South Riding Review: Girl Power

SOUTH RIDING: Sunday 20th February, BBC1, 9pm ALERT ME

It’s 1935. Sarah Burton enters a morbidly austere hall to apply for the position of headmistress at South Riding School for Girls. She has untamed red hair, she’s wearing a bright red dress with a matching hat, the rest of the cast keep calling her a ‘fire-cracker’ and she believes that young girls should have aspirations beyond marriage. Oh and she smokes cigarettes and has some strong views on fox-hunting. Most of the interview panel like her, apart from one very hard-nosed, but handsome man who seems to be as rigidly traditional as he is emotionally-shattered. And they’ve both been widowed. Can you see where this one is heading?

South Riding may well outlined, but its panache and emotional centre should still capture the imaginations of the Sunday evening period drama brigade – and unlike Lark Rise To Candleford, something’s actually happening. Adapted from Winifred Holtby’s posthumously published novel of female empowerment, this three-parter is brought to us by Andrew Davies, the man responsible for the much-celebrated Pride and Prejudice series of the mid 90s which starred King Colin Firth, and it’s another tale of mutual animosity which turns to sexual attraction. We even get a rain scene in this first episode, kind of..

Anna Maxwell Martin is suitably vibrant as the beating heart of this oft-overlooked tale of 30s feminism and she is backed up by an excellent supporting cast. Not much is demanded of David Morrissey as Robert Carne, but he does his work as the impecunious local official well and young Katherine McGolpin
is precious as Midge, his highly-strung daughter who will clearly play a central part in the her old man’s romance with her new teacher. Period drama veteran Penelope Wilton provides a welcome face as Mrs Beddows, but my favourite was the hypocritical old vicar Huggins. Moralising one moment and doing his mistress in the toilets the next, he passionately backs Miss Burton’s campaign to get the girls a brand new set of communal showers. (“A happy thought indeed. It will be expensive but a worthwhile investment… I’m sure the older girls would appreciate it particularly!”) But his lechery ends up producing an interesting little side-story of its own. We even had a cliff-hanger! Dorcas Lane would have been shocked..