Here's a conundrum. In the marble anterooms of a provincial town hall four women are waiting to be interviewed.
Three of them look like aged spinsters, dressed in drab greys and browns. The fourth is an attractive young women, with a slash of red lipstick and a bright red dress. Can you guess which is going to get the job, despite an interview that rides roughshod over the sensibilities of the entire panel? Congratulations. I think you'll do well in my new media studies module – Popular Television: the Delivery of the Expected. Second question is this: In the overture to a rural period drama set in the early half of the 20th century, would you expect to see (a) a steam-billowing locomotive, (b) a country squire on a galloping horse, (c) a vintage motor car parping its horn ostentatiously, or (d) all three? A little trickier this one, but in Andrew Davies's new version of South Riding the answer is (d). Best to be on the safe side, and this is an adaptation (bar a bit of standard Davies sexing-up) that definitely plays on the safe side. It's one of those dramas in which the arrival of the local vamp is announced on the soundtrack with slinky burlesque notes on a saxophone, almost as if it's a Tom and Jerry cartoon rather than something for grown-ups.
To be fair, I think even Andrew Davies feels a bit like this. He gave a very cross interview a while ago in which he criticised the BBC decision to cancel a planned adaptation of Trollope's Palliser novels and move him instead on to Winifred Holtby's popular saga of feminist idealism and alderman skulduggery in Depression- era Yorkshire. You wonder just occasionally whether his heart's really in it – or whether there's even a faint spirit of sabotage at work. There's an intriguing moment early on when Anna Maxwell Martin's teacher – newly appointed to run the local girls school – is invited by a sympathetic alderwoman to attend a gala night at Madame Hubbard's dancing school. When the pupils come on stage they perform an audaciously teasing number that suggests that Madame Hubbard has been training them up for a career at the Folies Bergère, and not one of the stolidly respectable parents in the audience appears to blink an eye.
The central dynamic is new broom versus old guard, with Martin's character, Sarah Burton, on the side of fresh thinking (abetted by Douglas Henshall's sympathetic local Bolshie) and David Morrissey as Robert Carne, the reactionary local landowner, impatient with novelty of thought but humanised by his tenderness towards his highly strung daughter Midge – who may have inherited her mother's mental illness – a secret first hinted at with a display of a portrait that would have had its painter horsewhipped for impertinence in the real world. And here's a really elementary question for students of Predictability Theory. If the attractive male and female leads stomp away from each other respectively muttering "Bloody woman!" and "Bloody man!" how likely is it that they will eventually end up making cow eyes at each other? Excellent! You have been paying attention over the past 40-odd years. In fact, Sarah and Robert end up making cow eyes over a cow, after the former adventitiously breaks down nearby in a thunderstorm and is able to assist the latter with a tricky calf delivery. Also stirred into the mix is sexual hypocrisy from a Donald McGill-style local worthy and whisperings of civic corruption, as alderman Snaith promotes the Keynesian virtues of public works in the hope that he'll be able to cream off a sizeable profit for himself. I wasn't convinced that a 1934 local councillor would have sung the virtues of political "transparency" myself, but perhaps that was just another example of Andrew Davies getting a bit sulky.
It's all enjoyable enough if you have nothing better to watch at the weekend. But the thing is that we do, what with The Killing tightening its grip every week and Peter Kosminsky's The Promise continuing its run. Now into its third episode, the latter had Len recovering from the murderous attack by Irgun gunmen only to run straight into trouble again, after finding his lover, Clara, tarred and feathered for collaboration. Persuaded by this that she cannot be an informant, he rather unwisely overshares the details of an upcoming operation, and before long he's been kidnapped with two colleagues and is being held hostage to prevent the execution of an Irgun bomber. The real background to this plot development illustrates one of Kosminsky's problems with the subject, which is its fractal complexity of crime and counter-crime. In the fiction we get the Irgun atrocity, in which two of the soldiers are hung and left in an orange grove, their bodies booby-trapped with explosive. In history, though, this real event was followed by British troops and policemen going on retaliatory rampages that left five Jewish settlers dead, an event that didn't feature here. So is this a prejudicial omission? I don't believe so. Kosminsky can't include everything, and the emotional speech he gives to one Irgun man about liberating concentration camp inmates during the war is proof of his open sympathies. But you can see how anyone who dislikes what occurs later – a really nasty incident in Hebron, in which settler children attack Palestinian schoolchildren with the connivance of the Israeli army – might seize on it as evidence of partiality. It's a thankless task, frankly, which is one more good reason to thank him for taking it on.