South Riding debuts tonight on PBS as a part of the channel's Masterpiece Classic program. It will air at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 8 p.m. Central and Mountain in most markets, but you should check local listings.
Anyone looking for an antidote to the froth and frippery of Friday’s Royal Wedding need look no further than South Riding, a three-part miniseries debuting tonight on PBS. Set amid the gloom and privation of a small farming community in Depression-era England, South Riding appeals to a very particular breed of Anglophile. The series depicts an isolated world of unwanted pregnancies, grinding poverty, and damp wool; it’s an England that Orwell or Hardy might recognize, if not Austen or Thackeray.
Based on the novel of the same name by Winifred Holtby, South Riding takes place in 1935, a time when the wounds of World War I continue to fester, while the specter of yet another cataclysm looms over the country. Sarah Burton (Anna Maxwell Martin) is a thirtysomething single woman who continues to mourn the fiancé, Roy, she lost in the war. As Laura Linney, her neck craned at an uncomfortable-looking angle, explains in the show’s introduction, Sarah is one of the “surplus two million.” It’s a cruel designation given to the generation of women who, because of the staggering loss of (young, male) life in the Great War, never married.
As the credits roll, Sarah arrives in South Riding, a (fictional) small town on the Yorkshire coast, where she’s a candidate to become headmistress of the local girl’s school. In her interview with the school’s board of governors, Sarah speaks in stirring tones about her vocation. “I want my girls to know that they can do anything,” Sarah says. She hopes that her students, unlike her own generation, resist sending their sons to become “cannon fodder.” Her declarations provoke the ire of Robert Carne (David Morrisey), a prominent local farmer and war vet, who scoffs at her “socialist claptrap.” She gets the job anyway.
Decked out in lovely shades of russet and emerald (forget about those flapper dresses on Boardwalk Empire; I’m a sucker for the slinky silhouettes of the ‘30s), Sarah quite literally brings a splash of color to the gray landscape of South Riding. The girls at her school, including Carne’s high-strung daughter, Midge (Katherine McGolpin), respond to her stern but supportive instruction. She also strikes up an instant bond with Joe (Douglas Henshall), a kind-hearted bachelor and the town council’s lone socialist. But for some obscure reason, it’s the severe, anguished Carne who stirs Sarah’s passion, and by the end of the first episode, a tentative mutual attraction has formed.
But South Riding is more than just a tale of “opposites attract.” The ensemble cast is populated with a number of rich characters, each of them connected in unlikely and revealing ways. Sarah’s star pupil is Lydia (Charlie Clark), a scholarship student who lives with her family in a squalid shanty town. Spurred by Joe, the town council draws up a plan to clear the slums and build a new housing estate, but the plans are imperiled by a land speculation scam hatched by Mr. Huggins (John Henshaw), a comically hypocritical councilman. Meanwhile, Carne, haunted by the memory of his beautiful but deranged wife, struggles to keep his family’s once-lucrative farm afloat.
This kind of interwoven narrative offers a good deal of dramatic potential, especially given the subject matter: politics and power in a small community. Unfortunately, the disparate storylines fail to come together in a cohesive, compelling way. South Riding tries, but never quite manages, to be a lot of things at once: the story of an inspirational teacher, a feminist parable, a brooding Brontean romance, a call for social reform. On the one hand, it’s nice to watch a series that doesn’t go exactly where one might expect—you think it’s going to be an English version of Mona Lisa Smile, but it winds up closer to Jane Eyre—but the narrative is diffuse, unfocused. With a running time of just under three hours, South Riding somehow feels too short, especially the final episode, which is back-loaded with numerous last-minute plot twists. This is not to say there aren’t plenty of great moments along the way. The performances are almost uniformly excellent, and there are a number of scenes that, viewed in isolation, stand out like perfect little jewels. (Particularly memorable is a thwarted love scene, at once tender and excruciatingly awkward, between Carne and Sarah.) Ultimately, though, the whole of South Riding is decidedly less than the sum of its parts.
Sarah’s attraction to Carne, while certainly possible, is also deeply problematic. It’s not just that he is politically conservative—stranger things have happened, I suppose. It’s that Carne has a monstrous cruel streak, one that becomes painfully obvious in a brutal flashback sequence. Without revealing too much, Carne humiliates his mentally unstable wife in a way that is, frankly, unforgivable, regardless of the provocations. It’s not that strong-willed women like Sarah never make unwise romantic decisions—they most certainly do. The problem is that screenwriter Andrew Davies (of seemingly every prestige adaptation ever) and director Diarmuid Lawrence depict Carne as a tragic hero, a stoic man of moral rectitude who falls victim to circumstance and the curious loyalties of his own heart. Rather than explore the reasons why a smart, independent woman would fall for someone like Carne—a valid and dramatically potent question—it is presented as a given.
Between South Riding, Mildred Pierce, and Upstairs, Downstairs, the ‘30s are all the rage on television these days. Until recently, the decade had been something of a pop culture afterthought, overlooked in favor of the patriotic ‘40s and the hedonistic ‘20s. It’s probably too pat to conclude that our current economic woes have stirred renewed interest in the era, but there are a few exchanges in South Riding that are uncanny in their timeless. The debates over the efficacy of public works and calls for government transparency might have been lifted from Congressional transcripts. Viewed through this modern lens, it’s all the more puzzling that Sarah, the plucky, proto-feminist and pacifist, falls for a gun-toting Tea Party type. It’s too bad that South Riding never takes the time to unravel this contradiction.