It’s not ‘clicking’ at South Riding

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The BBC is laying off the bustles and bonnets for a bit and turning its attention to more recent novels to adapt. And by more recent, read the 1930s.

South Riding by Winifred Holtby is the BBC’s latest Sunday night period drama, and the corporation is at pains to highlight its relevance.

It’s 1934 and tousled-haired, bright-eyed Sarah Burton has returned to the fictional area of South Riding in Yorkshire to take up the post of headmistress at the girls’ grammar school. Times are hard; there are housing crises, farmers struggling to hold off the bailiffs and a good education still isn’t open to all. Sound familiar? The BBC thinks so and to make sure we do too, the continuity announcer keeps pointing it out before every episode.

Playing Sarah is Anna Maxwell Martin, familiar to TV audiences for her roles in Bleak House and On Expenses. Determined to give her pupils the best possible education, she locks horns with scowling landowner Robert Carne (David Morrissey) and finds a kindred spirit in local councillor Joe Astell (Douglas Henshall), creating a love triangle that can only lead to trouble. All three put in good performances, with Henshall as charismatic as ever as the quietly caring councillor. They are supported by some terrific actors in Penelope Wilton, Peter Firth and John Henshaw, among others, who manage to neatly steer their characters away from the by-eck-it’s-grim-up-north stereotypes.

South Riding is Sunday night viewing of the usual high quality we expect from the BBC, but something isn’t clicking. It might be the overly shadowy lighting, the ropey acting from some of the younger members of the cast, or that bizarre scene in the calfing box that was meant to have the same affect on female viewers as the infamous wet shirt sequence in Pride and Prejudice (David Morrissey helping a cow deliver her calf isn’t really the same as Colin Firth diving into a pond.) I’ll be interested to see how it concludes on Sunday night as it does have some intriguing threads to the plot.

There are definite similarities between then and now, but it would have been better if the BBC had left its viewers to figure this out for themselves instead of being so obvious. Look, they wear funny hats and have grubby faces, but they’re struggling in the aftermath of a recession too! An audience doesn’t have to relate personally to a drama to enjoy it. We just got a bit sick of the same old Austen and Dickens adaptations cropping up every few years. How about some Scottish, Welsh or Irish literary adaptations for a change?

Some lighter fare was on offer on Channel 4 with the new comedy from Robert Popper, Friday Night Dinner. This sitcom won’t win any awards for innovation, but it’s quite sweet and funny.

Grown-up sons Adam and Jonny go round to their parents’ house every Friday for dinner and get caught up in the absurdities of suburban life. If Dad isn’t eating out of the kitchen bin, he’s hoarding old copies of New Scientist magazine in the garage and buying more online. Plus, he’s partially deaf, bringing about the funniest moment of the opening episode when the man who’s buying the family’s old sofa bed gets a call to say his dad has just died. “What sort of dog was it?”

Mum, however, is all a bit Jewish housewife stereotype, with her gold shoes and addiction to Masterchef. She’s played by the wonderful Tamsin Greig (Black Books, Green Wing), who doesn’t look old enough to have two adult sons, even if the sons in question act like five-year-olds. Hopefully, her character will be fleshed out some more over the coming episodes.

Friday Night Dinner is undemanding, relaxed comedy, unlike Channel 4’s other dining-based programme, Come Dine With Me. I usually wouldn’t bother watching this mean-spirited dinner party farce unless I had slipped into a deep coma and accidentally fallen on the remote control, but the opening episode of the new series found itself in Ayrshire, and more specifically Penkill Castle.

Our diners for the evening were a disparate bunch, as is the show’s ploy to get them to clash as much as possible with each other. Ayrshire offered us Anne, who liked to drive a forklift in a mini-skirt; Duffy, who liked to shout poetry at people; Jolyn, who liked to dress her dogs in costumes; and Patrick, who liked wine to be poured from the bottle with the label facing upwards.

As expected, none of the contestants came out of it well, and I’m sure they were under no illusion as to the programme’s aims. I hope they had fun doing it because the only fun I had was getting a glimpse inside the magnificent Penkill.

South Riding, BBC1, Sunday, 9pm. Friday Night Dinner, Channel 4, Friday, 10pm.