Monday, October 31, 2011

South Riding - Riding Backwards in Time

If you could have any super power, what would it be?

For me, time travel would be up there, high on the list. It might not unseat the ability to fly, turn invisible or read people's minds, but, yeah, I think its a solid 4th.

The other night, by tapping into the powers of a mini-series called South Riding, I traveled to the 1930s so completely and effectively that I can still smell the dusty shelves and moldy sofas.

In a fabulous stroke of luck, I both learned of this production and discovered that my public library had a copy. Starring Anna Maxwell Martin who I loved so much in Bleak House and in North and South, set in the sadly overlooked 1930s, and dealing with the well-worn but always dramatically interesting topic of inspired teacher introducing a new vision of education to a languishing student body, this sounded perfect! As if this all weren't enough, and truly it was, the production also starred Peter Firth and Penelope Wilton, both of whom I have tremendous respect for.

If you have a predilection for period drama, you, like I, can easily appreciate the value of immersing yourself in a different time period. But if you don't -- well, I'm not really sure how to explain the attraction. I think it lies with that feeling of time travel. When every piece of furniture and clothing, the props, caricatures, music, and cars, the look of the street, and the glimpses into whatever tools and technology were available to people in the period du jour are "correct," there is a sense of transportation that is just heady. I can picture my grandparents and their struggles and style of living so well (though I accept that rural Ohio and Yorkshire are a long way apart).

South Riding simply excels at the art of time travel. It is gorgeous and evocative. And because the 1930s is such an interesting time that is not often done (I'm thinking I Capture the Castle and Cold Comfort Farm), I was fascinated. Such an odd time stuffed in between two world wars with a strangely modern feel, as cars and telephones pepper the background, but still so poor and rural and lacking in most of the social innovations that are more important to our modern life than iPods, the 30s are an era that should be remembered. Doing so is like bringing old photos back to life.

Here, our themes of love, loss, politics with a very small "p", clashing world views, changing times and small time money grubbing were skillfully handled by the astonishingly solid, deep cast.

I hadn't noticed this before, but in this production Maxwell Martin, as Sarah Burton, reminded me greatly of Nicola Walker as Ruth in Spooks. (I know it would be easiest to chalk this one up to my MI-5-obsession rather than anything real, so I almost didn't include that observation in the post, but I really, really think its true.) They have similar hooded eyes and their voices and manner of expression are alike as well. In any case, Sarah, whether Ruth-like or not, is an extremely appealing main character - sharp, confident, driven, hard-drinking, fun and kind, she carries the production well. Her main love interest, Robert Carne (played with great sex appeal by David Morrissey) -- a man she dislikes and disagrees with, but is very attracted to -- is also wonderfully done. He's a passionate, interesting person who is also a loving devoted father.

Penelope Wilton was outstanding as the supportive council member, playing a key role in both Sarah and Robert's lives with subtlety. And Peter Firth was hilariously slimy with a serious birth-control haircut.  Not a role for the Firthies to relish as he is small time slick and priggish. Revel in his acting but not in his attractiveness here! And his scenes with his cat were purrfect. Actually, the cat was a great actor as well : )

The whole thing is cloaked in a thick, sluggish, dreamlike mood. And all is not happy and wrapped up cleanly. But the sad plot points seem to match the time frame well and suit the story.


  1. So, a little late to the party, but I watched this maybe two months ago (time flies too fast sometimes). And I still don't know what to make of it. It was entertaining and very well made and all the things you described so perfectly above, but it didn't stick if you know what I mean. I like a good strong female heroine, there are too few of them featured in tv and movies, but she was a bit too sulky for my liking.
    Peter Firth was perfectly arrogant and a bit freaky with his cat ;) and yuk, the hair!!!

    I so wanted to love this mini series, maybe I'll just have to give it another chance some day!

  2. Thanks for the comment! Really great points. I know what you mean about this one. I loved it, but it was lacking some sort of spark and could have been even better.