A vivid portrait of Yorkshire society makes the leap from page to screen

Yorkshire writer Winifred Holtby’s 1930s novel South Riding is set to occupy our TVs – and hearts – from this weekend. Sheena Hastings reports.

BEFORE her death in 1935 and the posthumous publication of her masterpiece South Riding, novelist and journalist Winifred Holtby wrote a prefatory letter for the novel. It was to her mother, Alice Holtby, Yorkshire’s first alderwoman and was an explanation and apology for having loosely based the story against the backdrop of county council dramas, which Winifred had learned about through growing up with her feisty parent’s involvement in local politics.

Winifred had become fascinated, she said, by “the discovery that apparently academic and impersonal resolutions passed in a county council were daily revolutionising the lives of those men and women whom they affected...” She also described the county council as the first-line defence thrown up by the community against “our common enemies – poverty, sickness, ignorance, isolation, mental derangement and social maladjustment”.

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The novelist did not directly base the character of the doughty yet sometimes romantic and girlish Mrs Beddows on her mother, but still Mrs Holtby did take against the book when it was published in 1936. Luckily, she could do nothing about it, as Winifred had made her dear friend and fellow writer Vera Brittain (mother of politician Shirley Williams) her literary executive. Otherwise this rich, sweeping 500-page tale of a Yorkshire community – embracing social divides, the education of the working class and girls in particular, the shady dealings of people in high places, the sting of economic depression and the shadow of fascism in the distance as well as affairs of the heart – might never have seen the light of day. Hailed by many as a triumph on publication, South Riding found a new audience in the 1970s, when Dorothy Tutin starred in a 13-part TV adaptation. But the novel receded again, perhaps because Holtby, a writer who was just reaching her prime when she died, did not live long enough to replicate its success with a wider body of work.

Whatever, South Riding is about to re-enter the popular consciousness in a three-part Sunday night series, with scripts written by Andrew Davies, the man who put Colin Firth as Mr Darcy in a wet shirt, adapted Bleak House thrillingly, and sexed-up Sense and Sensibility.

“It’s a hugely complex novel about how we run society, idealism and the things that thwart idealism”, says Davies. “It feels so up-to-date, with economic depression set against the characters of politicians on the South Riding Council, a huge authority that does its job pretty well, with unlikely alliances of socialists with businessmen who want to spend their way out of hard times. Then there’s the effect Sarah Burton, a progressive headmistress, has when she comes back from London to run the local girls’ school, with all sorts of ideas about the place women should now have in society. There’s so much to get your teeth into. With only three episodes (I’d have preferred four...), it does race along and some characters had to be left out.

“But at the same time, it’s creatively satisfying to put in the odd scene that isn’t in the book, such as the one I’ve used to spell out how Sarah (played by Anna Maxwell Martin) comes to understand the true talent of Lydia, the girl who lives in a shack and has largely missed out on school until now. I wrote a scene where Lydia reads out her own poem to make a point which is made more slowly and by osmosis in the book.”

Davies says he would call South Riding a feminist novel. “Sarah has got on through learning and has lost her fiancé in the trenches.

“She has had other relationships, but at the beginning of the novel sees her personal fulfilment in inspiring and nurturing her pupils so that they see a life for themselves beyond what their mothers did. She is also determined to help the girl from the family that has nothing.”

David Morrissey plays the conservative gentleman farmer Robert Carne, who has a mentally- ill wife, a delicate daughter, a huge guilt complex and finances teetering on the edge of disaster. He confesses that initially he had not read Holtby’s novel, but fell for Davies’s script immediately. “Carne appears with, ‘There’s a man on a horse. He’s quite magnificent...’ That grabbed me straight away” he says, laughing. “He’s a different and rather appealing character, a man who has married out of his class and doesn’t feel comfortable.

“He’s convinced he’s brought disaster to his wife and child, is clinging to an affectation of a certain life, but it’s crumbling away in front of him. Sarah Burton has strong views about the education of women, and as a traditionalist this rubs him up the wrong way”.

Another draw for actor, producer and director Morrissey was his co-star, the double BAFTA award-winning Maxwell Martin. “I think she gives a wonderfully nuanced performance. She really has the drive, commitment and ambition the character needs.

“Sarah Burton is someone who champions the cause of these girls, but when it comes to her personal life there is this great confusion about who she is. Anna plays this brilliantly. I was in awe of her before, but watching her in this, she is certainly one of my top actresses.” Maxwell Martin, who grew up in Beverley before studying at Liverpool University and LAMDA, says she loves the ambition and passion of her character and the fact that filming locations for South Riding included beaches she played on and other places familiar to her in childhood, as well as settings further afield in Yorkshire. Playing a head teacher wasn’t an altogether easy experience, though.

“She (Sarah) goes in all guns blazing, a bit too much perhaps...in an attempt to encourage young girls to think for themselves, to hope for more than just being a wife and mother, and make their own choices about life. I had to do a lot of scenes with young girls playing my pupils, and it’s quite terrifying trying to be inspirational – but they were all very sweet, thankfully. I would never dare be a teacher. I would be far too scared.”

South Riding is bound to give added impetus to the careers of two of Yorkshire’s budding stars. Charlie Clark, 16, and from Shipley near Bradford, plays the bright but socially graceless Lydia Holly, and 14-year-old Katherine McGolpin, from Wetherby was chosen as Midge Carne. The two girls met when they appeared together as sisters in the 2008 film Clubbed, which starred Maxine Peake. After a screening of the first episode of South Riding at the National Media Museum in Bradford, Katherine said: “It feels weird, seeing yourself.” Charlie, who attends West Leeds School for Performing Arts, agreed: “My voice sounds awful, I just wriggled as I watched. We get on really well together, despite the fact that my character in the series bullies Katherine’s, calling her all sorts of names like ‘pebble specs’.”

Also at the screening were John and Ian Holtby, whose grandfather was Winifred’s first cousin. Winifred never married and had no direct descendants. “We’re delighted to see her work brought to life again like this,” says John, who’s a farmer at Skirlaugh in East Yorkshire. “She was the family celebrity and I think would have no doubt been proud to see the TV series, and I’m pleased that she used the land I still farm as the basis for Maythorpe. Winifred’s mother found the whole thing too close to home, but thank goodness she couldn’t stop its publication.”

South Riding starts at 9pm on Sunday, February 20 on BBC 1.