As BBC’s North & South celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, it’s time to give the period drama sleeper hit the recognition it deserves.
Before Richard Armitage became a Hollywood star in films like The Hobbit and Ocean’s Eight, he played the brooding Romantic Hero, John Thornton in BBC’s period drama, North & South (2004) based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 classic novel. And while the swoony leading man gives Colin Firth a run for his money in the heartthrob department, his character’s popularity has stayed in costume drama cult status rather than mainstream. The same goes for the romantic miniseries itself.
Today no reviews are on Rotten Tomatoes, and limited press coverage exists on the internet. And yet, many fans believe North & South is one of the most significant period dramas of all time. It’s also one of the most influential. Even IMDB’s Top 250 Rated TV shows currently rank North & South at #138, among other shows like Pride and Prejudice and Game of Thrones.
So, as BBC’s North & South celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, it’s time we pay respect to this little period drama that could.
North & South (BBC) Exceeded Expectations
When the drama first premiered, the BBC had low expectations. So, it was a shock when, on the same day, the program’s message board crashed the website because of the number of visitors.
The four-part British drama went on to win numerous fan awards from the BBC’s annual poll in 2004, but critics mostly ignored it. North & South did receive one BAFTA nomination for Production Design. Word of mouth soon spread to the United States, and by the time it released on DVD in 2005, period drama fans were ready to buy. North & South was a sleeper success the BBC didn’t see coming.
What’s even more admirable about the cult status of this series is it never aired on PBS’ MASTERPIECE like many popular period dramas, including Jane Eyre (2006) and Poldark. North & South was a surprise hit simply because it was that good.
Years later, Netflix added the miniseries to its streaming service, giving the series another massive boost. And despite losing most of its BBC content to BritBox and Prime Video, North and South steadily remains a Netflix fixture, leading more and more viewers to watch this underrated and brilliant series every year.
The Story of North & South
The adaptation follows Margaret Hale (Daniela Denby-Ashe), a young woman from southern England who moves to Milton (fictional town based on Manchester) when her father leaves the clergy over a matter of conscience. As she and her family adjust to the hardships of the north, they meet John Thornton (Armitage), a cotton mill owner facing a workers’ strike.
Soon, Margaret befriends a few of the local mill workers, opening her eyes to the severe poverty and class struggles the people face. Brendan Coyle (Downton Abbey) makes his mark as union and strike leader, Nicholas Higgins, befriending Margaret and later Mr. Thornton.
Despite Margaret’s and John’s differences and even initial dislike for each other, they’re drawn together during a time of social upheaval and family crises.
“It’s a sort of Victorian Pride and Prejudice,” screenwriter Sandy Welch told the Independent. But it’s also got some Charlotte Brontë (a friend of Gaskell’s) as well – shown in the first meeting between Margaret and John. “It’s very much a Jane Eyre/Mr. Rochester type meeting, because he’s not seen in his best light at that moment. I think Gaskell would approve of that…at least I’m hoping so!” Welch explained in the Production Notes on why she added a new scene, not from the book.
Ultimately, Margaret Hale and John Thornton must overcome prejudice and social issues to be together.
A Fascinating History Fraught with Literary Gossip
Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South first appeared in Charles Dickens’ magazine, Household Words, in serialized weekly episodes from 1854 to 1855. However, the story struggled due to tensions between Gaskell and Dickens that could make a juicy miniseries of its own.
Charles Dickens first sought Elizabeth Gaskell out to be a contributing writer for his magazine in 1850 because he felt she would fit his mission to raise “those who are down, and the general improvement of our social condition.”
And while they worked together fine at first, their relationship soured during Gaskell’s writing of North and South. She was the wife of a clergyman, a mother, a world traveler, and was regularly involved with social issues and entertaining guests. So, she struggled with deadlines much to the annoyance of the professional Dickens.
The two also disagreed on the book’s creative direction. In various letters to others, each expressed their “mutual irritation.” Dickens called Gaskell “conceited and heavy.” On the other hand, she felt “deeply distressed by the restrictions” on writing her novel. Elizabeth also didn’t believe it suited serialization. But she held her own against Dickens. She later took more control of her story, added chapters, changed the ending, and had it published by Chapman & Hall in 1855.
The book eventually fell into obscurity, only to gain more acknowledgment from socialist critics in the 1950s and 1960s. Critics now recognize it as one of the first industrial novels paving the way for vocal feminism. The independent and compassionate Margaret Hale (representing both female and male traits typical to the time) spoke out on pressing issues such as poverty – despite the differing political views of the era.
Plus, with book to screen adaptations, Gaskell as an author, and North and South as a novel, are getting more of the recognition they deserve.
An Ensemble to Remember
After a long, grueling casting process, the production team cast the relatively unknown actors Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage as the leads in the 2004 adaptation.
Sandy Welch, in a 2004 interview, revealed her happiness with Daniela’s casting. “There’s a directness about Daniela, as well as a terrific charm and great energy. It’s very important that you don’t misread Margaret as a pushy, snobbish Southerner, but someone with a lively and enquiring mind who wins your sympathy. Daniela does that, I think.”
As for the part of Thornton, it was his chemistry with Daniela that helped secure him the role.
“When Richard walked in, and we started playing together, I just knew,” actress Daniela Denby-Ashe revealed in the documentary, The Story of the Costume Drama.
“There was just an instant chemistry,” Richard Armitage admitted. “We worked on these scenes, everything disappeared, and it was the two of us in the room…” In one word, he described their experience acting together as “unforgettable.”
Besides the leads, the rest of the cast includes a mix of character actors and newcomers. Brendan Coyle played to type the tempestuous and intelligent strike leader, Higgins. Anna Maxwell Martin (Bleak House) acted as his dying daughter, Bessy; the battleax mother of Thornton was played brilliantly by Sinéad Cusack and Thornton’s hilarious sister, Fanny, was played by scene-stealer Jo Joyner.
Margaret’s family included Lesley Manville as Mrs. Hale, Tim Pigott-Smith as Mr. Hale, and Rupert Evans (Hellboy) as the brother, Frederick. Fun Fact: Tim Pigott-Smith also played Frederick in the little-known 1975 adaptation starring Patrick Stewart.
The cast and crew filmed the miniseries on locations, including Edinburgh, London, Hambledon, Keighley, and Selkirk, with elaborate set designs – helping the actors to get into character. Armitage was “floored” by the “amazing world” the design team created.
From start to finish, production took three and a half months to shoot. But would it all come together?
The Modern Period Drama
The romantic drama premiered on November 14, 2004, on the BBC. Directed by Brian Percival (The Book Thief), produced by Kate Bartlett (Vera), and written by Sandy Welch (Jane Eyre), the production team brought new contemporary ideas to the period drama genre.
Welch, for example, respected the essence of the classic novel and the Victorian period while also making the themes relatable. Stylistically and thematically, North & South makes it easier for modern audiences to connect to the historical story.
“I do think that this marks a different sort of costume drama,” Richard Armitage explained in an interview on the DVD’s Special Features.
The miniseries experimented with modernism, atmospheric lighting, arty production design, photographic cinematography, costumes matching the color scheme, and contemporary camera movement with tracking shots — a style we recognize in shows like Victoria today. But this was less common in TV period dramas of the past. Percival later went on to direct several episodes of Downton Abbey, and you can see that contemporary emotional elegance here and how it later influenced his filmmaking style.
On the DVD commentary, Percival, Bartlett, and Welch discussed the artistic use of mood and color to represent Margaret’s perceptions. They “heightened” the colors of Helstone to reflect Margaret’s romanticized perspective, while Milton was more colorless. But as Margaret’s understanding of Milton evolved and became more positive, the mill town became “more colorful.”
Armitage described the filmmaking techniques as well, saying, “the style of shooting and the style of playing is very contemporary. Even though every department was honoring the accuracy and tradition of the 1850s, it wasn’t the aim to make it a documentary or a museum-type piece.” He further added, “there’s a sort of motion with the photography, which we’re very used to when we watch a contemporary drama. Traditionally with period drama, it tends to be more static.”
North & South helped move the TV costume genre past static storytelling into more inventive television, influencing numerous period dramas (Downton Abbey, The Crown) that followed.
Better than Mr. Darcy?
As soon as North & South aired, comparisons between Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy and Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton started and they haven’t stopped since. “I think being compared to Darcy is a huge compliment,” Armitage admitted.
He was intense, moody, romantic, and passionate as Thornton. And like Firth, he had given a definitive performance of a beloved literary hero. But while Armitage hasn’t received as much mainstream attention, the role undeniably catapulted his career. Richard Armitage even described Mr. Thornton as “the role of a lifetime.”
Eventually, Peter Jackson offered Armitage the career-changing part of Thorin Oakenshield, the dwarf king in The Hobbit trilogy, turning him into a movie star.
One of the Great Love Stories
“The landscape of North & South is incredibly gray and bleak. And deliberately so. And then in the middle of it, you’ve got this really beautiful, blossoming romance.”– Richard Armitage
One of the most defining parts of North & South is the love story between Margaret Hale and John Thornton. More than “will they or won’t they,” there’s an emotional and intellectual connection of equality growing between the two. The love and attraction run so deep; an explosion of feeling is imminent. And with the synergistic chemistry between Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage, the fire burns through the television. The miniseries is hot stuff – period drama style that is.
Instead of a love scene, there’s a touch of a hand. The romance builds with a glance here or an expression there. But this drama takes it a step further when the camera brings us inside the characters’ heads.
When Margaret leaves town, Mr. Thornton watches her ride away in a single carriage in the snow. “Look back at me,” he wishes aloud. The camera slowly zooms in on his expressions. He loves her and wants her to come back to him. But he knows she won’t. The emotion etched on his face and heard in his voice is more compelling than any sex scene.
Ultimately, North & South is an example of how to do a love story right without sacrificing gender equality, something all filmmakers can emulate.
The Most Romantic Moment
But what’s the most romantic moment of this epic love story? In a four-part series, numerous romantic moments stand out. But the fans got it right when they voted the final sequence for the Favorite Moment of the year on the annual BBC poll in 2004. It also happens to be the most romantic.
After prejudice, misunderstandings, unfortunate circumstances, and more, Margaret and John finally come together and share more than a few passionate kisses at a train station.
It’s enough to make any viewer swoon.
Daniela Denby-Ashe described the scene as “incredibly romantic,” and “beautiful to film.” Adding that it was “pretty special.” Richard Armitage, on the other hand, believes it’s the most romantic scene in the series “because of its simplicity.” He continued, saying, “There are very very few dialogue lines. It’s all about their physical presence and him seeing her and needing to take her home.”
He added, “it still makes me tingle.”
An Essential Period Drama – North & South (BBC)
BBC’s North & South finished airing 15 years ago on December 5, 2004, and over time has become just as culturally relevant as Pride and Prejudice among period drama fans. Not only is it an essential period drama because it’s genre-defining, but it also revolutionized how to film future TV period dramas.
North & South is also still relevant thematically. The socio-political themes of poverty, classism, and feminism are especially current. Ultimately, it captures the perfect balance between the past and contemporary society – something filmmakers of period drama often fail to accomplish. So, whether you’re a potential fan or filmmaker, turn on Netflix and give this series a try. You won’t be sorry.
“I think North & South is up there with the great romantic costume dramas,” Richard Armitage said in a 2008 interview. But he would only be partially right. Not only was this a great love story, but it’s also a vital drama about social issues and human relationships. North & South is up there with the best costume dramas of all time, period.
What are your thoughts on the period drama, North & South from the BBC? Do you think it’s one of the best TV period dramas? Leave a comment below!
Other Sources (not linked in the article):
Bartlett, Kate; Percival, Brian, and Welch, Sandy. Audio commentary. North and South. Director Percival, Brian. Perf. Daniela Denby-Ashe, and Richard Armitage. 2004. DVD. BBC DVD, 2005.
Hopkins, Annette B. “Dickens and Mrs. Gaskell.” Huntington Library Quarterly 9, no. 4 (1946): 357–85. https://doi.org/10.2307/3815978.
“Interview with Richard Armitage.” Special feature. North and South. Director Percival, Brian. Perf. Daniela Denby-Ashe, and Richard Armitage. 2004. DVD. BBC DVD, 2005.
“North and South – the Storyline .” VCT filming: North and South. Accessed November 2019. http://www.vintagecarriagestrust.org/film04northand.htm.
“Press Office – North and South.” BBC. BBC. Accessed November 2019. http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2004/04_april/30/north_south.shtml.
The Story of the Costume Drama. Episode: Affairs of the Heart, 2008.