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DVD Review: ‘North and South’

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Acorn Media recently released North and South. a Victorian-era miniseries  first shown on the BBC in 1975. Not to be confused with the American mini-series set during the Civil War, North and South is based on Mrs. Gaskell’s (Cranford) classic Victorian romance, written in 1855. The story centers on the independent-for-her-time Miss Margaret Hale (Rosalind Shanks) who is uprooted from her beloved southern England when her pastor father leaves his ministry and moves the family to Milton, in the North, to teach Greek. His only student is the owner of the local mill, John Thornton. Thornton falls for Margaret immediately, but she does not return his feelings.

The real treat for viewers of North and South is watching the two characters’ slow dance around each other — and the fact that Thornton is played by a young Patrick Stewart — with a full head of luxurious brown hair.

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Stewart’s commanding and at times touching performance shows all of the potential of the actor who would later thrill audiences in such diverse fare as I, Claudius, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and X-Men. The story may get off to a leisurely start as Margaret and her father and mother (played by Robin Bailey and Kathleen Byron) settle into their new life. But there are soon troubles at the mill — with a workers’ strike — as well as at home, as Margaret’s mother falls ill, and family secrets threaten to not only prevent a romance, but even a friendship between Margaret and Thornton.

The DVD includes a warning to viewers: “Due to the age of these programs and the improved resolution that DVD provides, you may notice occasional flaws in the image and audio on this DVD presentation that were beyond our ability to correct from the original materials.” It is true that the one-camera taping of North and South makes it look a bit dated as compared to modern television films, but the picture quality is quite good, and the mini-series looks great, even on a large-scale high-definition television screen. The costumes and set design are excellent, bringing the period to life. North and South includes four episodes on two discs, with a total running time of 207 minutes. The sound quality is good, with subtitles available in English. There are no other extras in the set.

Although the main focus of the story is on Margaret and Thornton, there are some great performances by the supporting cast. Rosalie Crutchley is wonderful as Thornton’s upright and uptight mother, and Norman Jones is especially good as Norman Higgins, one of the mill strikers who is befriended by Margaret and her father. Fans of British television may also spot a very young Tim Piggot-Smith in a small but pivotal role.

For those who may have tuned in to North and South just to catch a young Patrick Stewart, they will find themselves rewarded with not only a thoroughly entertaining and compelling romance, but a mini-history of the Industrial Revolution in England. Well worth watching.

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