North and South (BBC, 2004) adapted by Sandy Welch, directed by Brian Percival
Since the first time I studied Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and started voicing how much I loved it, I have had people recommending the 2004 BBC adaptation to me. Something that always struck me as interesting were the reasons that people gave for recommending it: without fail, every recommendation had some variation of the phrases “you will fall in love with Richard Armitage, he is so good as Mr. Thornton” and “the Margaret and Thornton relationship is so romantic”. I found this strange because, whilst the relationship between Margaret and Thornton is obviously a major theme in the book, North and South is hardly a book about romance; the romance is one layer of a complex study into class, industrialisation, and the economic divide between the North and the South of England. One of the reasons it took me so long to get around to actually watching this adaptation was that I was worried the romance might have taken over every other aspect which makes the book so great.
However, I didn’t need to be so concerned: it turns out people were recommending it because it is actually a great series, not just because they think Mr. Thornton is good-looking.
The first thing that struck me about the series was the cinematography. There is so much detail in every shot of every episode: from the almost unreal green of Helstone, to the smoke of Milton, to the snow-like cotton flying in the factory, every scene sets up or continues the thematic explorations of the narrative. I realised, upon looking up Brian Percival, that he had also directed the 2013 film adaptation of The Book Thief: another very stylistic and atmospheric adaptation of a famous and well-loved book. (Sidenote: he also directed the BBC ShakespeaRE-told Much Ado About Nothing, which I had not realised.) It does not surprise me that these two adaptations share a director, since it is clear in both that every shot has been carefully thought through and pieced together. Adding to the effect of the cinematography in North and South is the music. I love a good piece of film or television score, and the main theme in this series was stuck in my head for days afterwards.
The acting is similarly solid. It is Armitage who is always singled out when people talk of the acting in this adaptation and, to a lesser extent, Daniela Denby-Ashe. However, the real revelations for me were Brendan Coyle as Nicholas Higgins and Will Houston as John Boucher. I wasn’t expecting either of these two characters to stand out as I was bringing the baggage of not particularly liking Coyle’s Downton Abbey character with me, and Boucher exists primarily in the book as a symbol demonstrating the real risks that faced some of the factory workers if they went on strike. Coyle portrays the anger, generosity, and pride of Higgins so well that it is hard to feel anything but sympathy towards this flawed but good-hearted character. I was pleased that Welch made the decision to keep Higgins’ and Thornton’s food enterprise in the series: it finishes Higgins’ narrative so nicely and underscores the fact that the factory workers and masters can work together to put their world to rights. Houston’s desperation as Boucher jumps off the screen from his first appearance and every subsequent scene that he is in underlines the hopelessness of his situation. He truly believes that there is no way out of this for his family, and the depression and madness which leads to his death is heartbreaking.
From an adaptation standpoint, I can understand most of the choices Welch made in adapting such a dense narrative. The ending, of course, is drastically changed and almost cheesy in its contrivance. Yet I found that I didn’t mind too much: the rest of the series was good enough that a five-minute indulgence into slight soap-opera wasn’t going to ruin it. However, the aspect which did stand out to me from the first episode was the fact that Margaret was not as outspoken as I remembered her being at the beginning. By the final episode, she had come into her own, but the moments leading up to that seemed to have been tempered slightly. The riot scene, in particular, was not how I remembered (or imagined) it in the book, but I can’t quite put my finger on why. If anyone has any thoughts on this, I would love to hear them.
I am so glad that finally got round to watching this series. It has quickly cemented itself as a classic and a favourite for me, and I love that a book I enjoy so much has such a clever, stylish, and thoughtful adaptation. North and South is not an easy book to adapt: it is generally known for the romance element, but it is a harsh book with a high death toll. The series doesn’t shy away from this, despite the fact that many who watch it seem to focus only on the love story. It does the book justice, even with the changes, and that’s not something I say lightly. And now I want to watch it again.