Please bear with me as I work out how to structure this, the first of our promised dual commentator posts. You may remember my recent proposal that my son, Ross, and I would form a long-distance blogging partnership based on our shared love of TV, movies and storytelling in general (which means, we like books too).
While we are both life-long consumers of these visual mediums, my son has a bit more gravitas than I do. He was a film major in college before switching to English and creative writing. He may sometimes pontificate about camera angles, lighting, production values and plot devices whereas I am more likely to get caught up in the characters, dialogue and cultural references.
So here’s the way this is supposed to work. Ross and I agree on a TV series or film that we can both access and then share our observations and opinions about the piece. I expect our selections will range across many genres including science fiction; dramas – crime, domestic and period; absurd comedy and horror just to name a few.
But topic of our maiden post, if you will, is the 2004 BBC adaption of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South. According to Wikipedia (and some other sources), this mini-series “follows the story of Margaret Hale, a young woman from southern England who has to move to the North after her father decides to leave the clergy. The family struggles to adjust itself to the industrial town’s customs, especially after meeting the Thorntons, a proud family of cotton mill owners who seem to despise their social inferiors. The story explores the issues of class and gender, as Margaret’s sympathy for the town mill workers clashes with her growing attraction to John Thornton.”
Ross actually picked this one because he was interested to see Richard Armitage in something other than The Hobbit, whose portrayal of Thorin Oakenshield he did not particularly appreciate. For my part, I had been meaning to watch North & South for some time since I was acquainted with a few members of the Armitage Army who gushed quite profusely about it. So after a quick binge – the serial is only four hours long- these are our impressions.
Let’s start with Richard Armitage, shall we? It’s my understanding that it was this role of cotton mill owner John Thornton that put Armitage on the map. In fact, I read that the BBC, thinking the series wouldn’t draw well, did little to promote it. Viewers found it anyway and flooded the network’s message boards, comparing his portrayal to Colin Firth’s Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Ross changed his mind about Mr. Armitage after this performance feeling he really held the cast together in a leading role that only saw him on screen about a third of the time. I found the reveal of Thornton’s truly kind and noble nature convincing so by the time he pleaded that Miss Hale would “look back at him”, how could you not be on his side?
Daniela Denby-Ashe played Margaret Hale, our compassionate, open-minded protagonist who through her unique position as an outsider could empathize with both sides of the mill workers strike. I only knew Daniela from her stint as Janey Harper on the long running sitcom, My Family though I read she had an extensive run on the soap EastEnders as a teenager. In North & South she played a strong, principled young woman who was unique in her honesty and sensibility, not swooning at a suitor’s first declarations of love. In fact, the romance of John and Margaret in North & South is a refreshing tale of a mutual attraction based on intellect/personality rather than fashion or various social appearances.
As for other supporting cast, I put a spotlight on Pauline Quirk who played Mrs. Hale’s devoted maid, Dixon. I recognized her immediately as the devoted housekeeper Peggotty from the 1999 mini-series David Copperfield (the one with Daniel Radcliffe). On the other hand, I was flabbergasted to discover she was also the mysterious, threatening Susan Wright from Broadchurch. How’s that for range?
Brendan Coyle, known to many as Mr. Bates from Downton Abbey, was also notable as Nicholas Higgins. I thought his portrayal of a dutiful father and passionate union leader was memorable though his conspicuous and ubiquitous display of chest hair was a bit disconcerting to be honest.
Ross gave special mention to Tim Pigott-Smith who he remembered from films such as V for Vendetta, Quantum of Solace and Gangs of New York. In a bit of circle-of-life casting, Piggott-Smith played Frederick Hale, Margaret’s brother on the run, in the 1975 version of North & South. Three decades later he returned as Richard Hale, father of Margaret and Frederick, a man so righteous he sacrificed the comfort of his family for his beliefs.
And speaking of Frederick, my son was also delighted to see Rupert Evans show up as Margaret’s wayward brother. His love of Hellboy knows no bounds and he recently discovered Evans in the Ken Follet mini-series World Without End which he highly recommends as well.
Representation of the period
When watching period productions, one expects to discover something about history we didn’t know before. Be they very grand like Wolf Hall which dramatizes the reign of Henry VIII or even a sitcom like Up the Women about the British suffragette movement, some basic level of accuracy must be depicted if we’re to understand the context of the times.
Dramatic retelling is a very interesting plot device, in this case using the North & South as a microcosm for regional distinctions in mid-1800’s England. Two very different ways of life collide when southerner Margaret meets northerner Mr. Thornton. The South of England was primarily agricultural and the base for landed gentry and the aristocracy. On the other hand, the North was the center of the industrial revolution populated with self-made masters and their exploited workers on the verge of unionization. This grimy, cold, harsh region is a stark contrast to the bucolic, temperate South.
So we learned that deadly pneumoconiosis was contracted by workers like Bessy from exposure to the cotton fibers in the mills; that it’s perfectly acceptable for men and women shake hands in the North; and that when poor children were orphaned they were at the mercy of kind neighbors to take them in since there apparently wasn’t a Children’s Services department to place them in foster care. North & South is like a Jane Austen romance with an enhanced social conscience. In fact, acclaimed author Charles Dickens who was famous for criticizing the Victorian society he wrote about was Elizabeth Gaskell’s editor.
Period dramas should transport us back in time and many elements play a part in that journey. I thought the score, written by Martin Phipps, not only achieved its intended task of making us feel the appropriate emotions, but it was also just lovely to listen to. Ross praised the screenwriting and dialogue of Sandy Welch, who adapted Gaskell’s novel for the small screen. Here’s a brilliant example of words, music and haunting images coming together to make a considerable and lasting impression on the viewer.
The concept of “otherness” is part of the human condition. Regional suspicions and general dislike fuel the conflict between northern and southern ways of life in the series. When Margaret first met the townspeople in her new home of Milton, she judged them to be rough and too concerned with money and trade. Meanwhile, most Miltonians found the Southern intellectualism and manners of the Hales to be arrogant, insincere and useless.
Today social, economic and political conditions still tend to diverge along North/South lines in the UK and other parts of the world as well. But we’ll let the Map Men explain the whole North-South Divide issue with humor and visual aids.
Join us next time as we discuss the 2011 BBC sci-fi series Outcasts which stars Hermione Norris, Liam Cunningham and Daniel Mays and can be streamed on Netflix…at least for the time being.