I imagine BBC production meetings to be something like this:
Producer 1: What have we got in the hopper?
Producer 2: We’ve got some period pieces based on works of literature.
Producer 1: What, again?
Producer 2: That’s what we’re here for Sir Humphrey.
Producer 1: Dammit, man, the public won’t wear another period piece based on a work of literature.
Producer 3: Ah-hm, Sir Humphrey, perhaps you might like to look at these viewing figures.
Producer 1: What? Oh, yes… How many of them are Jane Austen?
Producer 2: Only two, Sir Humphrey.
Producer 1: Variety! That’s what I like to hear.
South Riding (2011) is the Victorian novel but of the 1930’s based on the novel by Winifred Holtby. The director (Diarmuid Lawrence) directed one Thackeray and two Dickens adaptations (among some other pretty darn good series). Andrew Davies, the writers, in the last 20 years of a with a 40+ year career, did Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Vanity Fair (as well), Wives and Daughters, Bridget Jones’s Diary (both of them), Bleak House, Northanger Abbey, Sense & Sensibility, and Little Dorrit (among some even better series). That’s pretty crazy. But, hey, let’s be fair, they’ve got the best literary tradition and the best television in the history of the world. Of course, they’re going to take advantage.
David Morrissey plays Roches…I mean…Robert Carne, the man of principle who has some pretty serious financial troubles and a wife who has sadly gone insane after birthing little Midge (Katherine McGolpin). Anna Maxwell Martin is Sarah Burton who is a bit of a firebrand taking over as head mistress of the local girls school–she’s got some crazy views on women being more than housewives and the opportunities for women. Everyone’s got problems during the Depression and not many are going to be satisfied. There are two main stories: Burton’s and her dealings at the school and Alderman Huggins’ (John Henshaw) money troubles that start the ball rolling on some good ol’ fashion corruption over the early council estate building (what you and I might call “the projects”). It’s a three part series and so time is taken with the plot lines and is well balanced.
But, of course, there is the fact that you’ve got some people on staff here that have made quite a few BBC miniseries and they know what they’re doing. That has the unwelcome side effect of being a bit visually boring when it needn’t be. I saw Jane Eyre (2011), so I know that there’s more that can be done. Jane Eyre wasn’t perfect, not by any means, but it tried to bring a tone that was a little out of the ordinary. South Riding is ordinary. Is that a problem? As I suggested in the dialogue above, this is a tried and true formula and people like it. They like it because it’s good. But now good is ordinary and we need to stretch a little to be great.
I saw Morrissey in a movie I will not link because it was terrible. It’s called Blitz and I cannot imagine why he graced that dismal wreck with his presence. I came to know him, before Blitz, in State of Play (2003) (a miniseries about the press and politics) and The Deal (2003) (about a deal between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair which is frustratingly labelled “the prequel” to The Queen (2006)–a prequel is something that is made after a movie about details prior to the original, this was made three years earlier making The Queen the sequel). In both of those shows, he was absolutely excellent and I thought really showed something and it doesn’t appear that he’s had an opportunity to reach his Liam Neeson-like potential. Well, it took time for Neeson as well. Both can look like total train wrecks of humanity while also giving off the aura they could break your face in half. Morrissey does it again in South Riding and I’m sure he was a killer Colonel Brandon in Sense & Sensibility, but Alan Rickman already did that.
Martin’s turn as Ms. Burton was pedestrian. While Martin looks to me like a British Maggie Gyllenhaal, for me the comparison is not a recommendation. I can’t fault her for any poor acting, but the child, McGolpin was called upon to do more (and she did it better). All told, the supporting cast was no better or worse than you would expect of any BBC/Masterpiece miniseries. Though, I will say I expected more of Peter Firth who should have demanded a second or third try on some of his scenes. I wouldn’t have mentioned it if he hadn’t been so good as Harry Pearce.
If you like these kinds of things, you’ll like this. If you’re looking for something more, like commentary on 1930’s England, you’d probably find more elsewhere.