FanstRAvaganza 4: Re-watching North & South (Episode 1)


For Richard Armitage Week on the Web, I’m re-watching my favorite miniseries, North & South (BBC, 2004).   As I wrote before, I learned a little about it from the (many) YouTube fan videos created by its loyal fans.  Wow, I guess something about this film really touched people!  I saw it first in 2009 (Spring), not long after I’d moved to a city I didn’t know and had no local friends/connections (just like Margaret’s predicament at the start of Episode 1). 

The Backstory

Margaret Hale (Daniela Denby-Ashe) is looking back on the London wedding of her vivacious/blonde cousin, Edith, as she takes the train from Helstone (her home in the rural South- Hampshire) to Milton (a growing industrial city modeled after Manchester by novelist Elizabeth Gaskell).  We meet Aunt Shaw (a wealthy widow who was married to a much older man) and Margaret’s parents, the Hales (married for love).

You know, sister, sometimes I envy you your quiet country parsonage.  Now, Edith can afford to marry for love.

Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale and John Light as Mr, Lennox
Henry picks a rose for Margaret

The older brother of the groom, Captain Frederick Lennox, Henry (John Light), chats with Margaret and compliments her looks, but she doesn’t notice.  (We can tell that he’s interested in her.)  They talk of the perfect wedding and Margaret’s love of her hometown.  Soon after she goes back to Helstone (bright/green/peaceful), Henry comes for a visit, much to Margaret’s surprise.  She is shocked when he proposes to her in the church yard.  Margaret (age 18) insists that she’s “not ready to marry anyone!”  Henry leaves, very disappointed, as he thought that she cared about him (as more than a friend).

Arrival in Milton

There will be no people like us there.

Mrs. Hale (Lesley Manville) is very upset and worried about going to live in such a strange place.  (It’s dark, gray, smoky, and bustling with people and activity.)  The Hales’ loyal housekeeper, Dixon (Pauline Quirke), empathizes with her mistress (who is in poor health).  Why can’t they stay “by the coast” (seaside) while Mr. Hale (Tim Pigott-Smith) looks out for a house?  But her husband insists that she come along.  Margaret tells her father that they should both go see the properties- it’s faster. 

Maragret is visibly annoyed when she overhears Mr. Thornton’s overseer (Williams) and another man (property agent) talking about Mr. Hale in a disrespectful way.  Williams doesn’t want to discuss rent of the townhouse with her, so she insists upon seeing Thornton.  She’s a bit surprised that Mr. Thornton’s house is right beside his mill.  After some minutes, Margaret gets tired of waiting, and walks into the mill.  

Meeting Mr. Thornton

Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton
Margaret sees Mr. Thornton for the first time

There is cotton fluff going all around- Margaret has never seen such a place!  The workers are busy, aside from one man, who is trying to smoke.  Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) sees him before he can light up and chases him across the floor.  In one corner, he gets hold of the man (Stephens), and starts punching him (very hard), while shouting about the danger of fire in a mill.  Margaret is horrified to be witnessing such a fight; she yells “Stop!”  Stephens begs for his job and cowers on the floor (with blood on his face).  Thornton kicks him and yells over at his manager: “Get that woman out of here!”  Margaret chastises the master for his behavior before she’s urged away by Williams.

I was angry.  I have a temper.  Fire is the greatest danger in my mill aside from-

Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton
Meet Mr. Thornton

I love how Thornton stands up straighter and puffs out his chest before Mr. Hale introduces him to Margaret!  (He wanted to make a good impression.)  She’s not happy to see him- her expression is one of disgust and disappointment throughout the scene.  But she is surprised when he (passionately) tells the story of the burning of a mill in Yorkshire the previous year.  And the voice- WOW!

Introduction to the Higgins & Thorntons

They don’t much like strangers in my house.

There is some class and culture clash when Margaret meets the Higgins.  (Class difference is still a common theme, even in modern TV/films from the UK.)  They will become close friends, though the Higgins are working folks and she’s a gentleman’s daughter.  Bessie (Anna Maxwell Martin) admires how Maragaret stood up to Thornton.  We learn it was her father, Nicholas (Brendan Coyle), who helped Margaret in the stampede in an earlier scene.

Our Milton craftsmanship can compare with the very best.

Well, that was an awkward tea!  Mrs. Thornton (Sinead Cusack) is very stern and humorless.  She says that her son is “sought after by all the ladies” in town. When Margaret smiles and gives a little laugh at that, she is offended.  Fanny (Jo Joyner) is hilarious (without knowing it). 

The Masters’ Dinner

Mr. Thornton at the mill owner's dinner
Mr. Thornton at the mill owner’s dinner

I do not run a charitable institution.  My workers expect me to be hard. 

This is an especialy well done scene!  The director and cinematographer work with light, shadow, and angles to cast Thornton as an ambiguous character.  We don’t yet know if he’s a good or bad guy.  We also learn a bit about the other mill owners, too, as they discuss “the wheel” and how they deal with their workers.

Tea with the Hales

Mr. Thornton admires Margaret
Mr. Thornton admires Margaret

Margaret is ironing the curtains.  Thornton smiles when he comes to the door of their house- love that!  He admires (checks out) Margaret as she pours him tea, but she remains stand0ffish. He tries to connect with her in this scene, but fails.  When Mrs. Hale talks about the new decor, he makes a comment on “Milton taste” and smiles over at Margaret. Again, no positive response from her.  But when he mentions the South, she gets ticked off, saying he “knows nothing about the South” and there being “less suffering” there than in  his mill.  Look at the (obvious) disappointment on his face! 

I do know something of hardship…

But things really get serious (we are more drawn in) when Thornton tells the story of his past.  Notice the change in his posture, voice, and expression with each sentence- just subtle/superb acting!  The Hales are silent and admit to being taken aback by his (emotional/forthright) disclosure.  Mr. Thornton is reading the great books and discussing them with Mr. Hale to improve his education (which was abruptly halted as a boy). 

Margaret, the handshake is used up here in all forms of society. 

Mr. Thornton is offended when Margaret refuses to shake his hand.  He wanted to leave her with a positive impression. 

The Meeting of the Millworkers

Nicholas rallies the men (from different mills) at the Lyceum Hall for the first time.  (Mr. Hale said they could meet during his lecture time.)  Boucher, who has a wife and six young children, speaks his concerns.  The strike fund can’t help men like him, he thinks.  They millworkers are not striking yet, but need to be ready for the future.

Conclusion of Episode 1

Stephens comes back to Marlborough Mills to beg for his old job, saying he can act as a spy and find out what the other workers are up to.  Thornton yells a him and shoves him out.  Part of this encounter is witnessed by Margaret and her father, who don’t approve of such harshness.  Margaret wishes she could tell Edith how she really feels- she’s “lonely” and Milton is “hell.”

Richard Armitage Week on the web

4 thoughts on “FanstRAvaganza 4: Re-watching North & South (Episode 1)

  1. I love the opening and closing cinematography and music in this first episode. The haunting, evocative flute music at the very beginning always gives me goosebumps when I think how an unsuspecting John and Margaret are about to have their worlds irrevocably altered.
    And the end is exquisite. John is lonely, too – like Margaret. He’s imprisoned in a world of his own making, and has seen a glimmer of what he really wants.
    Thanks for your run-down. We can visualize it all!


  2. Oh dear, I shouldn’t giggle quite as much as I did when I read “my workers expect me to be hard”. OH MYYYY! 😉

    The funny thing is that every time I see N&S, I keep half-wishing Margaret and Mr Higgins would get together … but then Brendan Coyle is very, very hard to get enough of. *happysigh*

    Welcome to FanstRA! 🙂


  3. I really never get tired of rewatching N&S and always find something new. There are so many layers to the story, and that’s if you can actually force yourself to stop staring at Mr Thornton 🙂


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