South Riding is BBC 1’s flagship drama for spring 2011, screened in three hour-long episodes on Sundays at 9pm on 20 & 27 February and 6 March.
It’s set in the 1930s and tells the story of Sarah Burton, a Yorkshire-born schoolmistress who has spent the previous 20 years teaching in London and various corners of the British Empire. Sarah returns to Yorkshire and takes up the position of Headmistress at the fictional Kiplington High School for Girls. Sarah’s left-leaning idealism and desire to change the area bring her up against arch conservative landowner and farmer Robert Carne who lives in Maythorpe Hall. Whilst Carne represents all the values that Sarah detests, she finds herself drawn to him.
The story works on several levels – as a representation of how women thought of their place in society and how this was changing, as a way of demonstrating the huge inequalities between rich and poor at the time (Britain was facing an economic crisis), but also as an extremely gripping love story.
The series has been adapted from Winifred Holtby’s 1936 novel by Andrew Davies who has a reputation built on works such as the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (with Colin Firth & Jennifer Ehle), House of Cards (with Ian Richardson), and Little Dorrit (with Claire Foy), and both films of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones (starring Renée Zellweger, Hugh Grant and Colin Firth).
South Riding was filmed in 1937 (starring Ralph Richardson) and a version was also screened by Yorkshire TV in 1974 (starring Dorothy Tutin, Nigel Davenport and Judy Bowker). It was also adapted for radio (BBC R7 – starring Sarah Lancashire and Philip Glenister) in 2007.
The latest adaptation casts Anna Maxwell Martin (who has previously appeared in North & South, Becoming Jane, and Bleak House) as Sarah Burton and David Morrison (Cape Wrath, Sense and Sensibility, Red Riding, and Doctor Who) as Robert Carne.
The author of South Riding, Winifred Holtby, was born in 1898 in Yorkshire in the small village or Rudston between Driffield and Bridlington and attended Queen Margaret’s School in Scarborough (the school subsequently moved to Escrick, York). Winifred met Vera Brittain (mother of the peer Shirley Williams – Baroness Williams of Crosby) whilst studying at Somerville College, Oxford. After she graduated Winifred and Vera moved to London where Holtby became a journalist and novelist. She was a prolific writer and had a number of novels published in her short life. She died in 1935 aged 37 and South Riding, the work for which she is best known, was published posthumously in 1936 and almost immediately won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
Although a work of fiction, South Riding draws on Holtby’s love and knowledge of the beautiful Yorkshire countryside.