Winifred Holtby! (.Winifred Who?); He's 'Done' Dickens, Thackeray and Austen. Now TV's Premier Writer Reveals the Literary Heroine Behind His Latest Must-Watch Sunday Night Costume Drama

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Byline: Andrew Davies

When Kate Harwood, the BBC's controller of series and serials, invited me to adapt South Riding by Winifred Holtby, I was only vaguely aware of it. The title sounded a bit Northern, rural and worthy for my taste - and what or where was South Riding anyway? In Yorkshire, I supposed, but which bit? Reading the book, I realised that Holtby's South Riding was a disguised version of the real East Riding: Hull, Bridlington, places like that, and a curiously beautiful, bleak landscape that was constantly being eroded by the North Sea. An interesting change, I thought, from the familiar Yorkshire of moors and dales.

But you can't write a drama about a landscape. The first question I always ask when starting a screenplay is: 'Why this, and why now?' When I adapted Austen's Pride And Prejudice, Thackeray's Vanity Fair or Dickens's Bleak House, the answer was that the stories are timeless and universal: love, sex, money, class and generational conflict never go out of fashion. But some novels also speak very urgently to our own times, and South Riding, written in 1936, is one of them.

It shows a community struggling to cope with the Depression caused by a worldwide financial crisis. Provocatively, South Riding's council takes the opposite line to our present Coalition: stimulating the economy with a programme of public works - roads, hospitals and schools - with a strong element of public-private finance and the prospect of hefty profits for those in the know.

So who are we pinning our hopes on? Principally, Sarah Burton, the lively, combative heroine who has come back to Yorkshire to be headmistress of a girls' school. She's a socialist, a pacifist - her fiance was killed in the First World War - and a feminist, determined to educate her pupils as independent thinkers.

Against her stands Robert Carne, a handsome, brooding gentleman farmer with a tragic past. He is a conservative who dislikes Sarah on sight, and hates everything she stands for. Of course, viewers will be expecting this enmity to develop into love, especially when they see we've cast Anna Maxwell Martin and David Morrissey in the lead roles. But this isn't Pride And Prejudice or Jane Eyre - Holtby wasn't into wish-fulfilment.

South Riding is more akin to George Eliot's Middlemarch - full of great dreams and aspirations, only some of which come to fruition. I'm not going to spoil the story by giving the ending away, but it's surprising. Winifred Holtby put a lot of herself into Sarah Burton. Like Sarah, she grew up in Yorkshire, but in more comfortable circumstances. She was born in 1898 into a prosperous farming family, and had no need to work, but was encouraged to be 'the best that she could be'.

She won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford, but delayed starting her degree so she could work as a nurse in London. It was around this time, in 1916, that Harry Pearson, a childhood friend, came home wounded from the war and declared his love for her. She was too immature and unsure to reciprocate, and Harry took it badly. He returned to the front and was wounded again, but it seems he suffered more psychologically, becoming detached and unable to commit to anything once the war was over.

Ironically, it was then that Winifred realised she was in love with him, and she remained so for the rest of her short life. But their relationship never worked out satisfactorily. Harry eventually proposed when she was on her deathbed.

Winifred went up to Oxford in 1918 but felt 'unbearably marooned in this half-dead, wartime city of elderly dons, women students, and wounded men on crutches'. …