South Riding: Bad Romance

Sarah acts, by turns, like a pathetic, needy Jane Eyre wannabe and like a clueless and condescending cow to Lydia’s family. There’s more nonsense about the council estate, but do any of us really care anymore?

Previously on South Riding: Lydia’s mom died, and she had to leave school to take care of her siblings. Sarah almost seduced Robert, but he was too overcome with guilt over making his wife crazy to seal the deal.

The morning after the affair that wasn’t, Sarah comes tripping down the stairs to the front desk of the hotel and asks them to ring Robert’s room. They inform her he checked out early that morning. She asks if there are any messages. There aren’t. Honestly, what did she expect? Does he seem like the type to leave love notes around hotels?

Sarah drives to Mrs. B’s house, and Mrs. B’s pretty confused, because it’s Christmas Eve and she knows Sarah’s supposed to be with her sister’s family in Manchester. Sarah says she changed her mind. Probably because she wore and therefore essentially ruined her sister’s gift.

Mrs. B ushers Sarah into the lounge, and Sarah oh-so-conversationally asks if Midge is staying with them. Mrs. B says she is, but she’s out with a friend. Sarah acts surprised that Robert’s not back to spend Christmas with Midge. Did she stop by Mrs. B’s in the hope she’d run into Robert, blowing off her family in the process? That’s pretty pathetic. Mrs. B excuses herself to go answer the ringing telephone and Mr. B takes the opportunity to tell Sarah how much he hates Christmas, with it’s unnecessary expenditure and annoying houseguests. Thanks for that, Mr. B. Mrs. B returns and says it was Robert on the phone and he’s on his way to collect Midge. Sarah makes ‘I should go’ noises, and Mrs. B urges her to stay, but Sarah insists on leaving to go see how Lydia’s holding up in her new life of miserable, uneducated drudgery. So, why did she stop by Mrs. B’s in the first place? I do not understand this woman’s thought process at all. Mrs. B gives her a ham and some crystallized fruit to take, which upsets Mr. B.

Outside, Sarah slams into the car and looks put out, for some reason. Maybe she’s just annoyed with herself for thinking she’s a liberated woman but acting like a brainless teenager.

At Lydia’s, the kids are all trapped inside their trailer, making a ruckus. Sarah arrives and hands off the ham to Lydia’s dad, then gives Lydia a handsome bookbag as a gift. What a totally bitchy thing to do. Way to rub it in her face that she can’t go to school anymore, Sarah. This woman’s so unbelievably thoughtless. Lydia’s obviously upset by the gift but Sarah fails to notice, going on about how there are all sorts of notebooks and pens and pencils inside for her to keep up with her poetry writing. Sarah, you utterly stupid, spoiled, clueless, privileged moron! What makes you think this poor girl has any time to sit around writing poetry anymore? And even if she did, she probably wouldn’t, because honestly, what good does it do? It’s not like she has much of a chance to make money on it to help her family out, which is really what needs to be done. God! I hate this character!

Sarah babbles on about how great the bookbag is, and how it should see her through her student days. ARRRRRGGGGHHHH! Pay attention, Sarah! She can’t go to school! That’s already been established! Unless you’re going to pay for a babysitter, her student days are over! What’s she going to do, wait until that youngest sibling is old enough to look after himself and then go back to school? He’s, like, two. Use your brain! Lydia understandably scoffs, and even her dad’s looking uncomfortable. Sarah bleats that she knows it’s hard (uh, no, I really don’t think you do know), but that Lydia’s special. She repeats this for Lydia’s dad. He knows! That’s why he did everything he could to keep her in school! He went hat in hand to the council to ask them for a handout, and we know that was humiliating for him. Way to show up and make all these people feel worse, Sarah. Sarah finally leaves, so the family can wallow in the pall she’s just managed to cast over all of them.

Robert arrives at Mrs. B’s and is immediately and warmly greeted by Midge. She fills him in on her little adventures while Mrs. B fetches a gift for Robert. He, in turn, gives Mrs. B a lovely pin that once belonged to Muriel. He says she should have it, because Muriel’s never coming home to claim it. He then asks if Midge could stay there again, if he ever has to go away again. Mrs. B says that’s fine.

Sarah goes to answer her ringing doorbell, and her face collapses when she sees it’s Astell on her doorstep. Nice, Sarah. He immediately calls her out on being disappointed but asks if she wants some company on Christmas. She blows him off, until she notices he’s carrying some booze, and then she welcomes him with open arms. What a total bitch move. Why he doesn’t tell her to kiss his ass and walk away to enjoy his marvelous 12-year-old single malt on his own is a mystery to me.

Later, they’re sitting in front of the radiator, drinking and getting to the slightly depressing part of the evening, where they talk about years past and being in love. Sarah claims to be done with love, but I think we all know better. She says it’s much better to be friends, which makes Astell a bit sad. I don’t know why—she sucks. He can do much better. Oh, and then, she goes and kisses him. So, mixed message, much?

After the winter break is over, Sarah leaves off jerking people around for a bit to sit down with Lydia’s dad. He admires her books (the shelves are mostly Dickens and Maugham. I’m guessing she’s also on about her eighth copy of Jane Eyre, because she’s clearly attempting to model her life on that) and pointedly informs her that he was a big reader himself once, but his own education was curtailed by economic circumstances. Sarah says they have to find a way to keep that from happening to Lydia. He agrees that Lydia’s clever, and says she takes after him in that way. For some reason, Sarah looks affronted by that. He takes a moment to hand over a cake or something that Lydia baked, saying she’s doing well at the surrogate parenting thing and is like a proper little housewife now. Sarah tightly says she could be so much more. Sigh. It’s not that I don’t agree and think Lydia could be more, or don’t mourn the fact that Lydia’s had to stop going to school, but I’m having a lot of trouble getting on Sarah’s side here because she’s being so obnoxiously condescending to these people. He knows she could be more, Sarah. You know that he knows that. He tried to get help so Lydia could keep going to school, but the help wasn’t available. Why do you keep making him feel bad about that? Stop telling him what he already knows and offer some solutions instead of treating him like he’s too dumb to know what’s best for his daughter! She asks if there’s anyone who could look after the kids so Lydia could return to school and he tells her there isn’t. He’s already thought of this, Sarah!

Alfred (remember him and his annoyingly distracting plotline?) signs some paperwork with the property surveyor that, I suppose, means he now owns some of the land at the Wastes. He’s sure the value will go up soon, with the vote on the new council housing coming up. The Surveyor’s sure he’s right, as long as Robert doesn’t get in the way.

Robert and Midge watch a groom walk a lovely colt around the stableyard. Midge wishes they could keep him, and Robert sadly says he wishes for a lot of things. Midge suddenly tells him she knows her mother’s never going to come home. Where did this realization come from? Wasn’t she insisting on the house staying exactly like it was just last episode? Which was, what, a couple of weeks ago in show time? Once again, I feel like we’ve missed huge chunks of character development with her. And it’s all so we can focus on frigging Alfred, whom I couldn’t care less about.

Speaking of, Alfred drives up to sound Robert out on his position on the council housing. He asks him to stop standing against it and suggests Robert buy some of the Wastes land himself, to help with his money problem. Robert gets pissy that he’s being asked to compromise his principles so Alfred and his buddies can make a quick buck. Robert threatens to tell the local press about all this and tells Alfred to get lost. Way to go, Alfred, you’ve just cemented his opposition. What a moron.

Sarah’s showing a group of townspeople a dull newsreel about how ideal schools can help shape eager young minds. She obviously hasn’t given up on that new school idea. Robert shows up late, as usual, all full of vinegar after his meeting with Alfred. He asks the others if they have a clue what’s going on. Astell’s confused, because he thinks they’re talking about a school here, not the land scheme, of which he knows nothing, as far as we’re aware. Robert calls him a fool, though an honest one, and claims there are others in the room looking to line their pockets at the public’s expense. Snaith calmly tells him to relax, because those are serious accusations. Robert flat-out accuses Snaith of buying up land on the Wastes to drive up the price, and then when the council estate gets built there, the townspeople will have to pay a fortune for that land. Snaith tells Robert that he’s just been slandered in front of witnesses, and he’ll be filing a lawsuit. Great, like Robert doesn’t have enough problems already. Mrs. B looks weary at all this.

After the meeting, Alfred compliments Snaith for remaining calm. Snaith wonders why anyone goes into politics, when they have to deal with situations like these.

At the Holly Jolly Trailer, Lydia packs up lunch for her dad and the younger kids, then goes to tend the youngest sibling. As her dad and the other workers head out to the pit or ditch or wherever they work, they pass the woman who usually sells them their snacks. She climbs onto a bus, and Mr. Holly (the dad) suddenly gets an idea and chases it down. We finally get a name for this woman—Mrs. Brimsley—as he calls out to her, climbs onto the bus, and sits down across from her. She asks after Lydia and expresses sympathy for their loss. Mr. H asks her how she’s getting along, with her sons out of the house now. She asks him to cut to the chase, but before he can, the driver slams on the brakes to avoid running over some sheep, which conveniently sends her flying into Mr. H’s lap. The driver goes to deal with the sheep and Mr. H flirtatiously tells her to sit tight. She calls him cheeky but doesn’t get up. He finally lays it out for her: they need someone to help look after the kids so Lydia can go back to school. And I think he proposes to her. Well, that’s one way to solve your problem, I guess. A highly unlikely one, but why am I trying to find any likely or realistic scenarios in this show anymore?

Robert meets with his lawyer, who tells him Snaith’s demanding £10,000, which Robert doesn’t have. And the lawyer’s sure they’ll lose in court, because I guess Snaith doesn’t actually own any land in the Wastes after all.

Lydia’s younger siblings interrupt her quiet time—reading on the roof—to tell her dad’s home with a lady. Mr. H strolls over with Mrs. Brinmsley on his arm. She smiles kindly and says hi to Lydia. Mr. H says Lydia can go back to school, because Mrs. Brimsley’s going to come and take care of the kids. That’s awfully nice of her. Lydia’s not pleased by this at all, for some reason, and doesn’t even acknowledge Mrs. Brimsley before she turns and leaves.

Inside, Mr. H and the kids tuck into a curd tart and Mrs. Brim tells Mr. H that Lydia’s not happy. He goes out to talk to her and finds her on the roof, as usual. He admires the view, then sits down next to her and asks her what the problem was. She insists they were fine the way they were, and she didn’t care about losing the scholarship. But of course the real problem is that she thinks her dad’s replacing her mom. He swears her mother will always has a special place in his heart. Apparently, that’s enough for her. They have a sweet moment, and Lydia starts to unbend.

Lydia bikes back to the school and has a private tutoring session with Sarah, who gives her Westron Wynde to read and claims that some people think the first two lines have nothing to do with the last two, although I don’t feel that way at all. Seems kind of straightforward to me. A teacher pokes her head in and says one of the governors is there to see her, so Sarah sends Lydia away, just before Robert comes in. Sarah acts pissy that he’s there but graciously agrees to see him. He just wants to tell her that he’s stepping down as one of the governors, because he’s about to be bankrupted. He guesses she’ll be glad to see him go, and she wonders why he’d think that. Maybe because you’ve been giving him an arctic blast since he entered the room? Because, other than that one night in Manchester, you two have never really gotten along and you’ve been butting heads since you arrived? Does she have some short-term memory issues? Robert points out that she’s against everything he stands for, which I don’t think is really true, but Sarah thinks it is, and adds that it doesn’t mean she’s against him personally.

Like a particularly needy, annoying type, she pouts and asks him why he hasn’t come to see her since Manchester. I can think of plenty of reasons, Sarah, should I name them? 1. He was embarrassed, 2. You’re the headmistress of his daughter’s school, which makes a romantic relationship somewhat inappropriate, 3. He made it clear it was only going to be a one-night thing and you agreed…You know what? I’m done. I don’t care about these people or this stupid relationship, which is so stolen from Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte should rise from the grave and sue for copyright infringement. Robert goes with the embarrassment angle, which Sarah immediately assumes is some kind of slam on her. Not everything’s about you, Sarah! She assures him she’s not in the habit of sleeping with men in hotels, and poor Robert’s just floundering here, because he can’t win at all, and he’s got enough on his mind. Not that Sarah cares at all what other people are going through. He tells her he was embarrassed about his attack of crazywardisease and tells her she’s a remarkable woman (no, she’s not, she’s totally lame and self-centered) and deserves more than a wreck of a man, who, I might point out, is still legally married, as the whole town knows. Sarah laughs at how stupid men are, with their obsession with virility, and tells him she didn’t want a man, she wanted him. She starts to get weepy, telling him she just wanted him to call or something afterwards and reassure her needy self that their almost hookup meant something. Well, Sarah, maybe it didn’t. She sighs that she’s embarrassed herself again, and asks him to leave. Before he goes, he confirms that she doesn’t think less of him because of what happened, and tells her it did mean something. Oh, whatever. Once he leaves, Sarah, in the single stupidest moment of this whole show, murmurs out loud to nobody at all, “at least I didn’t tell him I’m in love with him.” I just projectile vomited all over my poor computer screen. That was Camelot levels of lame dialogue.

Robert rides off on his horse to have his emo Rochester moment, galloping through the fields in the rain and stopping on a bluff overlooking the crashing sea, raising his face to the rain, and smiling, for some reason. Christ. And I’d just gotten the screen cleaned off, too.

I guess he stays out there a good long while, because we flip back to Midge, standing in front of the attic window at night, repeating the mantra we met her with: “he’ll come back. He’ll come back.” So…I guess she hasn’t gotten over her anxiety issues, then? The following day, someone else drives her to school and tells her he’s sure Robert will be home by teatime.

Later, at school, Sarah’s got Lydia in her office, as usual, and they’re giggling over something or other. Mrs. B bursts in, shaky, clearly about to burst into tears, and Sarah, because she can’t read a room at all, smiles up at her. Mrs. B bursts out that there’s some bad news for Midge. Sarah dismisses Lydia as Mrs. B starts to cry. Mrs. B tells her there’s been an accident, and Robert’s horse was found on the beach that morning. She’s not sure how she’s going to tell poor Midge.

Sarah watches from a distance as Mrs. B takes Midge into an empty classroom and breaks the news. Midge predictably freaks out, and Mrs. B envelopes her in a hug. This poor kid’s going to be such a mess. Sarah wanders into a nearby room, closes the door, and starts to sob. I guess I should feel something, but I didn’t have an iota of an investment in their relationship, so I don’t.

Mrs. B meets with the lawyer, who tells her that Robert made a new will recently that named Mrs. B Midge’s guardian in the case of his death. He also exposits that Robert’s body hasn’t been found, so I guess a miraculous, happy ending resurrection is a possibility. And I wouldn’t put it past this story to pull something so utterly absurd either. The lawyer starts poking around, clearly trying to find out if Robert committed suicide. Mrs. B is sure he wouldn’t do something like that.

Sarah’s gone to sulk with poor, long-suffering Astell at the pub. A few other guys start guesstimating how long it would take someone’s body to wash ashore, and where it would wash up. Sarah says it’s unbearable to listen, but she doesn’t make an attempt to leave until Astell suggests it. Outside the pub, she suddenly asks Astell if he thinks Robert killed himself. Astell says he has no idea, which pisses her off, because everything pisses her off, it seems. He runs after her, insisting he has no way of knowing whether Robert killed himself or not, because it’s not like he knew every detail of what was going on in the man’s life or anything. Sarah stops and says she has to believe it was an accident, because she can’t think Robert would have given up on life. Astell, pretty awesomely, finally straight-talks with her, saying she should really start focusing more on the future, because she spent the last couple of decades mourning her tragically dead fiancé, and now she’s setting herself up to just replace him with Robert for the rest of her life.

He calms down and tells her he’s leaving. Good. You deserve better. “Not you as well,” she whimpers. He tells her she’s the only thing that could make him stay. Why? Why do you like this woman? She’s only ever used you for booze and treated you like an asexual buddy when it suited her. Why do you want to hook up with a woman you already know is going to spend the next fifty years mooning over a dead man? What the hell is wrong with him? She begs him to stay, but he only will if he can be more than just a friend to her. She can’t promise that, so he tells her he’s going to London. Good. Can we go with him?

Robert’s body finally washes up on the beach, so I guess we’re not going to get some resurrection plot. Thank God.

Mrs. B goes to visit Muriel in the hospital to break the news of Robert’s death. Muriel’s too out of it to process it, or even to remember who Robert is, it seems.

Naturally, she doesn’t go to the funeral, but all the other characters with lines do. One guy starts chatting with Alfred in the middle of the burial service, which is totally inappropriate. The guy thinks it’s wrong to bury Robert in consecrated ground (indicating he was a suicide), which pisses off Sarah. She really loudly calls the guy out, interrupting the rector, which is also inappropriate, but of course Sarah doesn’t care. She also makes it plain that there was something going on between her and Robert, which the man speaking out of turn comments on. Jesus, people, it’s the man’s funeral! His daughter is standing right there! Button it up and show a little decorum, it’s not that difficult! Sarah finally invites the rector to continue. How big of you, Sarah. As the casket is lowered into the grave, we flash back to Robert sitting on his horse out in that rainstorm from earlier. The bluff crumbles beneath them, and they both fall. So, not a suicide.

The mourners return to Robert’s house, where they eat and chat under the gaze of Muriel’s portrait. Mrs. B spots an elderly gentlemen standing there, staring up at the portrait. This would be the father-in-law, the lord, correct? He identifies Mrs. B and introduces himself. Mrs. B tenses right up and tightly says she didn’t think he’d come. He says he wanted to see his granddaughter. She reminds him he wasn’t all that interested in seeing her when Robert was alive, and she’s not sure Midge will want to see him. He suggests they find out.

Smiling hesitantly, Midge is shown into a room where her grandfather is waiting for her. He observes that she looks like her mother did at her age, which gets him a bigger smile. He invites her to sit with him and kindly asks her to come live with him and his nephew, nephew’s wife, and their young girl. He suggests that Midge and the nephew’s daughter could go to a finishing school together. Mrs. B busts in and says that Midge could stay in town, with her, in the current crappy school. She doesn’t think it’s a good idea to disrupt Midge’s life, but grandfather points out that her life’s already been disrupted and suggests they see what Midge wants. Midge immediately says she’ll go with her grandfather, since there’s nothing to keep her in town now that her father’s dead. Wow, I’m surprised she was so fast to shunt off Mrs. B and all the friends she’s made in town, not to mention Sarah, whom she supposedly worships.

Sarah, meanwhile, is catching a train to London, presumably to make poor Astell’s life miserable. I mean, come on. She doesn’t love the guy. Mrs. B goes looking for her at the school and is handed a letter from Sarah by one of the secretaries. Mrs. B reads it and dashes off to find Lydia. She yanks the kid out of class and runs to the train station to intercept Sarah, who’s already boarded the train and is about to leave.

Mrs. B finds her and accuses her of being a bolter. Sarah says she can’t stay, with the whole town laughing at her. You, you, you, all about you. I can’t believe she made someone else’s funeral about her. Mrs. B tells her to get over it, because people embarrass themselves all the time. She says it doesn’t matter whether Robert killed himself or not, but Sarah won’t let it go. She wonders if his warwounditis did him in. Who cares? He’s dead one way or the other, just let the what, where, why go already!

The train’s getting ready to leave, but Mrs. B shouts for the stationmaster to wait. Because apparently this tiny town can dictate train schedules now. She tells Sarah she’s not the only woman on earth to have been disappointed in love and reminds her that she came to town with all these plans, and now she’s just leaving, and leaving Lydia and all the other girls in the lurch. Not really. Surely they could find another head teacher? Eh, whatever, it works. Sarah stays. And Mrs. B made Lydia miss class for absolutely no reason at all.

Oh, right, loose ends. The council meets to announce the new housing estate will be built on the Cold Harbor site, not on the Wastes. Alfred stupidly says that can’t be possible, but Snaith informs him that recent land speculation has forced up the costs of land on the Wastes too far. Alfred looks wrecked. I don’t care.

After the meeting, Snaith intercepts Mrs. B and tells her there’s a plan afoot to acquire Robert’s home and lands to turn into a home for the insane. That’s either a kindness or a sick joke on his part. Or a bizarre coincidence. I really can’t tell. He even suggests naming it after Robert. Mrs. B excuses herself quickly.

That night, Alfred barges into Snaith’s and demands to know why the new estate has been moved off the Wastes. I think I can answer that question for you, Alfred: I’ll bet money that Snaith owns a fair bit of land where the new estate’s going to be put, and that he got it cheap while you and all the other idiots were speculating in the Wastes. Alfred finally figures out that this was, indeed the case. Snaith (rightly) scolds Alfred for having been such an idiot, and Alfred sets on him, throttling Snaith until he almost kills him. He finally recovers himself and leaves, tearfully.

The girls are gathered for the last day of school. Sarah steps forward (in some rather cute shoes, I must say) to give her end-of-year speech. She starts off reading from notecards, but then, of course, sets them aside and speaks from the heart. Because this show couldn’t resist ending on a total cliché.

Ending montage! Midge arrives at her grandfather’s palatial estate, as her mother arrives at Robert’s old house, which has now, indeed, become a hospital. We cut between shots of her getting out of the car and smiling in a slightly cracked way and Midge sitting for a portrait of her own, coached on how to sit by her grandfather. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel here—I mean, I guess in a way it’s nice that Muriel got to come home after all, but honestly I feel pretty sad by this moment. The home Muriel once knew has just become another prison for her, from which she’ll never escape, and her daughter’s now being groomed as a sort of Muriel replacement by the father who’s apparently written her off entirely. It’s creepy.

Sarah, Snaith, and Mrs. B walk up to the brand new girls’ school. Hang on, what the heck? When was that built? Is this five years in the future? Is it magical? I’m so confused right now. Meanwhile Lydia—wearing a bright red dress and with her hair dyed red, just like Sarah’s, which I also find creepy in a way—arrives at either Oxford or Cambridge (I guess) to take up her place. The music swells majestically, and I’m grateful this is finally, finally over.

So, that was our Masterpiece Classic lineup for the year, and I have to say, I’m terribly disappointed. Things started strong with Downton and went steeply downhill from there. I loathed Any Human Heart so much I couldn’t even bear to watch it, Upstairs Downstairs was a dreadful disappointment, and South Riding was godawful and just gave me a ‘heroine’ I wanted to punch in the face every time she was onscreen. What’s up, Masterpiece? It’s like they don’t know what to do with themselves once they run out of Jane Austen and Dickens novels. Sigh. We’ve got some Poirots coming up (although they, too, have gone way downhill in recent years, if you ask me) and next season brings us 8 episodes of Downton, and more Upstairs, and who knows what else. Here’s hoping they get their act together, find some good novels to adapt, and get things back on track so I can go back to really loving my public broadcasting.

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One thought on “South Riding: Bad Romance

  1. Good recap. I agree with many of your comments. Since Winifred Holtby was writing about her own times, I’m not surprised by Sarah’s privileged thinking. I’m curious to find out if the novel is better developed.

    Per Wikipedia, Holtby wrote the novel in a rush after a terminal diagnosis. And indeed South Riding was published posthumously.

    For future Masterpiece Classics, I’d love to see Jane Duncan’s Friends series. If you haven’t read them, I highly recommend! Such wonderful characters and the Scottish countryside, too. The series follows a quasi-autobiographical Scots lass from age 5 to 50. The last one she wrote has a definite feeling of “ending” and was published around the time of her death as well.

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