Anna Maxwell Martin Takes Us South Riding

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It’s sometime between the World Wars when new headmistress Sarah Burton (Anna Maxwell Martin, Bleak House) arrives in the dank Yorkshire town of Kiplington determined to overhaul its underachieving, mildewy girls’ school. This bleary slab of seaside marshland houses an engagingly eclectic population: grouchy socialists, rigid gentlemen farmers and shack-dwellers in need of proper housing and an education. Burton, who grew up nearby, can at least do something about the schooling and soon finds herself paying special attention to precocious peasant girl, Lydia (Charlie May-Clark).

Clever Andrew Davies (the man could adapt a parking ticket for television and scoop multiple BAFTAs) has sympathetically squished Winifred Holtby’s spectacular but neglected novel into three heady parts. Though it could easily have gone to six (the ending feels a little rushed), the bulk of South Riding (Sunday, 9pm, BBC1) is shrewdly paced. Its unfashionably ancient heroine (she must be at least 38!) is a smart, stubborn feminist and, by way of an apology, also sexy and soft-centred.

Burton’s one-woman campaign for girls of all social backgrounds to receive not just an education but a good education is overshadowed by leftist councillor Joe Astell’s agenda. He wants decent housing for the slum folk. Their goals may be born from the same concerns but, frustratingly, the inclination and money to solve both social problems at all (let alone at once) is sadly lacking. In South Riding, local politics and its infuriating intricacies underlie everything else. Fortunately, Davies gives over enough space for proper, juicy exploration. Through this we get to know some of the council’s more absurd players and enjoy some tragicomic moments--look out for one man and his pampered cat.

Burton’s biggest objector is the emotionally illiterate Robert Carne (David Morrissey), a conservative landowner and struggling single father. The pair war from the moment they meet, but towards the end of this first instalment there’s a loaded, loin-tingling scene in a cowshed. Their relationship thaws, at least temporarily. Here, you’ll wonder if they’ll eventually be able to overlook their ideological differences and perhaps use famer Carne’s plentiful hay supply for something other than livestock bedding.

Looks-wise, South Riding is short on escapist scenery, but that’s no bad thing. Lesser period dramas require blissful backdrops to distract viewers from their stagnant plotting and hacky dialogue. There’s none of that here, so the landscape is enduringly desolate while the major cast stay taupe-wrapped and unadventurously groomed. For lingering shots of bucolic loveliness or flushed wenches, get thee to Larkrise.

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