Friday, November 14, 2014

10 Years Later, ‘North & South’ Remains the Greatest Period-Drama Miniseries of All Time

By Sarah Seltzer on Nov 14, 2014 12:00pm

Ten years ago tonight, the BBC premiered a four-part miniseries, North & South (not to be confused with the Patrick Swayze-starring civil war drama of the same name), adapted from Elizabeth Gaskell’s 19th-century novel of cross-class romance in the industrial North of England. The BBC didn’t harbor huge expectations for the series, coming as it did in the midst of a glorious decade of nonstop adaptations of major works by Austen, Brontë, and Dickens. But then, a few weeks later, the fourth installment of North & South ended with a tender, long-awaited kiss (now known to viewers as “The Kiss”). Immediately, so many people flooded the BBC’s online message boards that they crashed and shut down. It’s been enshrined in fangirl lore as “the infamous night that period drama fans broke (a small part of) the BBC (dot com).”

Richard Armitage, who played the brooding hero John Thornton, became a star and heartthrob — move over Colin Firth! — and the show was enshrined as a fan favorite.

I had a similar reaction to those first viewers’ when I watched North & South on DVD across the pond a few years later. I tracked down an email I sent eight years ago after a binge-watching frenzy:

“We watched the final three hours of North and South... you must must must must watch it. I literally couldn’t breathe at the end it was so good.

Literally. I literally couldn’t breathe! Yet somehow I lived! In all seriousness, what about the miniseries sends so many viewers into apoplexy the moment it ends? It’s hard to see at first: North & South has the marriage plot of an Austen adaptation but with no witty repartee, and the social strife and coughing deathbeds of a Dickens adaptation yet without any broad humor. In addition, it’s filmed in a mostly muted register of colors to signify the dark, industrial vibe of “Milton” (a stand-in for Manchester). We enter very few polished drawing rooms, witness not a single ball or country dance, and everyone speaks with accurately indecipherable Northern English accents. Over the course of four installments, quite a few main characters die of various lingering illnesses. The downtrodden working people of Milton get supplanted by even more desperate, literally starving Irish strike-breakers, and then they almost murder the strike-breakers, which is not something you see very often on TV. It’s bleaker than Bleak House.


But all these qualities make North & South so unforgettable, too. Like the best “prestige TV,” its concerns are with social justice, moral ambiguity, and individual responsibility. Everyone is rendered sympathetically, to some degree, even those who stand in opposition to each other. Surrounded by the conflicts of this complex world, we have the love story between Thornton, who transcended his modest background to become a mill owner (a boss with principles, but a boss nonetheless), and the refined, socially liberal Margaret Hale (played by a radiant Daniella Denby-Ashe), who comes from the gentler South and thinks him an oppressive brute. It’s one of the most explosive, chemistry-rich misunderstanding-laden romances that’s ever graced the small screen. Their courtship has a structure that clearly imitates Pride and Prejudice, but each step along the way is ten times as dramatic.

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