South Riding

Rachel Cooke enjoys a sincere costume drama with political resonance.

South Riding

There has never been a South Riding. The word riding - it comes from "thriding", meaning third - precluded it; Yorkshire was divided into the North, East and West Ridings. The South Riding of Winifred Holtby's novel of provincial life belongs to the East Riding: coastal Yorkshire, where the country is flat and watery and rather strange. These days, it's thought of as Larkin country, but Holtby, a local girl, was there first.

In the BBC's new adaptation of South Riding (Sundays, 9pm) this was established early on. "Some people call it the last town in England," said alderwoman Mrs Beddows (Penelope Wilton) of Kiplington, where our heroine Sarah Burton (Anna Maxwell-Martin) is the new headmistress of the girls' school. Isolation is the South Riding's weakness and its strength. People are conservative, even quaint, but they also know something about duty.

You can see why the BBC was drawn to South Riding, now it has tired of bonnets and empire-line gowns (the series is written, natch, by Andrew Davies, reigning king of TV costume drama and a man who - forgive the vulgarity - can be relied upon to put the horn into horn-rimmed spectacles). The story's obvious virtues - a deep sense of place, a painful love story, a fine cast of secondary characters - are the reason why the novel was a bestseller when it was first published in 1936. But it is also a story for our times. The country is in the grip of a depression so profound that even a gentleman farmer like Robert Carne (David Morrissey) is struggling to pay his bills. His highly strung daughter, Midge, must attend not boarding school but Sarah's establishment, with its foul lava­tories and outdated science labs, and he must deliver his own calves if he is not to get into more debt with the vet.

The question is: how to come through such a depression? At times, listening to Davies's script is like listening to Prime Minister's Questions in 2011. Carne believes that the council must tighten its belt. But Councillor Joe Astell (Douglas Henshall), a socialist, thinks the only way out is "bold spending on public works". And what about a new housing estate for the poor wretches who live in the Shacks - a series of old railway carriages on the clifftops?

Although I rather resent the way that Davies and Ben Stephenson, the controller of BBC drama, have congratulated themselves for their rediscovery of what they regard as a lost classic (this is barmy: South Riding has never been out of print and has been made into a film and at least one other television series), I love what they've done with it. Yes, Davies has already given us a decidedly un-Holtby-like scene in which Councillor Huggins (sublimely played by John Henshaw) humped his fancy woman Bessy Warbuckle in a corridor. But he has also resisted the temptation to shear the novel of its peculiar earnestness - South Riding is an extended ode to the benign power of local government, and its warmth and gentle sentimentality are intact (sentimentality being an essential element of Yorkshire life). Such sincerity feels like a balm after all the cynicism and overheatedness elsewhere.

The casting is wonderful, particularly Anna Maxwell-Martin, who grew up in Beverley, as Sarah. She plays the local girl made good as though the role had been written with her in mind, so convincingly as to make you believe that in another life she worked as a teacher. The moment when she told Joe that she had lost her fiancé in the First World War was exquisite; Holtby, a devout feminist, would have loved it. Honourable mentions, too, for the children - Katherine McGolpin as frail, strange Midge and Charlie May-Clark as Lydia Holly, a shack girl who loves reading - who are brilliant.

Will Sarah fall for Carne, with his disturbed wife and stick-in-the-mud ways? Or will she choose Joe Astell, who has no wife and the right politics? More to the point, will her school get the communal showers she is after? On the first matter, I'm keeping mum. But on the second, I think the answer is likely to be yes.

As Huggins has already noted: "The Lord God made us all, did he not, Miss Burton?" There might be steam trains and Methodist chapels, but this is still Andrew Davies we're talking about, after all.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Toppling the tyrants