Monday, January 25, 2010

North and South, the BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's novel

Last week I detailed my Classic Crushes: who from classic literature I find irresistible. Pirate Penguin told me about one of her crushes that, for her, trumps Austen's leading men: Mr Thornton from Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. She urged me to track down the BBC adaptation, and I'm ever so glad I did.

The title refers to the industrial north and wealthy south of England. Margaret Hale, the heroine, moves with her family from the south to the fictional town of Milton, modeled in Manchester, after her father, a minister, disagrees with an edict from the church. She hates the smoke and close confines of the city, and the cruelness of the masters towards their workers. One such master is Mr Thornton, played by Richard Armitage. If Armitage, Colin Firth (as Austen's Mr Darcy) and Timothy Dalton (as Bronte's Mr Rochester, 1970s adaptation) were pitted against each other in a scowling competition, it's difficult to say who would come up trumps. Armitage's severe nose gives him an advantage, but up against Firth's arrogant sneer and Dalton's cold blue gaze and shock of black hair, I don't know who to put my money on!

The scowl in all its glory

The beauty of a good scowler is that when they actually smile, it's like the sun coming out and you swoon all over again.

Like Rochester and Darcy, Thornton has his soft and lovable side, and is of course improved and redeemed by the strong-willed heroine. It takes a woman, of course, to write a man we will all fall so violently in love with. Apparently Byron does it quite well too, as these sorts of men are called "Byronic", but I'm yet to read any of his work.

North and South has a great deal more conscience and social awareness than most nineteenth-century novels I have read/watched BBC adaptations of. The central theme is the romance between Hale and Thornton, but there's also a great deal about working conditions at the time and the misery that the industrial revolution caused for the working classes. There are some brilliant shots of the inside of the cotton mill, the air thick with snowflake-like cotton that all the workers, including young children, breathe in on a daily basis for long hours.

I knew I'd seen Armitage in something recently. He played the vicar's dishy love interest on The Vicar of Dibley several years ago. Too freaking cute.

North and South is one of the best costume dramas I have watched. It's perfectly cast, has beautiful cinematography and one of the most heart-wrenching moments I've seen. Highlight for spoiler: the moment in episode four when Margaret departs Milton for London, and Thornton is looking for any sign that she loves him and whispers, "Look back at me" as her carriage pulls away. Gah! Tears and hand-wringing.

Thanks again to Pirate Penguin for turning my attention to North and South! My appetite for more costume dramas is thoroughly whetted. Are there any more I should know about?


  1. So glad to hear you loved this one - Mr. Thornton holds a special place in my heart too!

    I'm not sure if you saw these, but Elizabeth Gaskell has a couple other books that were made into series by the BBC/Masterpiece. "Wives and Daughters" and "Cranford". PBS is currently doing the second part of Cranford starring Judi Dench and they are fantastic!

  2. OMG!!!! I LOVE this movie!!! It's amazing!! LOVE the Armitage. I can just watch this and swooon!!!! When I went to Scotland for the summer, this was one of the only 2 movies I took with me. Soooooo good!

  3. Not a costume drama at all, but Richard Armitage was also Guy of Gisborne in the last BBC Robin Hood, opposite Keith Allen's pantomime villain Sheriff and occupying some point on the brooding-to-emo spectrum...

  4. That is a scowl to be reckoned with...

  5. I love when he full-out SMILES. He's just too cute x) I'm so glad you liked N&S! We have to pass on the Thornton love to others...! I have made this one of my missions in life xD!

  6. One of the few dvds I brought with me the Japan. I play that spoiler scene of yours over and over again. Love the last scene as well. It appeals to the cynic and the romantic in me.

    Guess who I'll be lusting over this evening?

  7. Michelle--I saw the Wives and Daughters one a few years ago (need to rewatch) but I shall look up Cranford.

    Frankie--SO worth rewatching, isn't it!

    Hampshireflyer--I will look out for Robin Hood. He should so have been cast as Robin.

    Dannie--I wouldn't like to go up against it.

    Tricia--Everyone seems to have know about it except me!

    Pirate Penguin--I KNOW. Right at the end when he was all smiles, TOO adorable. Could eat him with a spoon.

    Adele--Mr Thornton shall keep you warm!!

  8. It's great to see another Armitage convert. (Nice going, pirate pinguin! Spread that RA love!) Mr. Thornton is #1 on my fictional characters hottie list. (Followed closely by the Mr. Darcies, Toby Stephens as Rochester and the baddie Gisborne.)

  9. Oh wow. So glad you discovered The Armitage, Rhiannon. There are no words. I watched it through the first time and then immediately replayed both of those scenes--when she's leaving and the entire ending. Seriously. The no cravat. The smile. The SWOONING...

  10. Hey! I gave you a blog award today, come check it out here!

  11. Are you jealous that I live in Manchester?? and biys who live here have the best sneers ever? thought so

  12. Nat--I LOVE your blog. The cravat and no-cravat shots. OMG.

    Angie--Oh lordy, when he smiles! So glad I have discovered.

    Valerie--Thank you!

    Carla--Do they?? I shall have to visit! :D

  13. I saw this myself a couple of years ago and was so blown away by it that I just couldn't contain my enthusiasm. So myself and a couple of other bloggers started a "North and South Crusade" to get as many people as we could to watch this incredible four hour movie. It ran for a month and we had guests and giveaways. Although it's been a couple of years now - The North and South Crusade goes on!!!
    I have a list of fellow Crusaders on the side bar of my blog with a list of them and I'm always looking for more.
    Mollie pointed me your way and I'm as thrilled as can be to add you to The Crusaders list. I hope you head over and check out what other bloggers had to say about this masterpiece - also, I have a couple of clips from YouTube *g*

  14. Rhiannon,

    Yes, I just wanted to say how much I agree about this BBC adaptation of North and South. I saw it when it was originally aired - fantastic. That scene with the cotton falling like snow in the factory you describe has stayed with me.

    There's a BBC series of Robin Hood with Armitage in too that I enjoyed a lot. He plays a baddy and get's to do lots more scowling! Recommended!

  15. I have been ADDICTED to North & South since I discovered it a few months ago. I can't believe I hadn't heard about it (I'm in Australia). And now I can't stop re-watching it. The last scene ... oh, the yearning and swooning!! All the striding about in the cotton fluff, was pretty hot too.

    Credit to RA & DDE for their superb acting.

    I have not been that successful at converting anyone though. Tried with a couple of my friends, and they just didn't get it (though they weren't hard core costume drama fans like myself). Don't think they could get over the first scene where the characters met. I wonder why we can, but they can't?

    Also note: that scene was completely made up by the producers, not in the book at all. Neither is the final scene, but that's okay - it was WAY better than the book.


  16. just finished the book. huzzah! loved it!

  17. The way Mr Thornton looks at Margaret in the scene at the railwaystation just melts my heart! Richard Armitage was lovely as Harry Kennedy in The Vicar of Dibley. He is great as the moody, misunderstood Mr Thornton. I think he has a perfectly undestandable reason to be angry at his worker. Fantastatic acting!