Ten years ago tonight, the BBC premiered a four-part miniseries, North & South (not to be confused with the Patrick Swayze-starring civil war drama of the same name), adapted from Elizabeth Gaskell’s 19th-century novel of cross-class romance in the industrial North of England. The BBC didn’t harbor huge expectations for the series, coming as it did in the midst of a glorious decade of nonstop adaptations of major works by Austen, Brontë, and Dickens. But then, a few weeks later, the fourth installment of North & South ended with a tender, long-awaited kiss (now known to viewers as “The Kiss”). Immediately, so many people flooded the BBC’s online message boards that they crashed and shut down. It’s been enshrined in fangirl lore as “the infamous night that period drama fans broke (a small part of) the BBC (dot com).”
Richard Armitage, who played the brooding hero John Thornton, became a star and heartthrob — move over Colin Firth! — and the show was enshrined as a fan favorite.
I had a similar reaction to those first viewers’ when I watched North & South on DVD across the pond a few years later. I tracked down an email I sent eight years ago after a binge-watching frenzy:
“We watched the final three hours of North and South... you must must must must watch it. I literally couldn’t breathe at the end it was so good.
Literally. I literally couldn’t breathe! Yet somehow I lived! In all seriousness, what about the miniseries sends so many viewers into apoplexy the moment it ends? It’s hard to see at first: North & South has the marriage plot of an Austen adaptation but with no witty repartee, and the social strife and coughing deathbeds of a Dickens adaptation yet without any broad humor. In addition, it’s filmed in a mostly muted register of colors to signify the dark, industrial vibe of “Milton” (a stand-in for Manchester). We enter very few polished drawing rooms, witness not a single ball or country dance, and everyone speaks with accurately indecipherable Northern English accents. Over the course of four installments, quite a few main characters die of various lingering illnesses. The downtrodden working people of Milton get supplanted by even more desperate, literally starving Irish strike-breakers, and then they almost murder the strike-breakers, which is not something you see very often on TV. It’s bleaker than Bleak House.
But all these qualities make North & South so unforgettable, too. Like the best “prestige TV,” its concerns are with social justice, moral ambiguity, and individual responsibility. Everyone is rendered sympathetically, to some degree, even those who stand in opposition to each other. Surrounded by the conflicts of this complex world, we have the love story between Thornton, who transcended his modest background to become a mill owner (a boss with principles, but a boss nonetheless), and the refined, socially liberal Margaret Hale (played by a radiant Daniella Denby-Ashe), who comes from the gentler South and thinks him an oppressive brute. It’s one of the most explosive, chemistry-rich misunderstanding-laden romances that’s ever graced the small screen. Their courtship has a structure that clearly imitates Pride and Prejudice, but each step along the way is ten times as dramatic.
The lovers’ meet-cute is over a physical altercation with a worker at a mill. “Get that woman out of here!” shouts Thornton.
They share a climactic moment when Margaret throws her body in front of a mob to protect Thornton — after exhorting him to talk to them and not send soldiers in — and takes a rock to the head for him (but she doesn’t love him, she swears).
Further obstacles to their union include a shouty, rejected first proposal, a secret brother on trial for mutiny who is mistaken for a lover, and a potential mother-in-law, Mrs. Thornton, played by Sinead Cusack, who is the greatest holy terror of all TV mothers, ever. She is humorless, possessive, controlling, and she is glorious.
Again, while the inimical lovers are still figuring each other out, viewers witness the formation of a fledgling mill-workers union, greedy owners, a strike, encroaching hunger as the strikers and owners double down, and Margaret’s burgeoning friendship with a beautiful poor girl with cotton lung, Bessy Higgins (played by Lizzy Bennet from Death Comes to Pemberley) and her stern but upright labor-organizer father, Nicholas (played by Mr. Bates from Downton Abbey).
The characters engage in frequent arguments about the “masters” vs. the “men” and whether industry helps or hurts England. Other questions arise: When do you stand up for principles, and when do you compromise for practicality’s sale? Does Thornton actually care about his workers? Is Margaret’s social-reforming zeal a good quality, or is she a meddlesome bougie type who doesn’t understand the stern ways of the North and looks down on people “in trade”? (Also: Will it ever stop snowing? Or snowing cotton into people’s lungs? Can characters stop dropping dead already? Please?)
Ultimately, both Margaret and Thornton have to truly alter themselves, and so does their city and society. That process of painful self-examination and change explains why the series is so incredibly magnetic. Two tough, dogmatic people slowly, over time, soften each other’s edges and open each other’s hearts even as circumstances around them get more and more difficult. Their growing love serves as a small ray of hope and honesty in a landscape of misery, a light in the darkness.
Of course, there’s a school of thought that owes the series’ popularity solely to Armitage, and the pleasure of watching the different phases of Thornton’s brooding. No need to choose.
Lovelorn Thornton in the snow:
Thornton, changed man:
Thornton, best kisser ever:
For all these reasons, the fan community is utterly devoted to North & South. I’ll be joining them in celebrating #NS10 today on social media, and revel in the enigmatic glory of it all: a classic period drama about romance and striking mill workers.