Set in the 1850s, Gaskell’s novel tells the story of Margaret Hale, a vicar’s daughter from the south of England, whose family moves to the northern industrial town of Milton. There she meets the owner of one of the largest local cotton mills, John Thornton. Used to the genteel society of the south, she struggles to adjust to the grime and poverty of the busy mill town at the heart of the Industrial Revolution. She clashes repeatedly with Thornton, critical of his manner of doing business and his treatment of his workers. But gradually they grow closer and come to understand each other. It’s a ‘social problem’ novel with a compelling love story at the heart of it.
An industrial novel by a lesser-known 19th century writer is an unlikely subject for a popular period drama and the BBC can be forgiven for having had modest ambitions for their adaptation.
But it was an unexpected success. Broadcast in four episodes on Sunday evenings in November and December 2004, it was watched by more than 6 million viewers – many of them women who fell in love with John Thornton, as portrayed by Richard Armitage.
Hundreds of them overwhelmed the BBC Drama message boards with messages about the drama and in particular, its hero. Soon the BBC had to set up a separate message board for North and South discussions. The phenomenon of so many women taking to an Internet message board for the first time because of their love for this programme became the subject of an article by Anne Ashworth in The Times. She wrote,
The BBC Drama website contains the outpourings of hundreds of thirty and fortysomething women for this year’s romantic hero. He is John Thornton, the northern millowner in Mrs Gaskell’s North & South, recently serialised on BBC One. Thornton was played smoulderingly by the previously little-known Richard Armitage as a blue-eyed, dark-haired stunner, the Darcy de nos jours. On the messageboard, character and actor merge into one object of desire: RA/JT. […]
The friend who alerted me to this site described the message board’s atmosphere: “It is as if the girls who did Eng Lit at uni had joined a fan club. Waiting for every new message may not be as exciting as waiting for the next episode of North & South, but it’s the next best thing. It’s comforting: we have our love for RA to keep us warm.”
The BBC had not initially announced a release of a DVD of the series, apparently preferring to wait and see how it was received. But they were deluged with emails pleading for a DVD, and within a week of the end of the series had promised to release one.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s not hard to see why North and South was such a success, both with critics and viewers. Sandy Welch’s intelligent and sensitive adaptation of the novel was brought to the screen by a talented creative team. Director Brian Percival created the conditions that allowed a fine cast of actors to produce compelling and thoughtful performances. Daniela Denby-Ashe originally read for the role of Fanny, but was then cast as Margaret. Tim Piggot-Smith and Lesley Manville played her parents, and Pauline Quirke their servant. Sinead Cusack was Mrs Thornton and Brendan Coyle played Higgins.
Brian Percival, cinematographer Peter Greenhalgh and production designer Simon Elliot (BAFTA-nominated) created a production with a look that was faithful to the period, but that had a contemporary feel far removed from the pedestrian costume dramas of the past. Martin Phipps’ music added to the atmosphere of the piece.
And at the heart of it all was Richard Armitage’s portrayal of John Thornton. He has acknowledged that it was the role of a lifetime and he threw himself into it. As a viewer commented on the BBC website, “The man inhabited his role of Thornton on North and South like a second skin.”
Thornton is at first an unlikely hero, a stern and unsympathetic industrialist. But as the drama progresses, his struggles with his workers and with his own growing feelings for Margaret reveal a different, gentler side to him. Richard Armitage portrayed his journey from hard-nosed businessman to tender lover with sensitivity and fine detail, peeling off the layers of this powerful man to reveal the vulnerability and loneliness lying within.
Add to his acting abilities his smouldering good looks, and it’s little wonder that women in their thousands fell in love with “RA/JT”.
The whole cast and crew of North and South scarcely put a foot wrong, and the result is a high-quality drama that has been shown in several countries around the world, winning new fans each time.
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In December 2008, ITV3 broadcast a five part series about The Story of the Costume Drama, tracing its history on British TV over the last 50 years. One of the dramas included was North and South. Both Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe were interviewed for the programme, and they spoke about the filming and about their chemistry as John Thornton and Margaret Hale. See clip below
 Interview with Richard Armitage, Ceefax, 15th September 2005