Elizabeth Gaskell Bicentenary Blog Tour: North and South (2004) – Movie Review

Welcome to the 6th stop of Gaskell blog tour honoring her birth. 29th September 2010 marks the 200th anniversary. This celebration was launched by Laurel Ann at Austenprose and involves several bloggers you find listed at the end of this post. Each blogger is going to review  Gaskell's beloved works or their adaptations. Join us on this celebration! Remember that each of us is going to post at midnight in her own timezone so you'll find new posts all day long! Living in Italy I'm one of the first. One lucky commenter will also win a copy of an unabridged edition of North and South by Naxos AudioBooks read by Clare Willie. That’s 18 hours of Margaret Hale and John Thornton sparring and sparking Gaskell’s most acclaimed work.   You can visit all the blogs involved in any order and all comments during the contest will count toward your chance to win. Good luck !
Deadline to leave a comment midnight Pacific time on October 7. Winners drawn from names from all the post in the tour on Oct 8. CD Shipment to US and Canada, international download.

This  task couldn't be more welcome. Laurel Ann asked me to review BBC North and South (2004),  one of the best adaptations of a classic  novel ever and one of my best favourites.  I'm proud and excited, because this period drama is so unique to me!

Can a TV series touch your heart and change your life? No? You haven't seen this one. I would have answered no myself before watching  it , by chance, a couple of years ago. Unbelievable but true, this is what this miniseries did to thousands of viewers all over the world. If I had only suspected what a turning point   BBC NORTH AND SOUTH, would be in my life... I would have watched it earlier! Instead, I saw it only in the summer 2008 and it , incredibly, actually changed my life. Exaggerating? Not a bit. I know the same happened to so many! Which other costume series had such an extraordinary response? Pride and Prejudice 1995, of course. But not many others.
Entusiastic fans, hundreds of them, overwhelmed the BBC Drama message boards with messages about the drama and in particular, its hero. Soon the BBC had to set up a separate message board for the discussions. The phenomenon of so many women taking to an Internet message board for the first time because of their love for this programme became the subject of an article by Anne Ashworth in The Times. She wrote:
The BBC Drama website contains the outpourings of hundreds of thirty and fortysomething women for this year’s romantic hero. He is John Thornton, the northern millowner in Mrs Gaskell’s North & South, recently serialised on BBC One. Thornton was played smoulderingly by the previously little-known Richard Armitage as a blue-eyed, dark-haired stunner, the Darcy de nos jours. On the messageboard, character and actor merge into one object of desire: RA/JT (from http://www.richardarmitageonline.com/

First of all, being Italian, I'd like to say that it has introduced many Italian people loving costume series to Elizabeth Gaskell's work,  which is remarkable , both deep and delightful , but so little known. We don't even have an Italian translation of her North and South yet. It seems it is coming out soon, in 2011. It was definitely time!
But let's go on with my task.

As The Times wrote at the time of its broadcasting, North and South is "an intelligent, moving, thought -provoking and visually striking adaptation" of Elizabeth Gaskell 1855 novel. A passionate tale of love across the social divide with an unforgettable soundtrack by Martin Phipps. The story has been often compared to Pride and Prejudice, it has been defined "P&P with a social conscience".
Richard Armitage, who brilliantly played brooding but charming mill owner John Thornton, said in his interview for The Story of Costume Drama (ITV) : "The landscape of N&S is incredibly grey and bleak and deliberately so. And then , in the middle of it , you've got this really beautiful blossoming romance ..." In fact, the dramatic drive of the story hangs on the chemistry between the central couple - privileged  southerner, Margaret Hale, and northern practical-minded John Thornton. So casting was crucial.

Margaret and Henry Lennox (John Light)
By the end of a lengthy auditioning process, no match had been made! To find the two protagonists was not easy at all for the production. But , in the end, the choice of Richard Armitage as John and Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret was actually perfect.

Nicholas Higgins (Brendan Coyle) and Mr Thornton

Margaret and John at Marlborough Mills
Daniela Denby-Ashe had not originally auditioned for the role of Margaret Hale but for that of Fanny Thornton, and was not sure she would be participating on the project, but the producers had been looking for the right Margaret for a long time and Denby-Ashe's "directness, energy and charm" as well as the chemistry she had with would-be co-star Richard Armitage proved decisive. Armitage himself had been the first actor to read for the role of John Thornton and even though his performance had impressed producer Kate Bartlett and casting director Jill Trevellick, they still had to see many other possible Thorntons. Three weeks after casting had begun, Trevellick decided to recapitulate the first auditions, realising that Armitage was "perfect". To recreate the Victorian era, Edinburgh was chosen as fictional town Milton. Filming also took place in Selkirk, Keighley and weaving shed at Queen Street Mill Museum in Burnley, home to 300 deafening Lancashire looms.
The story contrasts the values, customs and traditions of the rural south and booming industrial north. It also explores the relentless search for profit and the suffering of mill work. The north is characterized by a grey smoky atmosphere while Helstone in the South is full of colours and light.

Milton is grey and bleak
Helstone is colourful and full of light

It was adapted for television by brilliant Sandy Welch and directed by Brian Percival. Despite their initially low expectations, the BBC was surprised with the positive audience reception, which compelled them to release the series on DVD on 11 April 2005.

Mr Hale (Tim Pigott-Smith)
Mrs Hale (Leslie Manville)

The plot ( from BBC DVD cover)
As the daughter of a middle-class parson, Margaret Hale, has enjoyed a privileged upbringing in rural southern England. But when her fatheruproots the family, she's forcedto adapt to a new lifein Milton - a northern mill town in the throes of the industrial revolution.
Margaret is shocked by her new surroundings - the dirt, noise and gruffness of the people of Milton. However, she saves her greatest contempt for the mill-owners. When John Thornton, charismaticproprietor of Marlborough Mills, becomes a "pupil" of her father, she makes her distaste for this vulgar and uneducated new class abundantly clear.
Over time, Margaret's attitude towards the mill workers begins to changeand she joins their workplace struggles against poverty and disease. But will she ever change her view of their employers, in particular Mr Thornton who has become her admirer?

Mrs Thornton, John's mother (Sinead Cusack)

Fanny Thornton, John's sister (Jo Joyner)

Some differences between the novel and the TV adaptation
- Margaret never enters Mr Thornton's mill in the book and Mr Thornton doesn't hit any of his workers. The two events are instead in the first scenes after the Hales' arrival in Milton in the movie.

- Sandy Welch's story, for example, begins and ends with the main character Margaret Hale travelling by train, which are not the starting and ending point of the novel (although Gaskell describes the Hales travelling from the South to the North by train)
- some  the main characters visit the Great Exhibition of 1851 in the series (not in the book)
- after Mr Hale's death Margaret leaves Milton. In the novel Thornton suffers in silence and Margaret doesn't speak any special words to him nor give him any of her father's books (she gives his Bible to Higgins in the book)
- Mr Bell's in the book is a different presence respect to the TV series: he doesn't take part in the Thorntons' annual dinner, he  takes Margaret on a trip to Helstone but not to propose to her, he helps her  to understand her feelings for Mr Thornton. In the book he dies suddenly , leaving Margaret unexpectedly wealthy but doesn't announce his going to Argentina, nor his being fatally ill as in the series. In the book Mr Bell reveals John Thornton the existence of a brother in the  Hale family, Frederick, whose secret presence in town when Mrs Hale had been seriously ill had created troubles  and misunderstanding in the relationship between Margaret and Thornton.
-The final unforgettable scene (see montage above on the left) at the station in the TV series, a symbolical place half-way between Helstone and Milton, the South and the North, actually takes place in a more proper Victorian setting in the book: Margaret makes her business proposition to John Thornton in her cousin's house in London. Henry Lennox , who in the series finale watch the two lovers enviously from the train, in the book is the maker of Margaret and John meeting. He suggests to her  to meet Mr Thornton for a business proposition but then disappears from the house leaving them alone ...

Mr Thornton's mesmerizing look

If you have seen it like me more than... once, I'm sure you will be able to understand my foolish passion completely! If you haven't seen it yet, I must warn you, you've missed the best emotions you can ever experience in front of a screen.
Now to win a copy of North and South audiobook  you  should leave your comment and e-mail  address : you may tell us either why this adaptation is special to you or, if you haven't seen it yet , if this post has helped you to make up your mind.  ( for more details abot the giveaway see  the introduction to my review) .

Good Luck!!!
Frederick Hale, Margaret's brother (Rupert Evans)

Bessie Higgins, Margaret's friend (Anna Maxwell Martin)

      Now follow this link to the next blog on the 
Elizabeth Gaskell bicentenary blog tour 


Sometimes one likes foolish people for their folly, better than wise people for their wisdom.” Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and Daughters


WhiteLady3 said...

LOL I re-watched the series this weekend and had scheduled a post about it for the 29th unaware that it was her bicentennial. Talk about coincidences! :D

Hope you don't mind me linking this post to it, even though my blog is in Portuguese and will spread the word of this event. It was a great idea!

Jenny Allworthy said...

Oh, my goodness what a book/adaptation combo! Earlier this year I was bouncing back and forth between the book and the miniseries. The ending of the book made me cry and the ending of the miniseries made me swoon. Thank goodness you can watch the ending train scene on Youtube whenever you need a little bit of Mr. Thornton in your life. Mind you I also read the end of the book over and over. Both highly satisfactory! Glad I am not alone in my love of Mrs. Gaskell and her characters.

Fanny/iz4blue said...

I was equally dumbfounded upon discovering this series last summer and subsequently the book and audiobook last fall. I listened to an excerpt on Naxos and this version sounds less distinct britisch from Juliet Stevenson's one, although I greatly admired her talent for accents. I still have to read other works of her although I've viewed Wives & Daughters and Cranford as well as Cranford revisited.
This charismatic tv adaptation as you mention was also the beginning of a foolish passion of mine. Happy Birthday Mrs. Gaskell

Felicia said...

First of all I have to say that I am so happy to see this celebration for Mrs. Gaskell. I have said this before and I will say it again and again, not only do I think that Mrs. Gaskell is one of the worlds greatest women writers, she is also a wonderful role model for women.

Maria, this is a wonderful review of the mini series! This mini series introduced me to Mrs. Gaskell's novels and (I know this sounds silly-but it's totally true) it has changed my life. Because of this series I have met an exceptional group of people, we are now great friends and I know it will be life long.

Happy Birthday Mrs. Gaskell and thank you, thank you, thank you!

Felicia (felso)

Adriana Sales Zardini said...

Maria, such a wonderful information! I guess people who don't know about Gaskell books will be very interested after reading your post!

JaneGS said...

What a lovely tribute to a wonderful adaptation of a powerful novel, Maria.

I especially appreciated your listing the differences between the book and adaptation as the changes are significant. Both are great stories, though, and both can stand alone.

I hope you get your N&S in Italian soon. It's sad that a translation is not yet available since Gaskell was so fond of Italy and spent a fair amount of time in Rome towards the end of her life. Maybe someday we'll get a video version of her life that shows her visiting Rome...

This made me smile:
>Darcy de nos jours

This made me laugh:
>I'm sure you will be able to understand my foolish passion completely!

I share your foolish passion, my friend!

Unknown said...

Great review, thank you MG: re-watching (for the umpteenth time *blushes*) N&S is the best way to celebrate Mrs Gaskell's anniversary.
I'm infinitely grateful to this miniseries, because it a) introduced me to Mrs G's works; b) introduced me to the worsh... ahem, admiration of its very talented hero, aka RA <3 ; c) allowed me to make new acquaintances through the web among other kindred spirits (many acquaintances, but only one 'amichetta', I must admit :)
Karen (Mamma_T)

Travel Agency said...
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Romantique said...

Thanks for a great review! I fell in love with the novel and yhr miniseries earlier this year. I have to admit that while the movie was quite romantic, so too was the novel. I had expected Gaskell to go as deep into John Thornton's mind as she did, which was a pleasant surprise. Richard Armitage did an amazing job and it is so clear that he got into his character's head in such a thoughtful way. Though I loved the movie's denouement, I wish they could have fit in that wonderful last scene in the novel...so beautifully poignant.

Adriana Sales Zardini said...

Maria, I just wrote a post about Gaskell! There are some books in portuguese too!



Linda said...

Thanks for this review. I especially appreciate your pointing out some of the differences between the tv series and the actual novel. I've seen the series, now I'm even more anxious to read the book.

TONY said...

A really heartfelt review. Well done. I enjoyed reading it. It takes great actors to portray love, life,passion and dramatic events "truthfully."

Phoebe said...

Maria, Your review was great including the background information - the lovely photos - and the major differences between the adaptation and the book.

It is my favorite adaptation with amazing performances and authentic settings. Richard Armitage is John Thornton! He certainly channeled the character and Daniela Denby-Ashe was a lovely Margaret.

I am so fond of N&S that I started a postcard campaign to PBS/Masterpiece Theater requesting they run N&S in the US.

I do recommend that you watch it at least two times and then buy the book - the two together are perfection.

Happy Birthday, Mrs. Gaskell!

Anonymous said...

I recently reread North and South and found out that there is no train station scene at the end! I guess that scene made such an impression on me (and of course, I watched the series so many times) that I forgot that there was no such thing at the end of the book. I knew it was different, but I didn't remember how different.

*sigh* I really love this BBC series.

Ali said...

A lovely review MG. I wish I'd watched N&S when it was first shown on BBC1, but unfortunately I didn't discover the DVD until 2006. I finally read the novel last year and wished I'd read it sooner, it's absolutely wonderful.

Both the TV adaptation and the novel stand up to each other in terms of their excellence and it's not often that you can say that - usually the TV or film version is never as good as the book I think. A good idea to post the differences between the adaptaion and the novel and the pictures are lovely.

Thank you!

Unknown said...

What a great review! Thank you for inlcuding the lovely pictures and providing us with reason to swoon. : )

I'll never forget the day I watched the North and South mini - it was indeed life changing. Not since Pride and Prejudice had I been so mesmerized by a love story. Not only did I become obsessed with Mr. Richard Armitage, I also sought out Mrs. Gaskell's other works.

Happy Birthday Mrs. Gaskell and THANK YOU for Mr. Thornton!!

Laurel Ann (Austenprose) said...

You passion for the movie is so addictive Maria. It is one of my favorite period dramas also. What a lovely tribute. The images are wonderful and I so appreciate your commentary. Now, I fear I must own my own copy for my DVD library so I can watch it whenever I need a romance fix. Richard Armitage is just divine.

AprilFool said...

Look at the picture of Lesley Manville as Mrs. Hale - doesn't she look like Mrs. Gaskell?

The only thing I didn't like in the mini-series - which I otherwise love - was the scene where Mr. Thornton beats up a millworker. I don't think that was true to his character at all. He was turning the worker out - what would be the point of beating him too? Besides he had an overseer, who would have undoubtedly done any "dirty work." But, all that aside, it just didn't ring true to his character. In spite of being a millowner and a Northerner, he had been brought up to be a gentleman, at least until his father died and he was brought home from school. But worst of all was showing him kicking the man when he was down - which is so much against the rules of conduct that it is a truism. But so much a part of television culture that people can actually watch it and not be repulsed.

Laurel Ann know my email address.

Audra said...

Wonderful review -- somehow, I've never seen this series! I'm a bit embarrassed considering how much I love a good BBC costume drama. (Plus, that Richard Armitage is cute!)

Becky said...

What a great post! So filled with information about the film.

You know, you'll have to see if you can post some of the broadcast when it comes out in Italian. I have a feeling that many more people would swoon if Richard Armitage started speaking Italian! :)

Susan E. Harris-Gamard said...

I am sad to say I have not seen this film, nor read the novel. Poor, poor me...I'll be starting the novel tomorrow ;). Loved your review!

Unknown said...

Apparently a review written by a kindred spirit! =) Brava, Maria!

This series also introduced me to Gaskell's works and am still puzzled why she is not as famous as Austen or the Bronte sisters. But perhaps the tides are a-changing...

Also appreciated the list of differences between the novel and the adaptation. Although, IIRC, I think Mr. Bell did take Margaret down to Helstone in the novel, but did not propose to her.

And thank you for including the screen caps on the final train scene... Best kissing scene ever captured on celluloid! =)

Nat at RA FanBlog said...

MG, this is a great way to celebrate Ms. Gaskell! Her imagination has provided me with so much entertainment. I love N&S, Cranford and Wives & Daughters.

Mrs. Higgins said...

Thanks for posting such beautiful pictures of North & South! I enjoyed reading "Some Differences Between the Novel and the TV Adaptation". I have seen the adaptation dozens of times, but for someone who has never seen it, the montage and the discussion of the differences reveals too much of the ending, which might spoil it for some.

Cinthia said...

When I first knew about this adaptation was because of the excited comments its premiere in UK was causing, the rave about N&S and Mr. Thorton/Richard Armitage can only be compared, as you have said Maria Grazia, with what P&P2 and Darcy/Colin Firth had produced.}

Such a reaction excited my curiosity about both novel and miniseries, so I decided to read first and then watch. This was perhaps what made me not as enthusiastic with the adaptation as many.

I have to say I among the few who prefer the novel's ending and I would have loved to see and hear RA say "Take care.--If you do not speak--I shall claim you as my own in some strange presumptuous way.--Send me away at once, if I must go!" Because as much as I have suffer the severe case of Thorntonmania/Armitagemania every time I see the miniseries, such words in his voice would have really made me swoon.

So all in all it is more because of RA that I love the miniseries, than admiration for the script.

Margay Leah Justice said...

I think first and foremost, the reason I love North and South so much is Richard Armitage. He is an amazing actor and the movie really showcases his talent. Plus, there are shades of Pride and Prejudice in there, another favorite of mine, which proves that that the themes of people overcoming their limitations (such as pride or arrogance) to find true love really are universal.


Mary Simonsen said...

North and South did speak to me. My ancestors were Irish and came to America to work in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. The conditions were as bleak as they were in N&S, but below ground! It was an excellent adaptation, and the performances were extraordinary. Wouldn't every girl want someone look at them with such love? quailcreekpub@hotmail.com.

The Mrs. said...

I love how you write in the beginning of your post, 'Can a TV series touch your heart and change your life? No? You haven't seen this one.' I watched this a few years ago and prior to that I had no idea who Gaskell was, as soon as I finished with the series I ran out and bought the book. The miniseries affects you greatly. Since, I have read all of her books. The chemistry between all of the characters is wonderful, the BBC did an amazing job. Even my husband, who isn't a fan of period dramas, loved North and South. I've so enjoyed reading all of these posts dedictated to Gaskell.

Anonymous said...

You did an excellent job of covering the movie and how things differ from the book in particular. I love this movie. Thanks for including the pics. I watched it a couple years ago and got hooked and read the book. It is the most romantic movie ending I have ever seen. Of course you have to get thru the whole thing to realize that. I do appreciate the movie ending vs the book ending. But both are so well done. Yes it is life changing. Sometimes we don't appreciate the things we have in life or the people involved. Thanks so much.

Judy said...

I'm very late to the party as I haven't been around much online lately due to being busy at work, but just want to say this is a great review, MG, well done.:)