BBC Radio 7, 8-26 March 2009
Winifred Holtby's posthumously published 1935 novel bears strong resemblances to Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Sarah Burton (Sarah Lancashire) an idealistic spinster born in the Yorkshire village of Kidlington, returns after a long sojourn in 'The Smoke' (i.e. London) to take over the headship of the local girls' school. Until her arrival the school carries on in its own sweet way, educating children in the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic but little else. Why should anyone bother, when most of the girls' lives have been planned for them after they graduate, with home, marriage and family at the top of their list of priorities? Once Sarah enters on the scene, the atmosphere changes; she not only begins to broaden the girls' minds but changes the school's culture. Intellectual pursuits are introduced; the students participate in spontaneous activities such as fell-walking, even though the staff vehemently resist the idea. Sarah's task is not easy; she has to contend with a lackadaisical staff but struggle with a male-dominated board of school governors who would clearly prefer things to be left alone.
Lancashire's Sarah was clearly not going to assume such a passive role. Her vigorous commitment to progress suppressed all objections, even those expressed by wealthy landowners like Robert Kline (Philip Glenister), who reluctantly decided to send his daughter Midge to school after years of home tuition. Even when Kline accused her of trespassing (and thereby disrupting the balance of nature in rural Yorkshire), Sarah brushed aside his complaints by volunteering to pay for any damage she and her "gells" might have caused.
At a deeper level South Riding explores loneliness; the loneliness of the staff who continue to teach even after they have outlived their usefulness, in the belief that if they retire they might as well be dead. The caretaker-cum-village gossip Mrs. Beddoes (Carole Boyd) pursues a clandestine - and largely unrequited - love-affair with Kline in the belief that it will buoy up her self-esteem. The fact that Kline is some two decades younger than her, and does not really welcome her attentions, is conveniently avoided. Sarah enjoys little or no social activity; her life revolves round the school. Although glad to return to her roots, her London education renders her painfully aware of the shortcomings of life in South Riding. But there really is no alternative for her; if she wants to advance professionally, then she must endure the isolation and stay put.
South Riding dramatizes class-prejudices that no longer exist in contemporary Britain, with the decline of the aristocracy and the demogaphic changes that have affected rural areas over the last six decades. Nonetheless Holtby's story can be enjoyed as a study of human isolation in an outwardly close-knit community. The director of this 15-part adaptation was Melanie Harris.