ANNA MAXWELL-MARTIN ON SOUTH RIDING
A talk with Anna Maxwell-Martin who tells all about playing thoroughly modern 1930′s school teacher Sarah Burton in the BBC’s new three part drama South Riding which begins on Feb 20 on BBC1 and is adapted by Andrew Davies.
In the series Sarah is a modern career woman who returns home to take up the headmistress-ship of a struggling Yorkshire high school for girls.
Full of ambition, passion and fire to take her life into her own hands, Sarah falls for the man least likely to have won her heart, in Andrew Davies’s new three-part drama serial South Riding for BBC One.
“Sarah Burton is a teacher who was born and brought up in South Riding, which is technically East Yorkshire,” says Anna Maxwell Martin. “She left to go to work in London and she returns to be a Headmistress of a local girls’ school.
“She is a very opinionated woman. I suppose she is verging on being a feminist, quite left-wing and very progressive and she has big plans for the girls of the South Riding.
“When Sarah returns to the South Riding and is offered the post of Headmistress, she sort of goes in guns blazing, a bit too much perhaps, and rubs a lot of people up the wrong way in an attempt to encourage young girls to think for themselves, and to hope for more than just being a wife and mother and make their own choices about life!”
Sarah’s costume, hair and make-up also make an audacious statement which flies in the face of the more traditional attire worn by the local women.
“Sarah’s got bright red hair; wears a red dress and little waistcoats,” continues Anna. “She’s supposed to be this kind of bold presence amongst these people who are quite conservative and set in their ways. I think that translates in terms of the costumes which are quite bright and out there.”
The two-time BAFTA award-winning actress, who won critical acclaim for her performances in the theatre production His Dark Materials and television dramas Bleak House and Poppy Shakespeare, reveals why playing a teacher was a scary experience.
“It was terrifying,” laughs Anna. “I had to do lots of scenes with young girls playing my pupils and it’s quite frightening trying to be inspirational – but they were all very sweet thankfully. I would never dare be a teacher, I would be far too scared.”
The Beverley-born star of BBC dramas Freefall, White Girl and On Expenses also had the opportunity to return home to Yorkshire like her character Sarah Burton, when filming relocated to the sea front in Bridlington, just a few miles away from where she grew up.
“I used to come here as child with my family,” recalls Anna affectionately.
The LAMDA-trained actress who studied history at Liverpool University explains why her relationship with Robert Carne (played by David Morrissey) is hostile when they first meet – although that soon changes – and is further complicated by Joe Astell (Douglas Henshall), a rival for Sarah’s affections.
“Sarah’s relationship with Robert Carne is quite tricky on every level,” continues Anna. “He served in the First World War and she’s smashing all over that in her quest to encourage young girls to think for themselves.
“Naturally they have an attraction to one another, she’s very open sexually to him and it doesn’t necessarily end happily ever after. With Douglas Henshall, who plays Joe Astell, they are great comrades and are much more politically like-minded, he is the person she should go for, but as is the way, women never go for men that they are supposed to! So that’s sort of fraught as well.”
South Riding is Anna’s second collaboration with prolific writer Andrew Davies, following her critically acclaimed role as Esther in BBC drama Bleak House in 2005.
“Working with Andrew again was very interesting because obviously I last worked with him on Bleak House which was quite a few years ago. I felt like a baby when I did Bleak House. I suppose I feel like a different person and a bit more mature and more experienced now.”
So what’s next for the busy mother-of-one?
“A role which could not be more different to South Riding,” laughs Anna. “I play Kay alongside Claire Foy in The Night Watch; it’s based on the Sarah Waters book.”
South Riding on BBC1 from Feb 20