North and South – the BBC Adaptation 2004

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Libby Tempest, Chair of the Gaskell Society, revisits a classic, available on UK Netflix or on BBC DVD. 

This impressive adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel has become a classic in its own right and I know from showing people round Gaskell’s House in Manchester, how often watching this serial has been the way into her work for many first-time Gaskell readers.

It became clear to me whilst undertaking this research, that the success of this 2004 adaptation took the BBC by surprise. They did not do much advance publicity, apparently because expectations were low and, apart from an article in The Independent by Sarah Shannon in November 2004, I couldn’t find much advance media publicity.

However – the public loved it from the start, apparently causing the message board of the programme’s website to crash because of the number of visitors!

Why was it so popular?

What effect did its success have on Elizabeth Gaskell’s reputation?

How closely does the adaptation stick to the novel?

The series certainly did sweep the board at the BBC Drama Awards for 2004 – it’s significant that these awards are voted for by viewers and North & South won Best Drama with nearly 50% of the vote (its closest rival was Spooks which got just under 17%….)

These comments from viewers were typical –

“A great drama, one which was under-publicised by the BBC, but which has caught the public’s imagination. Wonderfully adapted, with excellent sets and a great cast – thank you for this quality drama and please continue to stage more of these. We rely on the BBC for intelligent dramas exactly like this.”

“Brought a little-known Victorian novel by an author frequently overshadowed by Dickens and Eliot to prominence. A romance, an insight into the effects of the Industrial Revolution, and a study of the battles of conscience of those divided by industrial dispute – the impact on family, the social responsibilities. Entertaining and informative at the same time.”

“The BBC are the best at period adaptations but they outdid themselves with North & South. Sandy Welch created the best swoonfest since Pride & Prejudice (in fact, the jury’s still out on whether or not P&P has been knocked off its perch). Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe were brilliant. I haven’t enjoyed anything else on TV this year half as much.”

I think these comments go some way to explaining why the adaptation was so successful – it appealed across the board, to those watching from a more scholarly point of view right through to the general public. And much of its success must be down to the outstanding performances of its cast, particularly the two main stars. Impressively, Daniela Denby-Ashe won Best Actress with Sinead Cusack (Mrs Thornton) coming third.

Being completely honest though, I would have to say that it was Richard Armitage who made the biggest impression with the (mainly female??) audience – he won both Best Actor and Most Desirable Star and comparisons WERE drawn between his performance as John Thornton and Colin Firth’s as Darcy in the BBC’s landmark 1995 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice (see previous comment). Here are a few more reactions from viewers, specifically about Richard Armitage, ranging from –

“The man inhabited his role like a second skin…a very skilled and moving performance.”

“The emotional investment I made in North & South is what made watching the programme so enthralling. I feel this is largely a testament to the acting ability of Richard Armitage. He made Thornton believable and made you care about his fate. The intensity and range of emotion he conveyed was compelling…”

to –

“Wow! Where did he spring from? The man is gorgeous!”

“How can a man dressed like an undertaker be sexy??”

“Simply gorgeous – with or without a cravat!”

SANDY WELCH wrote the screenplay – she had previously won a BAFTA for Best Drama Serial in 1999 for Our Mutual Friend. After North & South in 2004, she went on to adapt Jane Eyre in 2006 and Emma and The Turn of the Screw in 2009.

Here are some extracts from an interview with her that appeared in 2004 –

On Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale – “There’s a directness about her, as well as terrific charm & great energy.”

On the character of Margaret Hale – “She is someone with a lively and enquiring mind, who wins your sympathy – not a pushy, snobbish Southerner….. I have Margaret travelling to the north by train to signal that this isn’t a coach & horses drama or a piece about long dresses & dances. I’m hoping it will give a steam-driven momentum to the piece right from the start.”

On Elizabeth Gaskell – “It’s important to me that viewers do not mis-read Elizabeth Gaskell – the Mrs Gaskell tag makes people think that she’s very domestic, just a clergyman’s wife in Manchester with lots of children. A lot of people are very snobbish about her.”

On the relationship between John Thornton & Margaret Hale – “It’s a sort of Victorian Pride and Prejudice really. It’s a wonderful love story, and also a great adventure. The only problem dramatically is that all the prejudice comes from Margaret’s side – Mr Thornton likes her almost from the start. One of the only liberties I’ve taken is to even that up a bit. When she first sees him, it will be inside his cotton mill, where he appears in quite a dangerous & brutal light. Very Mr Rochester….”

On Milton-Northern – “I wanted a central image of the drama to be the interior of the mill looking like a snowstorm, with all the cotton flying around, and it really does. It’s very different from our image of these factories as dirty places. It’s about capturing the excitement and the hardship and the energy of a modernising city.”

On the relationship between Margaret and John – “There are only four scenes in the whole drama when Margaret Hale & John Thornton are actually alone together, and that heightens the tension between them. It’s a wonderfully antagonistic relationship, and a real meeting of minds as well.”

Richard Armitage was also interviewed at the time – he said how powerful he found it when he first saw the mill in Keighley (West Yorkshire) where they shot most of the outdoor mill scenes. He also revealed that “something great happened when I read with Daniela – something clicked.”

And when Daniela Denby-Ashe was asked about Richard Armitage, she said – “As soon as I saw Richard, I knew he was Thornton. Just in the way he holds himself, he has a real presence.”

Daniela had originally auditioned for the part of Fanny – they’d been looking for the right Margaret for quite a while and it was realised when she read that actually, she’d be right for Margaret. Richard Armitage auditioned very early on for John Thornton – apparently they knew he was right but had to go through the motions of seeing other actors, before giving him the part.

Thinking about what Richard Armitage said about how powerful he had found it when he actually saw the mill in Keighley where so much of North & South was filmed – on a very personal note, I visited the extraordinary Queen Street Mill in Burnley (Lancashire), the only surviving steam-driven cotton mill left in the world (now a museum). The looms are powered up every hour and even though the weaving shed is now only about a third of its original size, the noise and sense of movement is quite overwhelming. This made it the perfect location for filming some of the interior mill scenes – that wonderful scene where Margaret opens the door and sees and hears the mill for the first time captures this perfectly.

(N.B The equally impressive Helmshore Textiles Museum was also used during the filming.)

To follow – Examination of some particularly significant (and favourite!) scenes from the series….watch this space.