Beating the Poor: the BBC North & South (2004)

The adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South first aired on BBC1 in November/ December 2004 was, I believe, quite well received, particularly the portrayal of mill owner John Thornton by Richard Armitage, who made quite an impression if the IMDb reviews are anything to go by. It is, of course, quite faithful to Gaskell’s novel, which is half romantic melodrama, half commentary on industrial relations, the rise of trade unions and so forth. I want to talk about one scene which jarred me somewhat, and which is not taken from Gaskell.

It is the introduction of our hero Mr Thornton, occuring a few minutes in. The heroine and the focalizer in the serial (and the book), Margaret Hale (played by Daniela Denby-Ashe), enters Thornton’s factory. The setting of the factory is given a strange wonderland quality by the wisps of cotton floating through the air like snowflakes. I’m not sure if this is intentional; obviously, such airborne materials were highly obnoxious to the health of the workers, but they sure looked pretty, in this serial at least. Anyway, she sees Mr Thornton in the distance, standing looking down over the plebs on the factory floor, smartly dressed in a black suit, striking a very stylized pose, very Byronic in fact. Suddenly, his watchful stillness gives way, he roars out “Stephens! Put that pipe out!” and rushes after a worker, presumably Stephens, then grabs him, tears the pipe from him and, in an awesome display of macho power, actually beats the crap out of him, punching him in the face and stomach till he falls to the ground, then gives him a few kicks to the torso before letting him crawl away.

Why the insertion of such an excessive scene? Perhaps it’s a particularly strong expression of the class bias of period drama. Of course, Margaret is suitably shocked by Thornton’s actions, and expresses her disapproval to him and to other characters, but really, she knows better, and so do we as viewers. The swelling strings that accompany Thornton’s entrance, the idealized pose, his conspicuous handsomeness, the open-mouthed awe in Margaret’s face as she watches him– it is very obvious that this man is to be our hero, and here he is performing an act of unbridled violence. We can’t approve of this, we tell ourselves, but always knowing: this is the hero, there’s going to be a good reason for this; and provisionally exonerating him as we await the rationale for his actions. So strongly is he coded “hero”, that his act of violence is already endorsed.

And to introduce him with this act. Before he is anything else, he is a man who subjugates his social inferiors through brutal force. This scene makes a strong statement indeed about the class values of the period drama, or at least of this particular period drama – I don’t want to over-generalize, though I think that a class bias may well be more generally detectable in this type of adaptation, albeit not so violently expressed.

And yes, the reason, when it finally emerges, several scenes later, is an infallible one. Mr Thornton witnessed the aftermath of a devastating fire in a cotton mill, seeing bodies of the 300 dead. Including children. All because of an accidental flame. Subconsciously, we already knew that.