Cinema review: South Riding (1938), BFI Southbank

The latest screening in the BFI Southbank’s ‘Projecting the Archive’ series is Victor Saville’s 1938 film of the Winifred Holtby novel ‘South Riding’, which centres on council corruption and an unusual love story, and stars Ralph Richardson, Edna Best, Edmund Gwenn, Marie Lohr, John Clements, Milton Rosmer, and a very young Glynis Johns.

We first meet the main cast in the council chamber, and in the schoolroom. These are a mix of business-minded councillors and fair-minded socialists, and the core of the matter is a housing project to replace the slums (here an estate called ‘The Shanks’ where downtrodden women with large families age prematurely and die in poverty, while their children are taken out of education to support them). In contrast to The Shanks we see the palatial home of the family Carne (Richardson and Johns), and discover Cllr Carne’s secret (a wife institutionalised after a series of breakdowns – badly played in flashback by the wooden Ann Todd).

‘South Riding’ has been tackled twice for television, first in 1974 with Dorothy Tutin and Nigel Davenport in the roles taken here by Best and Richardson, and in 2011 with Anna Maxwell Martin and David Morrissey. Obviously both had more scope to develop the story than this 88 minute film, but Saville’s direction, a tight script, and – Todd aside – strong performances, make this a typical entry in the group of patriotic British films which attempted to shed light on the changing political landscape. The print shown at the BFI includes the deeply jingoistic ending which deals with the Coronation of King George V and Queen Mary, but this is cut from other versions available.