It doesn’t matter if we’re living in the big city, an itty-bitty hamlet, or something in-between, we all expect the same access to the world around us... and for the most part, we get it, with internet, cellular technology, and all those forms of transportation at our disposal. Go back as little as eighty or so years, though, and that wasn’t the case... not in a place like South Riding, the small Yorkshire town at the heart of a recent BBC production of the same name.
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When the train stops in South Riding and thirty-something Sarah Burton steps out onto the platform, her look of consternation speaks volumes; trains, it seems, do not adhere to the same rigorous time schedules in this northern backwater as they do in London--something which isn’t likely to improve her odds of making a good impression at the job interview for which she’s now running late.
She arrives with only a moment to catch her breath. That moment, however, is a telling one; a quick look at the other interviewees--much older, sterner, and plainer women than she, in her stylish, figure-hugging red suit--makes it clear just what the board of Kiplington Girls High is probably looking for in their new headmistress (and it doesn't, she suspects, look anything like her).
Sarah isn’t about to play meek and submissive, though, and she proceeds to give the board members her vision of what she’d like to see in "her" school (if she were to get the job, as one of the board members haughtily corrects her); namely, female empowerment: that the girls under her care should never feel encumbered by any limits society attempts to place on them, but should have the same aspirations as their male counterparts.
Sarah also clashes with landowning (and war veteran) board member Robert Carne during the interview, when she makes no bones about her opposition to war. The board is torn by her fiery passion and brash outspokenness, but with the particular support of members Mrs. Beddows and Joe Astell, the job eventually goes to her. (The final consensus is that Sarah, at least, has spirit--something none of the other applicants appear to possess.)
What she finds, though, is disheartening. Unlike the boys’ school, hers is old and un-renovated; it’s a dank and dreary place, where it needs to be light and airy. Books and furnishings are woefully outdated. The science lab has no equipment aside from that for the instructor; the girls can only watch the teacher perform experiments, instead of getting any hands-on experience themselves. Outraged, Sarah pushes for new facilities, but earns a reprimand for her efforts; it’s 1934--the heart of the Depression--and there is simply no money to make such sweeping changes. She will just have to make do.
Sarah then takes special notice of two girls--Midge Carne (board member Robert’s smart but odd daughter), who’d previously been taught at home, and Lydia Holly (the eldest daughter of a dirt-poor laborer), whom Sarah discovers is exceptionally bright. Their situations--troubled Midge, in need of the distractions of school and being in the company of her peers, rather than being coddled, alone; and penniless Lydia, desirous of the opportunity to attend school and to stretch her mind, rather than being relegated to looking after her seven younger siblings in the decrepit shack her family calls home--are at opposite ends of the spectrum, but Sarah understands what each girl needs in order to reach her potential.
There are other concerns outside Kiplington's walls. After well-meaning Joe Astell visits the Shacks (the aptly-named South Riding slums) and sees first-hand how deplorable the conditions there are, he attempts to gain support for building new housing for the poor... but his efforts are, in short order, perverted by the greedy, who concoct a scheme to sell a bunch of worthless swampland to the town (following a period of speculation, naturally) for any new housing.
Affairs of the heart also occupy her thoughts, as Sarah deals with Astell’s admiring attentions, while trying to make sense of the strange attraction she feels to dour Robert Carne (her polar opposite in every way). Sarah insists she’s not looking for love... but companionship is another matter.
Disagreements, confrontations, scams, scandals, disappointments, and tragedies mount, as the inhabitants of South Riding live out their lives against the backdrop of the rugged, windy cliffs of Yorkshire. Change and reform will, eventually, make their way even to that remote corner of England... but not without a passel of problems, beforehand.
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As I alluded to earlier, the world depicted in South Riding is very different from that of the recent Upstairs Downstairs (which I discussed recently here), despite the fact that both take place in England during the mid 1930s. Most notably, the “haves” (and I'm using that term loosely) who live in South Riding are considerably less fortunate (if wealth can be equated with the state of being “fortunate”, anyhow) than the London families of Upstairs Downstairs, as whatever wealth the rural families once had has been steadily eroded by the on-going Depression. And, when it comes to the “have-nots” (or “have-much-lesses”, as the case may be), the household staff in Upstairs Downstairs have it downright cushy--living in a fabulous house with all the amenities, compared to the squalor experienced by residents of the Shacks--where whole families are packed like sardines in tiny, one-room hovels, without decent heat or running water, and with only a communal outhouse for a privy. This dichotomy between the two worlds is startling.
The types of prejudice differ, too. In Upstairs Downstairs, there is widespread prejudice toward the Jews, and some toward all foreigners, in general. In South Riding, the prejudices concern attitudes toward the poor and toward women. The former, no doubt, has a lot to do with proximity (or lack of); it’s much easier for the elite families in 1930s London to remain at a physical distance from the poor than it is for those living in the small town to do so; thus, there are more conflicts (and the resulting prejudices) in the small town. As for the latter (attitudes about women’s “place” in the world), I think that must be attributed to provincialism. Ideas--even the notion that women deserve just as much respect as men and are, in fact, their equals--are generally accepted more readily in large areas, where a greater number of progressive thinkers can be found to influence those less-progressive ones. Small towns such as South Riding, on the other hand, will almost inevitably cling to their traditional beliefs far longer, for it is how they struggle to maintain their identity.
On the whole, South Riding is another excellent BBC production, well worth watching. The setting is glorious, giving a splendid feel for time and place, with many outdoor scenes which take full advantage of it. The story--especially Lydia’s plight--is engrossing and moving; nothing happens quite as you might expect it would (although there are some triumphs). The only criticism I have, actually, is that the ending itself is a bit rushed. I don’t know if the screenwriter, Andrew Davies (of Bridget Jones fame, in addition to a host of other fabulous BBC TV productions), couldn’t conceive a better way to wrap things up, or if he simply ran out of the time allotted, but tacking on another ten minutes would have made it more complete, I think.