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More than a political romance?

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?

You can follow Steven Fielding on Twitter.

Published inArt, Fiction & Politics


  1. Has British TV ever produced a drama that reflects the complexities and possibilities of politics? The only other TV drama cited in the article was House of Cards and, compelling drama though it was, it involved a politician blackmailing and murdering his way to the top – hardly a depiction of politics with a firm grounding in reality, still less one showcasing its complexities and possibilities.

    Drama tends to require a compelling protagonist, which is why the adaptation took the path it did. A full depiction of politics in all its complexity would, unfortunately, require the inclusion of policy – which would instantly become abstract and hard to put on screen in anything other than a simplistic manner (which the South Riding adaptation did manage to do). Has it ever been done? Will it ever be done? Doubtful on both counts.

    • Actually, there have been times when politics was treated seriously by television – notably back in the 1970s, when ITV (yes, ITV!) series such as The Challengers, Bill Brand and The Nearly Man went behind the scenes to look at the dilemmas confronted by MPs. Bill Brand (watched by 9 million viewers on Monday nights) even had a fictionalised version of the Labour Cabinets debate over the 1976 IMF loan. Apparently viewers were able (or allowed) to deal with such complexities then …

      • Yes, but much of that – certainly Bill Brand – is awful drama! Too often driven by clunky, ham-fisted dialogue full of politics-led exposition rather than action that arises naturally from engaging characters… horrible stuff, and a cack-handed style of storytelling that TV has rightly left behind.

        Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see a drama that succeeds both as effective storytelling and a sophisticated exploration of politics, but it’s extraordinarily hard to do. The drama and the politics are too often in tension: get one right, the other suffers. A full depiction of politics requires an exploration of ideas, which by definition are abstract and therefore hard to put across visually – and TV is a visual medium. Rely on dialogue to put the conceptual stuff across, and you end up with Bill Brand.

        Comedies get round this problem because verbal comedy is still watchable – the fact you’re laughing makes up for the fact nothing much is happening on-screen. Probably why politics has a better track record in TV comedies than dramas.

        Still, I’ll happily buy the book when it’s out!

        • On reflection, I’m being a bit harsh on Bill Brand. It does exhibit that tension between visual storytelling and exploring ideas, but it’s certainly not a write-off…

      • Edmund Ward, the writer of “The Challengers”, had a way with words in presenting characters who could coherently express their anger regarding serious subjects, so I suspect this series would have been informative and thought provoking viewing. The scripts are available in script form, and with a good number of Ward’s television series from that period appearing on dvd in the last few years we might get lucky with this show as well.

        In a more fanciful vein, Wards work on the BBC show “1990” looked at politics and government in its extremes.

  2. Tamsin Cox Tamsin Cox

    The 1974 version produced by Yorkshire Television and written by Stan Barstow is both much more faithful to Holtby’s nuances, and much better paced. I think that Davies struggles with the 1930s just generally, where Barstow revels in the small detail of social change and suffering. Worth a watch.

  3. I completely agree – Barstow was hardly a feminist and not on the left by the 1970s so that makes his adaptation all the more remarkable. That series also includes the ‘squeezed middle’ characters excluded from the Davies version, the ones who tried to maintain their respectability amidst the depression. And available on dvd!

  4. Ray Derricott Ray Derricott

    I agree that South Riding is watchable. It deals with the workings of local politics and the wheeling and dealing that goes on but this is dealt with superficially. It seems that the central place of romance is central and obviously has Sunday evening viewing figures in mind. Quite rightly, the place of education as a way to upward social mobility is through a good schooling (especially for girls) has an important place in the adaptation. After a scene on the value of the importance of providing a modern, attractive and aesthetic environment has to play in providing a positive environment and some debate of the influence of good housing on the motivation of the young these just happen. These items link with contemporary debates which add to the attraction of the series. However, in my opinion this is dealt with superficially.
    In my view, the Swedes and Danes are not afraid of making the workings and intrigues of local politics the centre of of some of their programmes. In doing this they also expose many political and social issues that writers, directors and programme makers are prepared to maintain as a central principle of their programmes. Some of the episodes in Wallander (the Swedish versions) and ‘The Killing’ from Danish TV., now being put out by the BBC, have central political issues that are not ‘dumbed down’ in trying to keep viewing figures up. They are hard on local political and national social themes. Are the Scandanavians less afraid of boring their viewers? Both of these are on BBC 4 and on a Saturday night. BBC 4 caters for minority interests.

  5. You are right Ray – the series did make some elliptical political points. I wonder what kind of discussions went on behind the scenes about this?

    I know that writers find it very hard to get ‘political’ subjects on the screen as producers feel that audiences would not be interested. That was not always the case so something has changed, either amongst audiences or producers’ perceptions of audiences. Producers are also under greater pressure to get bigger audiences – the market on UK TV is now calling the tune. In the past they had a greater freedom to produce what they wanted (and audiences less choice about what they could watch!).

    I must catch up with The Killing. But it’s not just Scandanavian TV that feels able to deal with local politics in a complex way. The Wire did that, although that series was not aimed at a mass audience in the US.

  6. Very interesting article and discussion – thank you.

    I think the overriding attitude which characterises political drama (and indeed most political coverage) in the UK is cynicism. This, of course, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in lack of engagement in politics in general, and – perhaps – local politics in particular.

    I have often wondered whether a UK equivalent of “The West Wing” could ever be produced. I suspect not. The suggestion that politics can be a force for good, and the affirmation of public service would be too much for our crushing cynicism.

  7. Spurn Point Spurn Point

    I was glad to reach this blog and read some worthwhile comment on the recent TV version of South Riding. None of the broadsheet reviews I read picked up on the thinness of Davies’ adaptation. It really is South Riding lite. The Barstow adaptation with all its 1970s creaky [to modern eyes] production values kept the truth of the Holtby novel, which, as noted in these posts, has local government politics at its core. Of course the 2011 BBC version runs at about a quarter of the airtime of the YTV 1974 one, and so something has to go, we might suppose, but the result is an emasculated version of a feminist political novel – if that’s not an oxymoron. The BBC’s pre-publicity machine was bigging up supposed parallels between Austen’s Elizabeth & Darcy and Holtby’s Sarah and Carne seemingly for no other reason than Davies adapted both writers’ work and perhaps because both men had big houses and rode horses. But there’s much more to South Riding than mere romance, as a simple glance at Holtby’s headings for the eight individual books in her novel shows. The titles of many of these marry those of council committees, again pointing up the political underbed of the work. Yes, in this latest effort we did have the message that some politicians are wicked and corrupt, and that education for girls is important and worthy, but the scene towards the end showing Lydia entering her barrister’s chambers was sheer interpolation as was that at the start of Sarah breathlessly racing to her interview for the headmistresship. However, if the BBC adaptation has the effect of pointing fans to the Holtby novel, that’s all to the good. Its depiction of life in east Yorkshire between the wars shows a nation in transition, written here as a contemporary account, which makes the book all the more significant.

  8. Silverwhistle Silverwhistle

    A good piece, thank you! I can only second Spurn Point’s comments (My parents are just off Holderness Road, while I’m in Glasgow!) I think a huge problem was the over-compression into 3 episodes (3 hrs): the 1974 adaptation, which remains definitive, was in 13 episodes (about 10 hours). With that amount of compression, they clearly decided to focus on the Robert/Sarah plotline (despite the book making it patently obvious that it could never, ever have worked for either of them, even had circumstances permitted!) and on the education of Lydia. As a ‘South Riding’-raised Scot, who loved the book as a teenager in Hull 30 years ago, I especially missed more about my favourite character, Joe – who lost his heroic back-story and so much of his activity as the solitary Socialist, struggling equally with rural reactionaries and with his tuberculosis.

  9. Seyerus Seyerus

    Being a British Forces Broadcasting Service viewer I have only just had the chance to watch the first episode of South Riding. I can see that the blog has deviated somewhat from the original subject. They tend to do that and it’s what makes them so interesting sometimes but I feel a fundamental point has been missed here while exploring context and background in that this is simply an awful programme, utterly dreadful! It is really bad.

    Quote: ‘…and remember (girls), poetry doesn’t have to rhyme.


    • When I write about political fiction I try to avoid qualitative judgements – I’m not interested in whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but in what it says about politics. But, I agree – speaking as a viewer, the series was a bit of stinker!

  10. What’s up, just wanted to say, I liked this post.
    It was funny. Keep on posting!

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