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Originally, I had no particular inclination to review the BBC production of "South Riding." But after seeing this program, people are tending to fall into either love it or hate it positions. This perfectly pleasant presentation is far from perfect and yet it has plenty to recommend it as well. So, with no other reviews, I felt compelled to chime in with the middle ground and present a few pros and cons of the miniseries. To rate this at the five star level indicating that it is at the top echelon of quality might seem to set unreasonable expectations. While nice, this is hardly on the level of the original "Upstairs, Downstairs" or the sublime recent version of "Bleak House." Everything can't be five stars or the classification loses any meaning! Conversely, even if you don't particularly care for the program--there are many solid elements (especially the performances) that would elevate it beyond a dismissive one star. So here I am, standing squarely in the middle--at about 3 1/2 stars rounded up for three very convincing actors (a strong Anna Maxwell-Martin, the always reliable David Morrissey, and the increasingly entertaining Penelope Wilton).

If this three part miniseries is guilty of anything, it is of having too much story to compress into its limited timeframe. Ostensibly the tale covers an entire town's worth of characters and story lines and three episodes is not adequate time to present them in an in-depth way. The heart of the story involves a local girl (Maxwell-Martin) returning to South Riding to take up a position as the school mistress. Headstrong and independent, she immediately clashes with some of more traditional town leaders--including Morrissey. You know immediately where this battle of wills is headed, but credit the writer and actors for maintaining a credible conflict without an easy resolution. This is, by far, the most intriguing aspect of the story as Morrissey is haunted by an unresolved relationship in his life. Maxwell-Martin may be a little progressive and modern for this tiny 1930's village, but she plays with a wide eyed conviction that keeps you on her side.

The story, however, also extends to subplots about an illicit affair, a land grab scheme, an impoverished girl making good, unrequited attraction and a number of other narrative elements battling for screen time. The talented supporting cast is very much underserved by the script that has little time or interest to develop them beyond the most superficial qualities. As such, much of the drama and impact of "South Riding" is limited. The second episode is probably the most engaging with the Maxwell-Martin and Morrissey pairing being explored at length. But even that plot point comes to an abrupt end. The complicated and overstuffed plot points, however, all come to tidy conclusions in a rushed ending filled with pat solutions and cliched narration.

For its faults, though, this is still a handsome production filled with terrific actors. I'm glad I watched it, and I found it entertaining and pleasurable. Is it the best that BBC or Masterpiece Theater has to offer? Not even close! But if you enjoy this type of entertainment, this show has its share of charm even if it's not particularly substantive. A good effort that simply has too much going on and, thus, leaves the viewer wanting more story and character development. KGHarris, 5/11.
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"South Riding" is a beautifully-filmed BBC period drama. I was drawn in by the premise of an independent and intelligent young woman making her way in the world, and hoping to inspire young women at an all-girls' high school to attain greater heights. The setting is 1930s Yorkshire, and Anna Maxwell Martin plays the role of Sarah Burton, a strong-willed and fiercely opinionated young woman who returns to her small town of South Riding to apply for the post of headmistress at an all-girls' school. Though she lands the job, she finds that many people in the town are not as open to changes as she had hoped for, even if this means a brighter, better future for her students.

One of Sarah's strongest critics is landowner Robert Carne (David Morrissey who first impressed me by his performance as Colonel Brandon in Sense & Sensibility (with Miss Austen Regrets BBC TV 2008), a single parent with a young, highly excitable daughter, Midge (Katherine McGolpin). Robert finds Sarah's opinions a bit too modern and highly idealistic, but he himself is battling desperate economic times, and gets behind on his mortgage payments. Robert also has a dark secret concerning his wife, Muriel (Lydia Wilson) and their history is reflected through numerous flashbacks to the past.

One of the strengths of this drama was the development in the relationship between Sarah and Robert, and the strong chemistry between the two leads made the love-hate relationship appear credible as viewers see mutual dislike give way to grudging respect and affection. These two characters were very well-developed, yet many others in the drama were not as well explored. One in particular was the role of Sarah's admirer, a quiet Scottish barrister, Joe Astell, played by Douglas Henshall. Both Sarah and Joe get along famously, but it is evident from the beginning that Joe has a thing for Sarah, yet she acts as if she is oblivious to this, something which I found difficult to believe. I would have liked to see more of Joe, and discover his life and background, and what made him come to South Riding in the first place.

I felt one of the main weaknesses in this production was the insufficient development of many of the secondary characters. The production had a rushed feel to it, and this is particularly evident in the final episode, where events careen at a rapid rate, and where everything is presumably neatly tied up, but viewers are left feeling disappointed and let-down, with many questions left unanswered. I'm guessing that budget may be the cause for this, as the story had enough in it to have made several more episodes possible. It is a pity as South Riding had enough talent in its cast and potential to be an excellent period drama.
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on February 28, 2014
This miniseries is poorly written and more surprising- the acting is really bad. I'm a huge fan of the very talented Anna Maxwell Martin (watch her in The Bletchley Circle to see her at her finest- because, WOW) but somehow she really foundered with this material. The material she has to work with IS poor, the writing style is repetitive and banal and the story is as cliche-ridden as they come- however, I would expect that an actor of her caliber would have been able to rise above it and make her character, Sarah Burton, less one-dimensional.

What we get instead is the cliche of a new teacher who arrives in town with a chip on her shoulder- she talks a LOT about how the female students in her charge deserve better- better equipment, better school building, better educations. She bangs on about what the girls need stridently. In fact we never hear any other views from her at all. So unfortunately we don't ever get to see her interior life, what motivates her, why she feels strongly about this, or anything that makes us able to understand her motivations or care about her as a person. I guess it's just taken for granted in 2014 that "girls deserve the same science equipment as boys!" Well yes, it is taken for granted by us, but given that this is a period piece and her ideas are slightly out of step with her times it would be nice for them to be explored enough to make the audience invested in them. What makes her aggressive personality and idee fixe even harder to understand is that she receives very little opposition- people make token noises like "but surely..." "where's the money supposed to come from?" and things like that, but really she seems to always get her own way and that quickly.

I had thought this series was about her vocation as a teacher but it is not. We only see one scene of her teaching a class and it's an awkward one. And the scenes with a student she tries to take under her wing are even worse. Instead her career is secondary to the shabby and improbably "love" affair she gets involved in. The worst part about this series, by far, is the lack of chemistry between herself and the object of her affection, Robert Carne. I can't say for certain whether or not he's the Worst Actor Ever, because Martin is certainly acting below her ability, but the actor, David Morrissey, gives a good impression of being the Worst Actor Ever in this piece. To see romance in this story, when there is none visible on the screen, would take an amount of imagination I am not capable of. After they try and fail to spend the night together in a hotel she says to him "I didn't want this to be some grubby little affair." And I thought to myself "NAILED IT." Because that's exactly the way to describe it- grubby and ineffectual.

The other really low low light is the mawkish subplot about a wife driven mad by having a baby. Or was she driven mad because her husband raped her? Or was she driven mad because she already had the seeds of madness within her? Will he ever overcome his feelings of guilt? Will she ever get to leave the asylum? Who cares? The whole subplot is gross. Did I mention that the rapist is the same man who becomes our teacher-hero's object of affection? Yes, the very same Robert Carne. It was impossible for me to get past that. Not only is the character a rapist, he's weird about his daughter (she's weird too), and he storms around angrily 99% of the time. So neither he nor Sarah Burton is at all likable.

Highlights: Penelope Wilton (Isabel Crawley on Downton Abbey) does a fine job as a secondary character- she really fleshed out what should have been a thankless role and made her character warm, intelligent and someone I cared for. Also, her character is consistent- which Martin's is not. There's another character who falls in love with the charmless Sarah Burton, he doesn't get much screen time but he clearly should be the romantic lead in something because his friendship and wistful love are very believable. Probably the biggest highlight was when a poor middle-aged laborer has a lovely romance with a local baker- for the few moments they were on screen flirting and acting like teenagers you could really feel their comfortable affection for each other. Honestly, those were the most enjoyable moments in this miniseries. There's another lowlight- a subplot about petty blackmailing and a corrupt land development deal (boring) which the series spends a lot of time on. The pay-off of that subplot is that the character Robert Carne gets to be angry about it, yet another thing for him to be storm around about, and the other characters get to say things like "He's so noble for being so angry about that bungled land deal. Whatta guy."

I did finish this series because, well, I don't really know why, except that, like I said, I love the actress Anna Maxwell Martin, it's only 3 episodes, and I kept thinking that certain story lines were going to get better. They did not. There are so many better things to watch.

Edited to add: I just read some of the other reviews and I have to conclude that those reviewers were bringing a LOT of fine qualities to the table- such as sympathy for these walking cardboard cutouts, an incredible imagination for reading romance into banal situations, a willingness to be entertained by cliches, an ability to overlook horrible personalities etc. These are such lovely character traits IN THE VIEWERS and if everyone was so kind we wouldn't need quality acting, writing, direction, or production values ever.
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on March 6, 2015
Really enjoyed it! Got so invested in the characters that I felt let down at the end of S1. Searched the net to see if S2 was coming and evidently this was it! I thought this series was a great break from all the intimacy-charged television that seems to center around the next intimate encounter instead of a real storyline. Maybe I'm biased because I'm an Anna Maxwell Martin fan as well as an avid follower of David Morrissey (Thorne, Red Blood Field, etc.) but I thought the characters interacted well on screen and the writing was captivating. Rarely do you have a time-based series that captures the feelings of THAT time where growth is longed for but tamped down by the 'old guard'. I enjoyed the writing as the story continued to develop and keep its continuity throughout. Very well done!
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on August 26, 2012
I've bought some sorry dogs from Amazon Video. This is one of the really good ones. It starts off right because it has a good script. Not much actors or directors can do with silly dialog. All the characters are intelligent so if you cannot stand a bit of fantasy don't buy it.
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on July 2, 2013
I think I would have either added a few more episodes, or cut the time spent on the musical number and Robert Carne's memories of his sad relationship with his lovely but bi-polar wife. The story line that involved Sarah Burton as the young, emancipated headmistress including the subplot with her pupil, the poverty stricken but gifted Lydia, was so much more promising and fresh. With Carne, I felt we were given raked over Mr Rochester, by way [ and it is not the fault the versatile actor David Morissey, he strongly resembles George Reeves in this role] of Superman. I could barely concentrate because of it. Too bad because this series could have been wonderful. Anna Maxwell Martin, a most intelligent actress, is, as usual, a delight.
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on January 4, 2015
I normally would have loved a story like this, I generally love BBC productions. But not this time. I gave it 3 stars for the efforts put out by all the actors but there are so many plot lines that just the time allowed for the series wasn't enough to actually develop any of them. They all just suddenly end, and none in way that is very interesting. The acting wasn't bad but this series simply was a waste of time, I paid to watch this one, don't waste your money.
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on December 16, 2013
What started as a five star (or at least a 4 1/2) devolved into a three star. I love period pieces and especially this era, so I began with excitement and high expectations. By the third episode I realized that it was almost as if they said...ok, the first two episodes are great, but we've only got one episode left, so we've got to tie up all of these loose ends quickly. And that is what it feels like...rushed at the end just to get everything in.
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on January 23, 2016
I wanted to watch South Riding (3 episodes) after reading Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth & watching two on-screen versions (the 1979 BBC miniseries and also the 2014 movie). Winifred Holtby, who wrote SR, was Vera Brittain's close friend. Both women were aspiring writers in London during the period after World War I. I hoped SR would give me a glimpse of that period.
I have not yet read SR. So these comments are only about the on-screen version. Unfortunately, this onscreen version does not do justice to the period. The series starts with Episode 1 in which an Oxford-educated woman returns to her village as principal of the local school. She has to face a great deal of local opposition but she is somewhat successful. As I expected, it was very enjoyable. Unfortunately, Episode 2 and 3 were disappointing - there were several storylines but they were not fully developed. For instance, there is a man who is in love with the principal. He appears from time to time but she sends him away. When last seen, he says "If you change your mind...". There is a very bright girl who lives in a housing project with her parents and many siblings. Her mother dies suddenly and she has to leave school to look after the children. Eventually, her father finds someone to look after the children and she is able to return to school. Then there is a "highly strung" girl who lives with her father in a mortgaged mansion. Flashbacks imply that her mother is dead or maybe alive in an institution. After some adventures (including the birthing of a calf!), the principal falls in love with the girl's father. But the affair is doomed. He goes for a ride at night. His horse is found riderless on the beach the next morning. Was it a accident? Or suicide? The principal decides to return to London. But she is made to change her mind at the last minute. Episode 3 ends rather abruptly - one is left wondering if there was to be more.
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on November 5, 2012
I enjoyed watching this show. However this is simply coming from my taste in reading and TV choices. I have never read the book or books so I cannot comment on how well or badly it was adapted. I can simply say I enjoyed it for the drama it is.
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