I love a good period drama as much as I enjoy a dose of herpes, or ill-mannered children. If I have to watch another episode of "Ooh Matron, Call the Butler, Dickie's Crashed the Bentley" I may be forced to put down my Pimm's and shoot a couple of p(h)easants, just to lower my blood pressure. Fearing another rehash of "the posh and the poor", it was with immense trepidation, then, that I greeted new British mini-series South Riding (above; BBC Entertainment, Thursday at 8.05pm). Based on the 1936 novel by Winifred Holtby and faithfully adapted for the screen by costume-drama king Andrew Davies (Bleak House, Little Dorrit), it tells the story of a working-class Yorkshire community adapting to an ever encroaching modern world.
With the windswept northern English countryside as a backdrop, a young, spunky teacher, Sarah Burton (Anna Maxwell Martin), returns from London to her small rural town as the headmistress of a failing girls' school. It's the early 1930s and Britain is struggling with economic depression. Filled with fresh, feminist ideas and aiming to teach her students the importance of independence, Burton is championed by the no-nonsense Mrs Beddows (Penelope Wilton, playing a similar role to that she has in Downton Abbey) but comes up against resistance from the ever so grumpy Robert Carne (David Morrissey; State of Play), a conservative farmer and aristocrat. Adding to the tension between Burton and Carne is a brooding chemistry that becomes more apparent after a night spent in a barn that would've made James Herriot proud. Maxwell Martin and the moody Morrissey are the standouts but there are solid performances from all of the cast.
As a study of class distinction, narrow mindedness and chauvinism, South Riding could all too easily have made for dreary television. Sure, the script is wooden and there's an excess of Dickens extras; but, thankfully, it steers clear of jolly hockey sticks and revels in its gloominess. If you like your Downton Abbeys and your Pride and Prejudices, you may find it's neither nowt nor summat, as they say in Yorkshire.
Child of Our Time, the programme following the lives of 25 British children since their birth at the start of the millennium, returns to our screens tomorrow (TVB Pearl; 9.30pm). Similar to the documentary series Seven Up, which began in 1964, this long-running social research project, fronted by Professor Robert Winston, rejoins the families after a three-year hiatus, as the children turn 13.
As we no doubt all remember, that is a confusing time full of peer pressure and strange, mixed-up feelings. Along with interviews with the children and flashbacks to their infancy, we get to hear from the parents - and, indicative of our times, many of them have gone their separate ways.
In this study of nature vs nurture, the children, who seem far more mature and articulate than I ever was at that age, are now old enough to express themselves clearly as young adults. Although they were selected from diverse economic, ethnic and social backgrounds, they all come across now as very polite and middle class, but maybe that just reflects the awareness everyone (children especially) now has of the power of television. No sensible 13-year-old wants to make a fool of himself in front of his friends, even during a fleeting 15 minutes of fame. They'll save that, of course, for a few years later, when they'll bound shamelessly on to the stage of Britain's Got Very Little Talent.