Laura Linney's brief introduction to "South Riding," the three-part "Masterpiece Classic" series that debuts Sunday, includes an explanation of "the surplus two million"— women who were left without the numerical possibility of a mate after an equal number of British men were killed in World War I. Technically one of these women, writer Winifred Holtby we are told, "refused to be surplus" and at the end of her all too brief literary career (she died of Bright's disease at age 37) wrote "South Riding," in which a young woman of that generation returns to her small town in Yorkshire hoping to teach girls the importance of independence and unfettered aspiration.
This is a perfectly marvelous idea for a period piece, an opportunity to look at the ongoing ravages of war and a demographic that most certainly accelerated, if not catalyzed, the modern women's movement in the U.K.
Unfortunately, this is not what "South Riding" is about at all, at least not this adaptation, written by the increasingly inevitable Andrew Davies ("Little Dorrit," "Sense & Sensibility," "Pride and Prejudice"). Sarah Burton (Anna Maxwell Martin) may arrive in South Riding preaching feminist reform and gleaming like a scarlet macaw amid the economically depressed dreariness of south Yorkshire, but it quickly becomes clear that her romantic issue will be one of surplus, not deficit. On the very school board that interviews her for the headmistress position sits the brooding, angry and conservative Robert Carne (David Morrissey) and the bright-eyed, handsome and welcoming Joe Astell ("Primeval's" Douglas Henshall).
Guess which one she falls for?
Their romance takes awhile, as well as a scene that could have been written by that other child of Yorkshire, James Herriot. Meanwhile, the narrative wends through enough loosely affiliated B plots to sustain a predictably fine "Masterpiece" cast. Penelope Wilton, last seen in "Downton Abbey," plays a similarly no-nonsense role here as Mrs. Beddows, who champions Sarah while urging diplomacy.
Beddows also encourages Carne, who is related by marriage to the local gentry, to put his high-strung and sheltered daughter Midge (Katherine McGolpin) into Sarah's school, which he does with great reluctance and to miraculous effect. That the other new girl, Lydia (Charlie May-Clark), is a poetry-writing scholarship student from the local slum is one definition of overkill, but both young women perform their roles with such skill that you quickly forgive, if not forget, the broadness of the stereotypes.
Vacillating between a gothic style that borders on Brontë and an urge to make a political statement about just about everything — women's education, corrupt local politics, the hypocrisy of religious leaders, the clear need for birth control and better sanitation — "South Riding" never finds its real narrative thread. Like its main character, the story is too easily distracted by romance to be taken seriously as social commentary and too attached to realism to ever surrender to real passion.
Watching it has its pleasures, of course. Martin is a fine and feisty heroine, and though Morrissey never quite gets a handle on why he is so angry at Sarah, it's difficult to consider any time spent watching him wasted. For fans of the canon, "South Riding" is "Masterpiece" comfort food, enjoyable enough in the moment, but melting away to nothing but sugar and fat by morning.