Winifred Holtby’s South Riding (1936) was that rare literary beast, a novel about, as the author put it, ‘the drama of English local government’; she dedicated it to her mother, Alderman Mrs. Holtby. Unfortunately, its recent television adaptation – which finished this Sunday – turned Holtby’s novel into something far more conventional and much less interesting.
South Riding was about more than local government, including feminism, the battle between progress and tradition, the transforming power of education – and a doomed romance. But Holtby’s main intention, as I pointed out in this article, was to show readers what local government – and politics more broadly – could do in the messy, troubled world in which they lived.
Holtby wrote as a reformist socialist who saw merit in focusing on small advances. In the 1930s her optimistic reformism was out of fashion – Labour was in the wilderness and Stalin had become a favourite for many on the left. Holtby recognized this by having just one socialist member sit on her fictitious council, and even he has a debilitating lung disease.
Despite this difficult context, the novel ends with local slum dwellers rehoused in new council-built homes. Holtby was not naïve – she recognized the ‘complex tangle of motives prompting public decisions’. In the novel some councilors were possessed of an idealistic desire to improve living conditions, others wanted to make a corrupt profit out of buying up land they knew would be needed for the new estate. But out of this comes good. Almost despite itself, Holtby concludes, politics had improved people’s lives.
By the end of the novel therefore the forces of progress – embodied by the feisty headmistress Sarah Burton – had triumphed over those of tradition – personified by Squire Carne – which claimed the council could not afford such reforms. Holtby the novelist has Burton and Carne fall in love but Holtby the feminist and socialist has the Squire die, probably by his own despairing hand.
Andrew Davies’ 2011 adaptation of South Riding for BBC1 was broadcast during another time of economic hardship and when the possibilities of politics are again being questioned. Every adaptation should be seen in its own terms but there is usually something significant in the changes it brings to its source material.
South Riding was adapted for the cinema straight away and released in 1938. The producers wanted to emphasise national unity and show how Britons had to patriotically transcend their political differences. So they had Carne live on and join with the forces of progress in what was in effect a movie version of the Conservative-led National Government. Holtby – by now dead – must have turned in her grave.
The Davies adaptation is different again. But for someone who recently complained the BBC was going ‘downmarket’, he produced a surprisingly formulaic, even anodyne, version, one that avoided challenging the sensibilities of his presumed audience. The drama of local government has been pushed to the sidelines in favour of the Burton-Carne romance and a vague feminism.
Holtby’s desire to show how councils across Britain were, as she put it, ‘revolutionising’ people’s daily lives was lost almost entirely. Davies even has one of his characters claim that the new housing scheme was a ‘vindication of public-private partnership’ a snide, inaccurate and anachronistic contemporary reference. Holtby’s 1930s optimism has been replaced by a prevailing turn-of-the-century cynicism about politics.
In the 1990s Davies adapted Michael Dobbs’ House of Cards (1989) for BBC1, creating one of television’s most memorable characters, the murderous Prime Minister Francis Urquhart whose catch phrase ‘You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment’ summed up the duplicitous nature of political speech. Davies took the book’s original skepticism about politics and turned the cynicism up to 11.
With South Riding’s positive view of politics Davies has done the reverse – it is barely to be seen. We don’t know what battles occurred between writer, producer and others behind the scenes. But Davies’ South Riding is not Holtby’s.
Is it now impossible for British television to produce a drama about politics that truly reflects its complexities and possibilities?