In a sea of competent costume dramas from BBC, North & South stands out for its astute social commentary, its progressive take on unionization in Industrial-Era England, and its unique take on romance. Based on the classic piece of Victorian literature by Elizabeth Gaskell, it instantly captured the hearts of viewers in 2004, combining Jane Austen's elaborate societal melodrama with Dickensian grit and melancholy.
It follows young Margaret Hale as she journeys from the South of England with her father whose conscience no longer allows him to remain a member of the clergy. A philosopher more than a parishioner, he uproots his family to the Northern Industrial town of Milton. There, the Almighty is the British pound. Margaret immediately takes umbrage with the dangerous conditions of Marlborough Mill, owned by John Thornton, a disciplined man who has become a student of her father's literary lectures. The trials and tribulations of the pair will alter the fate of not only Marlborough Mill, but also with each other's hearts. Below are ten hidden details about the mini-series (now streaming on Netflix!) that you may have missed.
9 Richard Armitage Has Played Other Broody Roles
If it seemed like John Thornton had a stare that could pierce you through, and that might be because Richard Armitage has made a career out of brooding, especially in period environments. He played the ruthless Guy of Gisborne in the BBC Robin Hood television series as well as the melancholy Thorin Oakenshield in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy.
American audiences may have recognized him as the Red Dragon serial killer in Hannibal Season 3, and as a spy in Berlin Station. In his native Britain, he's starred in Spooks and the lead in The Crucible. Currently, he lends his voice acting talents to Castlevania on Netflix and plays Wolverine in the podcast Wolverine: The Long Night.
8 Another Famous Actor Has Played John Thornton
The 2004 adaptation of North & South brought the novel and story back into a modern audience's collective consciousnesses, but it was the second adaptation by the BBC over the course of thirty years. The first adaptation came out in 1975 and is still available to view.
The 1975 version starred a young, stoic Sir Patrick Stewart a full decade before he would begin filming Star Trek: The Next Generation as the next captain of the USS Enterprise. Stewart was a distinguished actor in the Royal Shakespeare Company and no stranger to costume dramas, nor starring in their BBC adaptations. His version is a more faithful adaptation of the classic novel.
7 Margaret's Wardrobe Had Recycled Costumes
So many period dramas are produced for the BBC every year that it makes very little sense to construct new garments for the cast if previous ones can be altered. Downton Abbey was notorious for this, and North & South also made a habit of it as well.
The striped dress that Margaret Hale wears in the final scene of the series was previously worn in Bleak House by Gillian Anderson, as well as by Billie Piper in The Shadow in the North. Often the ladies dresses only have to be altered slightly since most leading actresses stay within a sample size range.
6 Tim Pigott-Smith Appeared In The Original Production
The distinguished British actor Tim Pigott-Smith, who plays the part of Richard Hale, the disgruntled clergyman, also appeared in the 1975 version of North & South. In that version, he played Frederick Hale, Margaret Hale's brother who has fled England for Spain because he is being accused of mutiny.
You may recognize Pigott-Smith from his dastardly role as the villainous Creedy in V for Vendetta, as well as playing the Foreign Secretary in Quantum of Solace. His career spanned five four decades in the UK, and he had completed scenes in the American television Whiskey Galore shortly before his untimely death.
5 Their Outfits Were Meant To Be Clothing, Not Costumes
Costumes do so much to transport an actor into the world of the character they're playing. In period pieces like North & South, it's vital for the costume department to not just adhere to dressing the cast in the era-appropriate attire, but making it look like clothing the characters lived in, not just fancy costumes.
John Thornton, though he wore the high starched collars and frock coats of the day, also had a patch on the knee of his trousers that had been specifically put in place to show that just because the trousers needed repair didn't mean he threw them out. He was careful to not waste resources, a hallmark of industrial Northerners.
4 Nicholas Higgins And John Bates Are The Same Person
Fiery union leader Nicholas Higgins, appearing in North & South in opposition to John Thornton's myopic view of the industrial workforce, is played by reliable British actor Brendan Coyle. You may recognize him as John Bates from Downton Abbey,
If it seems like Mr. Higgins has a trustworthy face and a comforting demeanor, it may be because you're used to seeing John Bates, Robert Crawley's trusty valet. Coyle has made a career out of playing characters with impressive work ethics and moral standards.
3 They Had Different Ways Of Getting Into Character
Every actor has a different approach to get into the head of the character they're inhabiting. In order to bring truth and realism to the role, they sometimes will have a specific way this happens, be it inventing a backstory for their character that doesn't exist to ascribing meaning to certain wardrobe pieces.
For Margaret Hale, it was important for Daniela Denby-Ashe to understand how she felt in the confining dresses, especially as she wandered the soot-covered streets. They informed how she acted, and how tired a woman like that must have been breathing in coal fumes in such outfits. Richard Armitage decided the beautiful antique pocket watch he carried was from Thornton's father, an heirloom just like Marlborough Mill.
2 The Violent Meeting Between Thornton And Margaret Wasn't In The Book
There are several reasons why modern interpretations of Victorian literature need to function as face-lifts for the classic works. Several concepts in Victorian literature are too nuanced for modern audiences, such as the subtleties between Margaret Hale's Southern upbringing and John Thornton's Northern sensibilities.
When Margaret Hale and John Thornton first meet in the novel, it isn't in a fiery clash of wills, and it isn't over a young mill worker being beaten by Thornton. They meet, instead, in a calm manner in the lobby of a hotel. However, the film needed to establish Miss Hale's disdain for Thornton early on, and so their first meeting was heavily altered.
1 The Actors Did A Lot Of Research
In order to bring authenticity and breathe life into characters that are over a hundred years old, the actors took it upon themselves to do research into the life and times of Southerners and Northerners in England during the late 19th century. They not only learned about the etiquette of the day, but also the specific relations between the masters of the industrial class and the workers below them.
Richard Armitage stated that just learning about how people in the time period behaved, as well as learning the history of mills in the area, greatly informed how he interacted on-screen with the lower and upper class. A range of social and business approaches is displayed, all with as much authenticity as possible given the subject matter.