“There are no dragons here, not in South Riding; plenty of sheep and plenty of cattle, but we see no dragons. But oh, my friends, there are dragons here…”
Although it’s not quite the 1930s equivalent of Red Riding – the controversial Channel 4 series set in the 1970s, with which it shares several actors, a location and almost a title – BBC One’s new Sunday evening period drama is no gentle, quiet or quaint look back at an innocent, idyllic age. South Riding has bite, blackness and resonances that ring true even 75 years on from the era in which it is set.
Adapted by Andrew Davies from the posthumous 1936 novel by Winifred Holtby, the story is set in a fictional area of Yorkshire at the tail-end of the Great Depression and centres on a struggling school for girls, Kiplington High, of which Sarah Burton (played with a perfect blend of energy and reflection by Anna Maxwell Martin) has just been appointed headmistress.
Burton’s forward-thinking plans to develop the school buildings and its way of teaching are at odds with conservative local farmer Robert Carne (a brooding David Morrissey), but more in tune with his colleagues on the local council and the pupils: in particular, aggressive, reactionary but sensitive poet Lydia Holly, whose family is amongst the largest and poorest in town, and Carne’s troubled daughter Midge.
The sweeping fields and rugged coastline of Yorkshire could be taken straight out of a Cookson dramatisation or any number of other TV serials down the years. However, the darkness within the apparently clean folds of this community – the financial pressures slowly crushing Robert Carne, already haunted by the loss of his wife; the council’s plans for financial exploitation of the decrepit, ramshackle dwellings where Lydia and her oversized family live; the double-life led by ‘peeping Tom’ and back-alley sex tourist Councillor Huggins – gives South Riding a bleak charm. The death of Carne’s valuable-but-uninsured horse, shot after a hunting accident in front of the girls in Miss Burton’s care, could be an allegory for the unhappiness at South Riding’s heart.
It’s not all dark, though. There are flashes of humour and touches of genuinely moving pathos throughout this opening episode, creating a believable group of characters whose stories, struggles and survivals are familiar enough to engage a 2011 audience – despite a rather pedestrian pace (barely a brisk trot until about halfway through) and a few the-rat-symbolises-obviousness visual metaphors.
There is a surprising twist at the end – one that isn’t immediately obvious yet makes perfect sense upon its reveal – which, in association with the mostly interesting tales of romance, loss, blackmail and greed, encourages belief that this pleasantly cantering drama will develop into a gallop next week.
Airs at 9pm on Sunday 20th February 2011 on BBC One and BBC One HD.