South Riding - Interviews with Anna Maxwell Martin & David Morrissey

New interviews for upcoming South Riding,
Novel by Winifred Holtby, screenplay by Andrew Davies
BBCOne - week of February 19-25th?
PBS May 1,8 and 15, 2011

Anna Maxwell Martin plays Sarah Burton, a modern career woman who returns home to take up the headmistress-ship of a struggling Yorkshire high school for girls.

Full of ambition, passion and fire to take her life into her own hands, Sarah falls for the man least likely to have won her heart, in Andrew Davies's new three-part drama serial South Riding for BBC One.

"Sarah Burton is a teacher who was born and brought up in South Riding, which is technically East Yorkshire," says Anna Maxwell Martin. "She left to go to work in London and she returns to be a Headmistress of a local girls' school.

"She is a very opinionated woman. I suppose she is verging on being a feminist, quite left-wing and very progressive and she has big plans for the girls of the South Riding.

"When Sarah returns to the South Riding and is offered the post of Headmistress, she sort of goes in guns blazing, a bit too much perhaps, and rubs a lot of people up the wrong way in an attempt to encourage young girls to think for themselves, and to hope for more than just being a wife and mother and make their own choices about life!"

Sarah's costume, hair and make-up also make an audacious statement which flies in the face of the more traditional attire worn by the local women.

"Sarah's got bright red hair; wears a red dress and little waistcoats," continues Anna. "She's supposed to be this kind of bold presence amongst these people who are quite conservative and set in their ways. I think that translates in terms of the costumes which are quite bright and out there."

The two-time BAFTA award-winning actress, who won critical acclaim for her performances in the theatre production His Dark Materials and television dramas Bleak House and Poppy Shakespeare, reveals why playing a teacher was a scary experience.

"It was terrifying," laughs Anna. "I had to do lots of scenes with young girls playing my pupils and it's quite frightening trying to be inspirational – but they were all very sweet thankfully. I would never dare be a teacher, I would be far too scared."

The Beverley-born star of BBC dramas Freefall, White Girl and On Expenses also had the opportunity to return home to Yorkshire like her character Sarah Burton, when filming relocated to the sea front in Bridlington, just a few miles away from where she grew up.

"I used to come here as child with my family," recalls Anna affectionately.

The LAMDA-trained actress who studied history at Liverpool University explains why her relationship with Robert Carne (played by David Morrissey) is hostile when they first meet – although that soon changes – and is further complicated by Joe Astell (Douglas Henshall), a rival for Sarah's affections.

"Sarah's relationship with Robert Carne is quite tricky on every level," continues Anna. "He served in the First World War and she's smashing all over that in her quest to encourage young girls to think for themselves.

"Naturally they have an attraction to one another, she's very open sexually to him and it doesn't necessarily end happily ever after. With Douglas Henshall, who plays Joe Astell, they are great comrades and are much more politically like-minded, he is the person she should go for, but as is the way, women never go for men that they are supposed to! So that's sort of fraught as well."

South Riding is Anna's second collaboration with prolific writer Andrew Davies, following her critically acclaimed role as Esther in BBC drama Bleak House in 2005.

"Working with Andrew again was very interesting because obviously I last worked with him on Bleak House which was quite a few years ago. I felt like a baby when I did Bleak House. I suppose I feel like a different person and a bit more mature and more experienced now."

David Morrissey plays landowner Robert Carne, a man on the brink of financial disaster and with love far from his mind when Sarah Burton returns to Yorkshire in Andrew Davies' new three-part drama serial South Riding for BBC One.

"Robert Carne is a gentleman farmer; a middle-class landowner who is not averse to rolling up his sleeves and mucking in," says David Morrissey.

"Carne is under pressure; his world is slipping away from him because he is in great financial difficulty trying to bring up his daughter in a manner she is accustomed to.

"He married above his station, to Muriel, Lord Sedgmire's daughter. But he never felt comfortable in her world. Nevertheless, now he finds himself as a single parent he is trying to cling on to a sort of affectation of a life that he once had, but it's crumbling away in front of him."

The 46-year-old actor, producer and director, who featured in numerous television and film productions including The Deal, Five Days, Blackpool, State Of Play and Captain Corelli's Mandolin, explains why Carne's first meeting with Sarah Burton (played by Anna Maxwell Martin) gets off to a bad start.

"Carne is part of the local council and they decide to advertise the post of a new Headmistress for the local girls' school. He takes his council duties seriously, although the appointment of a new Headmistress he feels is not terribly important!

"Sarah Burton has very strong views about the education of women and how one should be educating the girls to be a different kind of woman in the future. As a traditionalist he is slightly against that, and she therefore rubs him up the wrong way!"

Sarah Burton may not have made a great first impression on Robert Carne, but Anna Maxwell Martin certainly did.

David continues: "Anna is someone I have been a fan of for such a long time. I thought Bleak House was a brilliant piece of work. I have been aware of her but our paths have never crossed, so when I knew Anna was doing South Riding and it was Andrew's [Davies] scripts, it was a no-brainer for me.

"I think Anna gives a wonderfully nuanced performance. She really has the drive, commitment and the ambition that character needs.

"Sarah Burton is somebody who is championing the cause of these girls, but when it comes to her personal life, there is this great confusion about who she is. I think Anna plays that brilliantly. I was in awe of her before, but watching her in this she is certainly one of my top actresses."

The RADA-trained actor explains why novelist Winifred Holtby, who wrote South Riding just before her death 75 years ago at the age of only 37, is such a great loss.

"To my shame I didn't know the novel before I was sent the scripts," admits David. "I thought it was a great story, which then led me to the novel. As a writer, Winifred Holtby was at the top of her game when she wrote South Riding. The tragedy is she died very soon afterwards so a great literary talent was lost to us. We can only speculate about what she might have gone on to write, but I think she may have been one of our great British novelists.

"Andrew has created the world brilliantly, he obviously had to concentrate on some characters more than others, and had to cut whole storylines; but what Andrew has done is succinctly, wittily and movingly paint the world Winifred Holtby had in the book; it's there for a television audience to enjoy.

"What's great about South Riding is it's not the world of chinking crystals and sparkling chandeliers. It's not a rarefied place to be. It's a very real place about people facing very real crises in their lives," says the Liverpool-born actor.

"What's relevant to a modern audience is that it is set in a time when there is great economic hardship. There are cuts hitting people left, right and centre. The banks are closing and calling in debts. The local council is trying to spend their way out of that by creating better conditions for working people by putting them into proper housing. Other people have ulterior motives for doing that, so what you see is the murky world of the dealings of local councils.

"People like Carne are resistant to any sort of change because they believe this is not a time to spend, it's a time to be hunkering down and getting through the next couple of years. I think those debates are very much front page news for us at the moment, particularly when it comes to education, it's about the best way to educate our children; it's about the haves and the have-nots.

"The Yorkshire landscapes and locations where the novel is set are the perfect surroundings for the three-part drama," explains the father of three whose directorial credits include Sweet Revenge and Passer By for the BBC and the feature film Don't Worry About Me.

"We found some great places like Sunk Island which is an amazing landscape. We also used some great public buildings like Morley Town Hall. If you look at the paintings and photographs on the Town Hall walls, the characters from the novel are right there, even their names!

"Morley Town Hall is steeped in the history of the world we were in," recalls David. "One location in the story is the shanty town that people live in called The Shacks. Diarmuid Lawrence [director] and the design team have realised this location brilliantly.

"It is a completely unsanitised, disgusting camp on the cliff tops at the mercy of the elements. It embodies the terrible conditions that many people in pre-war Britain had to live in. It is these conditions and the education of the working class, especially young girls, that is at the heart of Winifred Holtby's novel.

"South Riding is a rollicking great story about unrequited love and social conscience. I hope the drama reintroduces the novel to the public's consciousness because it is a great neglected work.

"What is wonderful for a viewer is that they won't know where the story is going; it's not a classic that we all know and love. It will be absolutely fresh to most people and that's the joy of it."

Courtesy of BBC Press Office


  1. Sounds simply wonderful...can't wait to see it, but gotta read the book first.

  2. I love Anna Maxwell Martin. I am just in the process of re-watching Bleak House and she is amazing as Esther! And of course she is brilliant as Bessy Higgins in North & South.

    I felt bad for her when I read her comments about her looks... "[commenting on her face] I get described as 'interesting' a lot. People often call me odd, too. Maybe they mean ugly. Given the services of a plastic surgeon, I would get a pair of cheekbones."

    I am glad that the Brits have actors who actually look different from one another. In North America, the orthodontists especially have made a rather homogeneous look in everyone under thirty five.

    In any case, I love to watch her and I can't wait for this one. And of course, anything written by Andrew Davies is going to be great. I may have to read the book first too. It sounds great!



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