Love in a cold climate

North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell's tale of romance at the dawn of the industrial age, lacks the direct appeal of Dickens or Austen. Will it work on TV? Sarah Shannon goes on set to find out

A woman picks her way across slick cobblestones and stops before the gate of an imposing 19th-century cotton mill. The tiny figure is dressed demurely, as the age demands, with a shawl wrapped tightly around her shoulders to fend off the Northern chill. She pauses to summon up courage, then raps on the gate. "Cut." The TV cameras stop rolling, and this little piece of history, brought to life in the Yorkshire town of Keighley, disappears in an instant as the actress is bundled into a long Puffa jacket and the props men swarm forward to splash more water on to the cobbles. This is the set of the BBC's autumn drama
North and South.

A woman picks her way across slick cobblestones and stops before the gate of an imposing 19th-century cotton mill. The tiny figure is dressed demurely, as the age demands, with a shawl wrapped tightly around her shoulders to fend off the Northern chill. She pauses to summon up courage, then raps on the gate. "Cut." The TV cameras stop rolling, and this little piece of history, brought to life in the Yorkshire town of Keighley, disappears in an instant as the actress is bundled into a long Puffa jacket and the props men swarm forward to splash more water on to the cobbles. This is the set of the BBC's autumn drama North and South.

Period-drama junkies such as me rely on television commissioners to feed our addiction with annual fixes of Dickens and Austen. More adventurous fare - say, a Kingsley Amis adaptation - provides welcome variety. But the ultimate rush is the discovery that your No 1 favourite classic novel is coming to the small screen.

After years of sitting through everything from modern takes on Chaucer to little-known Trollopes, I find my time has come, with Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. Of course, that won't thrill everyone. Some regard Mrs Gaskell as stodgy, melodramatic and hopelessly Victorian in her outlook. Others remember with misery memorising passages of her impenetrable Northern dialogue at school. But a band of fellow sympathisers embraces North and South as a dazzling portrait of the early industrial age, with its striking factory workers, strutting capitalists and impoverished gentry. Most of all, they adore its warring lovers, Margaret Hale and John Thornton.

Daniela Denby-Ashe takes on the role of Margaret, the petite woman at the mill gate. That takes some swallowing. To put it simply, this fictional heroine, a woman of great integrity, verve and passion, is being played by the stroppy daughter from the BBC sitcom My Family. Or you might remember Denby-Ashe better as the bushy-browed and not particularly likeable Sarah Hills in EastEnders.

Denby-Ashe, 25, seems equally shocked by the turn of events. "I auditioned for another part and ended up getting the lead," she says with a bemused look on her face. "I didn't expect anything from the audition, because my agent told me not to hold my breath. All I knew was that they'd been looking for the right person for a long time. I was very, very pleased when they told me - it's the biggest part I've ever had."

Sandy Welch adapted the novel and was responsible for the recent TV version of Dickens's Our Mutual Friend. She professes delight with the choice of actress. "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."

It's equally important to Welch (who is the wife of the writer and director Stephen Poliakoff) that viewers do not misread Gaskell. "The 'Mrs Gaskell' tag makes people think she's very domestic, a clergyman's wife in Manchester with lots of children. A lot of people are very snobbish about her." In fact, Gaskell revelled in a place among the brilliant literary set of her day. Dickens and the Brontës figured among her broad-ranging acquaintance.

When Gaskell's Wives and Daughters came to the small screen a few years ago, I asked why this simple love story had been chosen over the epic North and South. Its producers replied that the broad social sweep of the latter novel made it difficult to shoehorn into a television drama serial. But Welch has no such worries. "It's a sort of Victorian Pride and Prejudice, really. It's a wonderful love story, and also a great adventure. The only problem dramatically is that all the prejudice comes from Margaret's side. Mr Thornton likes her almost from the start. One of the only liberties I've taken is to even that up a bit. When she first sees Mr Thornton, it will be inside his cotton mill, where he appears in quite a brutal and dangerous light. Very Mr Rochester."

Besides the love-hate relationship of their central characters, Austen and Gaskell bear other similarities that should make the Victorian novelist as popular a choice with modern audiences as her predecessor. "Gaskell tackles the subtleties between people, the way they behave towards each other and how they feel when they've been slighted. The detail is much more Austen than Dickens, who didn't really tackle things on that level," says Welch.

The major difference between this and other gentler period dramas will be the portrayal of the North as an emerging industrial area. "I have Margaret travelling to the North by train to signal that this isn't a coach-and-horses drama or a piece about long dresses and dances. I'm hoping it will give a steam-driven momentum to the piece right from the start."

Welch believes Gaskell would have approved of her few changes, which include sending the novelists' characters to the Great Exhibition of 1851. "I hope she'd have liked the things that have been added. Or maybe they are things that she'd have included herself if she'd had the time." Gaskell complained of being under pressure to complete the novel. Her taskmaster was none other than Charles Dickens, a great fan of her work and the editor of the periodical that first published North and South in episodic form. The practicalities of delivering the novel in instalments led Gaskell to hurry the ending. But now Welch can stretch out the denouement to her heart's desire.

Her adaptation isn't the first. Back in 1975, the BBC put out a rather wooden four-part version. Star Trek's Patrick Stewart played the glowering Mr Thornton and Tim Pigott-Smith (Margaret's father in this adaptation) played her brother Frederick. With its cardboard interior sets, it is not remembered as a classic of its day. By contrast, this autumn's drama promises to lavish attention on authentic detail. One of the exciting prospects for us industrial romantics must be the scenes inside a working cotton mill. The crew filmed in a former mill in Burnley, Lancashire, to recreate the brutal setting of the early-industrial factory. "I wanted a central image of the drama to be the interior looking like a snowstorm, with all the cotton flying around, and it really does. It's very different from our image of these factories as dirty places," Welch says. "It's about capturing the excitement and the hardship of a modernising city."

The forbidding streets of Gaskell's fictional town of Milton (in the wonderfully named county of Darkshire) were loosely based on her native Manchester. But, as the producer Kate Bartlett explains, "The tenement buildings Gaskell was writing about no longer exist in Manchester. They were pulled down and replaced with Coronation Street-style terraces. So we filmed those scenes in Edinburgh, where you can still find more authentic tenements."

Back in Keighley, Denby-Ashe prepares for her next scene with Thornton, played by the little-known Richard Armitage. The chemistry between the two will be key to the drama's success, but the young actors appear unfazed by the challenge. "As soon as I saw Richard, I knew he was Thornton," Denby-Ashe says. "Just in the way he holds himself, he has a real presence."

Armitage feels equally confident of the pair's compatibility, "Something great happened when I read with Daniela. Something clicked. There are only four scenes in the whole drama when Margaret and John are actually alone together, and that heightens the tension between them. It's a wonderfully antagonistic relationship, and a real meeting of minds as well."

Denby-Ashe waits calmly for her next cue. She has had to adapt quickly to the new way of working that is demanded by a high-budget drama shot on film. "The pace is much slower, and you have to work hard at staying focused, because there's so much hanging around. Doing a soap or a sitcom, you pretty much know when your working window will be, so you can gear yourself up for it."

Another novelty is the restrictive 19th-century costumes. "We've got dressing down to a fine art. Corset, petticoats, dress, I can get it all on in 10 minutes flat. Then the hair and make-up takes about an hour on its own."

The next scene takes place inside the courtyard of the cotton mill. Set builders have covered a modern house with a 19th-century façade and built a loading bay for the cotton to be heaved into carts. When the director shouts "Action!", shire horses are led across the yard, women and children dressed in drab grey scurry past with sorting baskets tucked under their arms, and men load bales of cotton using giant hooks. As the scene is repeated over and over again, it becomes clear that there is nothing random about their movements. It's like a beautifully choreographed dance. Everyone in the scene knows the route they must walk to give the appearance of being intent about their daily work.

After a run of more cerebral 20th-century drama adaptations, how will the audience take to Gaskell's blockbuster? "There was a vogue for thinking that 19th-century literature, with its great love stories, wasn't intellectual enough," says Welch. "But that's precisely what people love - a great story. Hopefully North and South will give them just that."

'North and South' begins on BBC1 on Sunday at 9pm

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