a romantic saga of opposites attracting. Carne’s brooding is down to some seriously disturbing secrets from his past, and a struggle for redemption which Sarah becomes embroiled in. You know the thing about someone being “bad news” but all the more attractive for it? That’s Robert Carne, and Sarah is about to discover it for herself. Robert Carne (David Morrissey) and Midge Carne (Katherine McGolpin).
3. It’s Got Stories To Sink Your Teeth Into
South Riding is far from just a (strange) romance. The story of Sarah and Robert, two people totally at odds but fated to be bound together and up-end each other’s lives, is mirrored by the huge changes in society going on around them, and there’s a huge supporting cast of characters to get stuck into as well.
They include Midge, Robert’s own daughter, whose sheltered upbringing under her protective father changes completely when she becomes one of Sarah’s pupils. There’s also Lydia, a student from the slum area known as the Shacks, whose talent might just offer her a way out of drudgery. One of Sarah’s few allies, meanwhile is social reformer Joe, while local Methodist minister Alfred wants to help the poor too – but has a dark burden of his own to carry.South Riding is the story of a woman who doesn’t fit into her own era.
4. It’s Based On A Hidden Gem
The story behind South Riding is almost as turbulent and emotional as the book and TV series itself. Its writer, Winifred Holtby, was a crusading journalist in her day, known for her “Viking-like” appearance and crusading articles that championed social change. In a tragic twist, her explosively talented life was cut short when she was diagnosed with a terminal illness while only in her 30s.
Knowing she only had a short time left, she got hard at work on her crowning achievement, the book that would be her legacy: South Riding. Battling through illness, she managed to finish it before passing away, but then a whole new battle began when her own mother became enraged at what her daughter had written. She even tried to stop it being published because she felt it dished too much dirt on their world in Yorkshire.Luckily, the book made it to the shelves, and – as this adaptation shows – it’s a real hidden gem of English storytelling.