South Riding and Winifred Holtby

South Riding

An edition of Winifred Holtby’s Yorkshire novel from 1938.

Testament of Friendship

And the memoir by Vera Brittain from 1940. The Observer said at the time: “The tale of a life which combined a candle’s briefness with a beacon’s challenging flame has its own strong fire, and is itself a challenge to posterity, lest it forget”.

There was a fairly recent BBC version of South Riding, but the 1974 version, albeit epic and long-winded, is more authentic. Dorothy Tutin is headmistress Sarah Burton, and there is one particularly effective episode with Joan Hickson as a ‘difficult’ member of staff.

South Riding, Dorothy Tutin, Joan Hickson

“Have you never thought of getting a post in the south of England?”: Joan Hickson as Agnes Sigglesthwaite (left) with Dorothy Tutin as Sarah Burton

There used to be lots of such ‘character’ actors – and some of these TV dramas feature top-notch acting in the briefest roles. I think back then TV was an extension of the stage, because most actors had a long history there. In a theatre you aren’t expecting slick editing to hold the attention, simply the skill of the cast.

I’m fascinated by these DVDs of things being screened when I was just old enough for Tom and Jerry. Perhaps it’s because they once belonged to what seemed a privileged and unknown world of adults, who once children had gone to bed, could safely indulge in secreted stashes of chocolate in peace and quiet, have a drink and talk freely. A friend told me that when he was small, every Sunday night two Walnut Whips would appear on his parents’ sideboard in readiness. Perfect.


  1. dianajhale · April 26, 2013

    Ah…. Walnut Whips!

  2. whitedragonmagazine · June 10, 2013

    Some months ago I watched the whole 1974 series of “South Riding” on YouTube and was struck by the dramatic expansiveness of it. I suppose today’s audience would complain about its slowness and want it condensed into half as many episodes. With sex scenes. The softness of the colour, so typical of its TV era, seemed like the old hand-coloured black and white postcards.

    Strangely the opening credits were vaguely familiar though I don’t remember my parents every watching it; my father had a horror of anything that looked remotely like a soap and he had something of a downer on the 1930s, as that was the tough decade in which he grew up.

    • whistlesinthewind · June 10, 2013

      Thanks for comment – great that you enjoyed the series, and the colouring of the film too! I remember there seemed to be lots of TV dramas set in the north, and based in the 1930s (I came across one called ‘Shabby Tiger’ by Howard Spring, set around Manchester not long ago) that were a large part of 1970s TV – in later years TV companies were critical of what they called ‘grim up North’ TV drama! I do remember seeing an episode of ‘When the Boat Comes In’ which involved digging under the neighbour’s front room in search of coal for a fire…

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