“NORTH AND SOUTH” (1975) Review

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“NORTH AND SOUTH” (1975) Review

I had been a fan of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel, ever since I first saw the 2004 television adaptation a few years ago. Mind you, I had never read the novel. And I still have yet to read it. Despite this, I became a fan of the story. And when I learned that the BBC planned to release an older adaptation of Gaskell’s novel, which first aired in 1975, I looked forward to seeing it. 

As one would assume from reading this review, I eventually purchased a copy of the 1975 adaptation on DVD. And if I must be honest, I do not regret it. “NORTH AND SOUTH” proved to be a pretty damn good adaptation. Like the 2004 version, it consisted of four (4) fifty-minute episodes. Gaskell’s novel told the story of one Margret Hale, who returns home after ten years to her cleric father’s rector in Helstone, after attending the wedding of her cousin, Edith Shaw. Margaret’s homecoming is short-lived when she and her mother learn that her father Richard Hale has left the Church of England as a matter of conscience, after he has become a dissenter. His old Oxford friend, Mr. Bell, suggests that the Hales move to the industrial town of Milton, in Northern England; where the latter was born and own property. 

Not long after the Hales’ arrival in Milton, both Margaret and mother Maria Hale find Milton harsh and strange. Due to financial circumstances, Mr. Hale works as a tutor. One of his more enthusiastic students turn out to be a wealthy cotton manufacturer named John Thornton, master of Marlborough Mills. Appalled by the conditions of the poverty-stricken mill workers, Margaret befriends the family of one Nicholas Higgins, a union representative. She also develops a dislike of Thornton, finding him gauche and seemingly unconcerned about his workers’ condition. Unbeknownst to Margaret, Thornton has grown attracted to her. The volatile relationship between Margaret and Thornton eventually plays out amidst the growing conflict between mill owners and angry workers.

As I had stated earlier, “NORTH AND SOUTH” proved to be a pretty good adaptation. I have a tendency to regard BBC miniseries produced in the 1970s with a jaundice eye, considering their tendency end up as televised stage plays. Thanks to the conflicts, social commentaries and romance featured in “NORTH AND SOUTH”, the miniseries was never boring. Many viewers who have seen this version of Gaskell’s novel claim that it was a more faithful adaptation than the 2004 miniseries. I cannot agree or disagree, considering that I have yet to read the novel. But I have never been too concern with the faithfulness of any movie or television adaptation, as long as the screenwriter(s) manage to come up with decent script that adheres to the main narrative of the literary source. Fortunately, David Turner did just that. His screenplay, along with Rodney Bennett’s direction, explored all of the aspects of Gaskell’s 1855 novel – the reason behind the Hales’ move to the North, the labor conflicts between the workers and the mill owners, Margaret Hale’s conflict/romance with John Thornton, the latter’s relationship with his mother, Nicholas Higgins’ conflict with fellow mill worker Boucher, and the fragmentation of the Hale family. Also, Bennett directed the entire miniseries with a steady pace that kept me alert.

It is a good thing that Bennett’s pacing kept me alert . . . most of the time. Like many BBC productions in the 1970s, “NORTH AND SOUTH” did come off as a filmed play in many scenes. Aside from Margaret’s arrival in Helstone in Episode One, the labor violence that erupts within the grounds of Marlborough Mills in Episode Two and the delivery of Boucher’s body in his neighborhood; just about every other scene was probably shot inside a sound stage. And looked it. This even includes the Milton train station where Margaret says good-bye to her fugitive brother, Frederick. Now many would state that this has been the case for nearly all BBC miniseries productions from that era. Yet, I can recall a handful of productions from the same decade – 1971’s “PERSUASION”, 1972’s “EMMA” and even “JENNIE, LADY RANDOLPH CHURCHILL” from 1974 – featured a good deal of exterior shots. And there were moments when some scenes continued longer than necessary, especially in Episode One. Margaret’s conversation with her cousin Edith and Mr. Hale’s announcement of his separation from the Church of England seemed to take forever. And due to this problem, there were moments went the miniseries threatened to bog down.

But as much as I liked Turner’s adaptation of the novel, it seemed far from perfect. One aspect of the script that really irritated me was that Turner had a habit of telling the audiences what happened, instead of showing what happened. In Episode One, following their arrival in Milton, Margaret tells her parents that she met the Higgins family. The miniseries never revealed how she met Nicholas or Betsy Higgins in the first place. The series never revealed the details behind Boucher’s death in Episode Four. Instead, a neighbor told Margaret, before his body appeared on the screen. We never see any scenes of Fanny Thornton’s wedding to mill owner Mr. Slickson. Instead, John tells Mr. Bell about the wedding in a quick scene between the two men on a train. Also, I found Margaret’s initial hostility toward John rather weak. A conversation between the two about the mill workers took part after audiences met the Higgins family. It is easy to see that John’s arrogant assumption regarding his control of his workers might seemed a bit off putting to Margaret. But it just did not seem enough for her hostility to last so long. And while the script probably followed Gaskell’s novel and allowed John’s regard for Margaret to be apparent before the end of Episode One, I never felt any growing attraction that Margaret may have felt toward John. Not even through most of Episode Four. In fact, Margaret’s open declaration of her love for John in the episode’s last few minutes seemed sudden . . . as if it came out of the blue.

The above mentioned problem may have been one reason why I found Margaret and John’s romance unconvincing. Another problem was that I found the on-screen chemistry between the two leads, Rosalie Shanks and Patrick Stewart, rather flat. In short, they did not seemed to have any real chemistry. The two leads gave first-rate, if somewhat flawed performances in their roles. Aside from a few moments in which I found Shanks’ Margaret Hale a bit too passive, I thought she gave an excellent, yet intelligent performance. Stewart seemed as energetic as ever, even if there were moments when his John Thornton seemed to change moods faster than lightning. But they did not click as an on-screen couple. Also, Turner’s screenplay failed to any signs of Margaret’s growing attraction toward John. It simply appeared out of the blue, during the series’ last few minutes. 

I certainly had no problems with the other performances in the miniseries, save for a few performances. Robin Bailey did an excellent job in portraying Margaret’s well-meaning, yet mild-mannered father, Richard Hale. Bailey seemed to make it obvious that Mr. Hale was a man out of his depth and time. Kathleen Byron perfectly conveyed both the delicate sensibility and strong will of Margaret’s mother, Maria Hale. I was very impressed by Rosalie Crutchley’s portrayal of the tough, passionate and very complex Mrs. Hannah Thornton. I could also say the same about Norman Jones, who gave a very fine performance as union representative Nicolas Jones . . . even if there were times when I could barely understand him. Christopher Burgess’ portrayal of Boucher struck me as very strong . . . perhaps a little on the aggressive side. And Pamela Moiseiwitsch gave a very funny portrayal of John’s younger sister, Fanny; even if her performance came off as a bit too broad at times. It was a blast to see Tim Pigott-Smith in the role of Margaret’s fugitive brother, Frederick Hale. I say it was a blast, due to the fact that Pigott-Smith portrayed Richard Hale in the 2004 miniseries, 19 years later. As much as I enjoyed seeing him, there were times when his performance came off as a bit hammy.

Overall, “NORTH AND SOUTH” is a pretty solid adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel. Aside from a few changes, it more or less adhered to the original narrative, thanks to David Turner’s screenplay and Rodney Bennett’s direction. And although it featured some fine performances, the miniseries did suffer from some narrative flaws and a lack of chemistry between the two leads – Rosalie Shanks and Patrick Stewart. However, “NORTH AND SOUTH” still managed to rise above its flaws . . . in the end.

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“CRANFORD” (2007) Review

“CRANFORD” (2007) Review

Seven years ago, the BBC aired a five-part miniseries adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s series of stories about a small town in North West England. After viewing the 2004 miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH”, my curiosity regarding the 2007 miniseries became piqued and I turned my attention toward it.

Created by Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin, directed by Simon Curtis and Steve Hudson, and adapted by Heidi Thomas;“CRANFORD” is based upon three of Gaskell’s novellas published between 1849 and 1858 – “Cranford”, “My Lady Ludlow”, and ”Mr Harrison’s Confessions”. Birtwistle, Conklin and Thomas took aspects of Gaskell’s stories, re-shuffled them and added some of their own plotlines to create the five-episode miniseries. “CRANFORD” mainly focused upon the small English village between 1842-1843, during the early years of the Victorian Age. On the surface, Cranford seemed like an idyllic community in which time remained stuck in the late Georgian Age. However, progress – both technological and social – began its intrusion upon the community for better or worse. The arrival of a young doctor named Frank Harrison with modern new ideas about medical practices, and a railway construction crew on the town’s outskirts that meant the arrival of the railway, change and possibly unwelcomed citizens; seemed to be the prime symbols of the encroaching Industrial Age.

Many humorous and tragic incidents shown as minor plotlines are scattered throughout ”CRANFORD”. But the main stories seemed to focus upon the following characters:

*Miss Matilda “Matty” Jenkyns – the younger of two elderly sisters who had to endure a series of travails that included the death of a loved one, the reunion with an old love and the loss of her income.

*Dr. Frank Harrison – Cranford’s new young doctor who has to struggle to win the trust of Cranford’s citizens and the love of the vicar’s oldest daughter, Sophy Hutton.

*Lady Ludlow – the Lady of Hanbury Court who struggles to maintain funds for her spendthrift son and heir living in Italy.

*Mr. Edmund Carter – Lady Ludlow’s land agent, who views Lady Ludlow’s attempts to raise funds for her dissolute son with a leery eye and clashes with his employer over the fate of the young son of a poacher.

*Harry Gregson – the very son of the poacher, whom Mr. Carter views as promising and whom Lady Ludlow views as someone who should remain in his station.

*Octavia Pole – a spinster and Cranford’s town gossip who proves to be the subject of a series of hilarious events.

I realize that ”CRANFORD” is a highly acclaimed program. And I also understand why it became so popular. The production team for “CRANFORD” did an excellent job in conveying television viewers back in time to the early Victorian Age. The miniseries possessed some very whimsical moments that I found particularly funny. These moments included Miss Deborah Jenkyns’ assistance in helping Miss Jessie Brown and Major Gordon stay in beat during their rendition of”Loch Lomond” with a spoon and a teacup; Miss Pole’s hysteria over a thief in Cranford; Caroline Tomkinson’ infatuation with Dr. Harrison; and especially the incident regarding the cat that swallowed Mrs. Forrester’s valuable lace.

Yet, ”CRANFORD” had its poignant moments. Dr. Harrison’s futile efforts to save young Walter Hutton from the croup, along with Miss Deborah Jenkyns’ death allowed Episode 2 to end on a sober note. And the doctor’s more successful efforts to save Sophy Hutton from typhoid gave the last episode a great deal of drama and angst. I found it almost difficult to watch Miss Matty endure one crisis after another – until she finally prevailed with the establishment of her own tea shop, with the help of the ladies of Cranford and her reunion with her long lost brother. My heartstrings also tugged when the conflict between Mr. Carter and Lady Ludlow over Harry Gregson ended on a tragic, yet poignant note. But the one scene that left me in tears turned out to be the series’ final shot of Cranford’s citizens bidding good-bye to the recently married Dr. Harrison and Sophy. The miniseries closed on what seemed to be a real sense of community.

And that is what the theme of ”CRANFORD” seemed to be about – at least to me. Community. However, this theme and the Gaskell novellas that the miniseries were based upon have led me to a conclusion. There seemed to be a lack of balance or blending between the series’ format and the material. If ”CRANFORD” had been based upon one novel or a series of novels that served as a continuing saga, I would never have any problems with its tight structure of a five-episode miniseries. But ”CRANFORD” was based upon three novellas written over a period of time that were certainly not part of a continuing saga. And if I must be frank, I personally feel that the miniseries could have served its source of material a lot better as a one or two-season television series.

I realize that producing a television series that was also a period drama would have been more expensive than a miniseries or a series set in the present. But Heidi Thomas’ script seemed vague for the miniseries format. With the exception one particular storyline, ”CRANFORD” seemed to be filled with minor stories that were usually resolved within one to three episodes. For example, the Valentine card storyline that left Dr. Harrison in trouble with the ladies of Cranford stretched across three episodes. Even the railway construction storyline only appeared in three episodes and not in any particular order. Miss Matty’s financial situation only stretched into two episodes. And plots featuring the lace-swallowing cat, Miss Matty’s relationship with Mr. Thomas Holbrook, and Jem Hearne’s broken arm only appeared in one episode. The only storyline that consistently appeared in all five episodes turned out to be the conflict between Lady Ludlow and Mr. Carter over Harry Gregson’s future.

But one cannot deny that ”CRANFORD” was blessed with a first-rate cast. The cream of this cast consisted of a sterling group of veteran British actresses, whose characters dominated the series. However, only a handful of performances really caught my attention. Two of them belonged to Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins as the Jenkyns sisters – the mild-mannered Matty and the domineering Deborah. Judging from their outstanding performances, I can easily understand how one of them earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress and the other won both an Emmy and a BAFTA for Outstanding Lead Actress. Another outstanding performance from a veteran actress came from Francesca Annis, who portrayed the intensely conservative Lady Ludlow. Annis did a wonderful job in conveying her character’s rigid opposition to education for the lower classes and struggle to overcome these feelings in the face of her kindness and compassion. Philip Glenister, who made a name for himself in the 1995 miniseries ”VANITY FAIR” and in the award winning series”LIFE ON MARS” and its sequel, ”ASHES TO ASHES”; certainly proved his talents as an actor and strong screen presence in his portrayal of the intense, yet very practical Mr. Edmund Carter. I especially enjoyed Glenister’s scenes with Annis, while their characters clashed over the fate of young Harry Gregson. Providing the bulk of comic relief were actresses Imelda Staunton (from 1995’s ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” and ”HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX”) and Julia McKenzie (the new Miss Jane Marple for ITV). They portrayed two of Cranford’s biggest gossips, Miss Octavia Pole and Mrs. Forrester. Staunton seemed truly hilarious, while portraying Miss Pole’s terror and anxiety over becoming the victim of a thief. And not only was McKenzie funny as the finicky Mrs. Forrester, she gave a poignant soliloquy in which her character recalled a past act of kindness from Miss Matty.

In conclusion, I really enjoyed ”CRANFORD”. Thanks to directors Simon Curtis and Steve Hudson, along with production designer Donal Woods, screenwriter Heidi Thomas and costume designer Jenny Beavan; the miniseries gave television audiences a warm, humorous and poignant look into village life in early Victorian England. But despite the production team and the cast, I believe the miniseries has a major flaw. Its source material – three novellas written by Elizabeth Gaskell – did not mesh very well with the miniseries format. I believe that ”CRANFORD” would have been better off as a television series. Such a format could have served its stories a lot better.