I recently finished watching the 1974 adaptation of Winifred Holtby’s South Riding. It was in 13 parts & it was so good that it reminded me what I loved about so many of the more expansive literary adaptations I remember from the 1970s & 1980s.
For those who don’t know the story, it’s a picture of the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire – there are only three real ridings, North, East & West. Sarah Burton returns after some years away from home as a teacher in South Africa, to apply for the position of Headmistress at Kiplington Girls School. She gets the job & tries to instill her love of learning & her ambition into all her pupils. On the school’s Board of Governors, her natural antagonist is Robert Carne, the local Squire & landowner, now fallen on hard times as he struggles to keep his estate going while paying for his wife to be cared for in an expensive nursing home. His highly strung daughter, Midge, becomes a pupil at the school. Alderman Mrs Beddows (based on Holtby’s mother, Alice), is also on the Board & is a close friend of Carne.
Lydia Holly lives with her large family at the Shacks, the local slums. Lydia won a scholarship but has to leave school after her mother’s death to look after her feckless father & younger siblings. The Council is split between the progressives such as Alderman Snaith & Joe Astell & the conservatives like Carne. There are many more characters &, as well as the personal stories of Sarah, Robert, Mrs Beddows & Lydia, it’s a wonderful portrait of local council & the opportunities for corruption that exist there. Set in the 1930s, a time of unemployment & economic depression, it is an absorbing story.
South Riding was also adapted for television in three parts in 2011. Although I watched this new version & enjoyed it, three hours was never going to be long enough to tell such a complex story. What I really noticed though, was just how much more real the actors & locations were in the 1974 version. I think this is a trait of most modern classic adaptations. The actors are too pretty! Nigel Davenport looked like a man in his 50s who had experienced great misery in his life. Hermione Baddeley was just heartbreaking as Beddoes, with her horrible husband & her tenderness for Carne. Joe Astell, played by Norman Jones, looked like a man who’d had tuberculosis & wasn’t completely well. I’m afraid Douglas Henshall never convinced me of that.
Lydia Holly, played by Lesley Dunlop, looked grubby, her uniform was different, shabbier than that of the other girls at school. Her home life was squalid, with screaming children & her poor worn out mother & the hopelessness of knowing that she would never get ahead without an education. Above all, Dorothy Tutin was magnificent as Sarah, so passionate & determined & bolshie. I also loved the sets. I could smell those horrible cloakrooms at the school, that Sarah fights so hard to change. Carne’s home, Maythorpe, desperately trying to keep up appearances as the money ran out & Carne was left at one point trying to get a job in Manchester as a riding instructor. Nobody in modern adaptations looks grubby or unwashed. Clive Swift played Alderman Huggins with the most disreputable ginger beard I’ve ever seen.
Maybe it’s because the earlier version was made only 40 years after the book was written, maybe it was the way the series was shot, maybe they just didn’t have the money for grand sets & prettiness but there were no beauties in the 1974 version although it was filmed on location in the East Riding. The beauty came from the acting, the gorgeous theme music by Ron Grainer & the script by Stan Barstow who wrote A Kind of Loving, one of the working class novels of the late 50s that changed British fiction.
Winifred Holtby’s novel is wonderful, one of my favourites, although it took me a few tries to get on with it. The first chapter is set in a Council meeting, setting the scene for the political machinations & personal relationships that will influence the plot. I know I’m shallow, but the copy we had at the library was a very uninspiring hardback with a plain green cover & I just could not get past that first chapter or the long list of characters that preceded it. It wasn’t until I bought a copy of the book in Virago green that I got past Chapter One & raced through the rest of the book. I also couldn’t resist buying another copy in the beautiful reprint covers Virago published a few years ago.
Another favourite adaptation from this period is Testament of Youth, from the book by Winifred Holtby’s great friend, Vera Brittain. A new film of the book is being made at the moment & I’m sure I’ll go & see it, I won’t be able to resist. The trailer is here & it all looks very glossy & pretty. But, I can’t imagine it will affect me as the book & television series did.