Here is how it usually goes: in the middle of chit-chat with a friend about, say, Downton Abbey, I say: “It’s good and all, but you know what’s a really great series that no one knows about? North & South. Do you know it?”

Argh! this is NOT the series I'm talking about!

The other person, looking at me as if I might be insane, replies, “Is that the one in which Patrick Swayze fights for the Union Army against his brother?”

Regrettable but true: there is only one American context for the idea of a North/South divide, and it always involves the Civil War. But I’m not going to talk about this 1985 series, nor am I going to talk about Patrick Swayze.

Argh! What was the BBC thinking in coming up with this uninspired DVD cover?

My North & South has a much more appealing male lead — Richard Armitage, who’s being celebrated at the center of this FanstRAvaganza — I mean, nothing against Swayze, but Armitage leaps off the screen in this, his breakout role.

But I also want to get to a broader subject: how the series seems to address real and abiding social problems, the most overriding of which is the conflict between middle-class morality and an Adam Smith style “the market takes care of us all” ideology. It’s surprisingly hefty for a period drama, and I get absorbed every single time.

No wonder Americans don’t know the real North & South: the series never appeared on American television. This 2004 BBC series is based on the 1854-55 Mrs. Gaskell novel about the differences between the pastoral, patriarchal English South vs. its gritty, individualistic, industrialized North. Doing itself no favors, the BBC reproduced it using an uninspired DVD cover with lackluster photographs of its stars that belies the series’ high quality. Despite a campaign spearheaded by fans of the series’ star Richard Armitage to air the series, American PBS has thus far resisted — and thus, most of my peers have never heard of the series.

That’s where I come in. I have recently acknowledged to myself that I am an evangelist for North and South.

Who doesn’t enjoy spreading the good news about something that seems practically a secret?

Until now I would never have copped to such a self-description, because evangelist is just not how I see myself. I grew up in a family of atheists in a small town where my sister and I were the only kids in that category; my first memory of school is having other kids ask me what church I attended. (I also learned quickly that my answer, “I don’t go to church,” was not the right one.) There were points in seventh grade (i.e., age 12-13) when I really, really wanted to believe in God or have Jesus come to me in an ecstatic moment, but both of Them ignored me. (To be honest, my eagerness for Their attention can be chalked up to my eagerness for attention from the cutest guy in school, who was some kind of Baptist.)

But when I think about it, I suspect I protest too much. After all, isn’t teaching is a kind of missionary work? “This semester I am going to sing to you of the virtues of finding love, truth, meaning, and happiness in the form of cultural anthropology!” you might say to the assembled 250 students on the first day of class. Maybe I’ve always been an evangelist — and now that I think about it, I’m quite certain that I’ve tried to school people at cocktail parties with the 1001 reasons why they should be watching The Wire, and probably with the same unblinking religious fervor of those poor saps who knock on my door, wanting to talk about my immortal soul.

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When I talked my Texas next-door neighbor into watching North and South with me, she was silent through the first 30 minutes or so until we got that glimpse of Mr. Thornton in the mill, looking down on the workers at their looms. “Oh, yeah,” she said approvingly.

This shot is closely followed by the one of Thornton beating up a worker who’s trying to catch a smoke. Every time I watch the series with neophytes, I almost jump for the brutality of the violence, as if I’ve never seen it before. My neighbor watched that scene and said, “I’d like to see how our heroine is going to win up going out with that guy.”

Considered solely for the romance between Thornton and Margaret Hale, you might say it’s a more serious version of Pride and Prejudice insofar as we watch through the heroine’s eyes as she hates him at first sight and reluctantly but completely changes her mind throughout the course of the show. It’s not an easy sell. I’ve seen the series about 12 times and each time Thornton’s early brutality, as well as his strange subsequent self-revelations about his family’s past, make him an oddly moody brute of a man.

Armitage is so good in this role. It’s the first thing that leaps out at you. We like Margaret (Daniela Denby-Ashe) right away — who wouldn’t, with those slightly sleepy eyes and arched eyebrows? — but she remains a far more private, unknowable character. Even if you layer on everything you know about nice middle-class girls in the mid-19th century, it’s hard to know what she expects for her future. When I finally got around to reading the Gaskell novel, I wasn’t surprised to find Thornton the protagonist and Margaret the sphinxlike, closed-off character whom he adores. Thornton’s waters run deep and he does, indeed, “have a temper,” but somehow we come to trust the guy.

Chalk that up to Armitage’s capacity as an actor.

My most successful inductee to the religion of North & South is Servetus, who became the Armitage super-fan and blogger – but it wasn’t watching it with me that did it. We had a great time watching, mind you. It was late summer and school hadn’t started yet, and it was a chance to forget the hellishness of the upcoming semester.

It was at the end of that semester that she borrowed a dvd copy from a colleague and spent a good deal of that winter watching it over and over that made her realize what a terrific actor Armitage is, and it got her started on following his career so closely. When she posts an image like this (a recent one, from Recognise Magazine), I can only feel that my job as an evangelist is complete.

You’ve got to admit — isn’t that just about the most beautiful man you’ve ever seen?

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Just recently I showed the series to a group of three academics I met here while on my research leave, two of whom I’d met at a holiday party back in December — people I’d grown closer to during Downton Abbey season. None of them had heard of North & South, nor had they read the book.

We ate a big dinner of bread, salad, and a hearty soup (in honor of Mary’s mill cookhouse near the end of the series), and sat down for the first two hours. I heard them murmur with approval when we got to the mill, and Margaret walked through the snowlike world of the loom floor:

They grew quiet as we watched the rest of the first two hours, at which point we took a break. Harry had made a fairly extraordinary trifle for dessert, so we spooned out lovely big globs of whipped cream, fruit, and rum-soaked cookies. He then asked about Richard Armitage.

Within five minutes he had not only finished off his own portion of trifle, but had updated his Facebook photo as Mr. Thornton, and had done several searches for more images of Armitage. “He’s going to appear in The Hobbit!” he squealed, and Merry and Ursula clapped their hands with delight. [See here for La Loba’s photos of locations, BTW.] When we sat down for the final two hours of that plot — the drama of Frederick’s appearance and departure; the growing body count; that marvelous moment when Margaret leaves Milton forever and, from his upstairs window, he begs her to “look back at me!” — my friends burbled with approval.

Some of my friends (aka “unsuspecting targets”) are taken aback by the darkness and seriousness of this series, particularly because at first glance the story deals with labor conflicts and social misery so much more serious than that in Downton Abbey. And the clothes, sadly, are just not as luscious. (That latter series seems so much more like a trifle, whereas North & South is more like a hearty boiled pudding.) But it’s the seriousness that ultimately appeals. Also: Mr. Thornton has excellent sideburns, which my new friend Harry has replicated in the weeks following our viewing.

When she left, Ursula said, “Would you mind if I borrowed the dvd? I’d like to think about whether I can use this in a class next year.” The rest of us teased her, but she wouldn’t be the first to find good use for it with undergrads.

*****

I’ve got only one more thing to say about my newly-acknowledged role as an evangelist for North & South: costume dramas were meant to be watched in groups. My history with costume drama goes way back: when I was a kid during the early 80s, my mom and I got in the habit of watching virtually everything Masterpiece Theater had to show us. The first of these — and therefore most memorable to me — was a BBC miniseries version of Pride and Prejudice (1980) with the wonderful Elizabeth Garvie as Lizzie Bennet (above) and David Rintoul as Darcy.

Sure, the 1995 BBC version outstripped this one. Early BBC costume dramas look prehistoric now, with their immovable cameras and bad lighting. I did a lot of group viewing of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice too — including one memorable weekend with all my best grad school girlfriends, piled together in a friend’s apartment, loading up on Colin Firth like too many candy bars. (Aldine, I haven’t forgotten that, nor the fact that you’re the one who introduced me to North & South.)

I’m always so conscious that when I write this blog, I do so anonymously — yet part of the pleasure is trying to find the right style and voice to allow you to know me. I’ve confessed all manner of odd things about myself here, but the real way I open myself up is not by giving you clues about my identity but by showing you my voice, the voice I show only to my close friends.

So here’s what I want to suggest: find someone new to show North & South to. It’s easiest to spread it out over the course of a couple of nights (4 hours, after all, is a lot of TV) but mix it up with some nice food and drink. Enjoy those rare light bits of humor, as when Thornton and his mother share a wry laugh at Fanny’s expense.

Feel what it’s like to be an evangelist for a series — that is, you’re not invested in having them fall in love with Armitage, any particular character, or any other specific aspect of the plot. Just enjoy the unfolding of a great tale in the company of friends. Don’t be surprised if one or two of them become super-fans like Servetus or my new friend Harry, whose sideburns are so barbed and delicious now (and they combine with his green vintage velvet jacket for such effect at St. Patrick’s Day gatherings!)

It feels like the best kind of religion, if you ask me — the kind that gives its adherents pleasure and comfort, and also pushes against their sense of comfort. It brings you back again & again. The next thing you know, you’re talking to someone new at a cocktail party, and they say, “Isn’t that the one in which Patrick Swayze is a Confederate soldier?” and you say, “Oh, no, my friend — let me tell you the good news.”

Cheers to all the FanstRAvaganza people out there! In particular Phylly3, who like me is writing today about her experience as a fan of Armitage. Check her post out below, as well as many other writers’ experiences!

Hey all, keep following the Richard Armitage FanstRAvaganza! Phylly3 reports on her fandom experiences In the Hobbit chain, Ana Cris writes on her recent film location visit Mrs. E.B. Darcy speculates about what our hero will do in An Unexpected Journey (spoilers!) King Richard Armitage chain begins with Maria Grazia on a film adaptation of Richard III Beginning the fanfic chain, fedoralady explains fanfic’s mainstream appeal Annie Lucas woos us with a Guy of Gisborne one-shot, “One Chance” In the freeform chain, Fabo files an eyewitness report on Richard Armitage’s visit to U.S. accent school jazzbaby1 wonders “what were they thinking?” re: Lucas North’s women and ChrisB opens the Armitage Alphabet, with “A is for Action” Links to all FanstRA 3 posts appear here at the end of each day

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Have I ever mentioned how much I hate films about teachers and students? Barf. It’s not just that the genre is so clichéd, and so designed to make its audiences weep a few joyful tears when that student finally figures it out and the self-sacrificing teacher looks on with pride. (One time on a plane I refused to buy the headset to listen to/watch Mr. Holland’s Opus [1995], yet found myself crying just at the muted images. Gawd.)

So why does that storyline in the BBC miniseries South Riding, based on the Depression-era novel by Winifred Holtby, seem inoffensive to me? Two reasons: because the feminism is taken for granted (and coated with a bit of sugar), and because the leads — Anna Maxwell Martin as the new school headmistress and David Morrissey as the dour local gentleman farmer who’s losing his financial and personal battles — are just so utterly wonderful to watch. Set in a poor seaside area of Yorkshire during 1934, this 3-hour series is so appealing that even my anti-costume drama partner watched the entire thing with me.

I’ve had my eye on Maxwell Martin ever since Bleak House (2005) and her small  but very neat part as Bessy Higgins in North and South (2004). Her face makes me want to be her friend; her quick tongue makes her acting shine in these roles, even as she speaks with a distinctive lisp. And who does handsome, tortured, and yearning better than Morrissey? Remember him as the traumatized, crazed Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend (1998), and more recently as Maurice Jobson in Red Riding: The Year of Our Lord 1980 (2009) — two parts among his many terrific performances.

My greatest regret is that South Riding feels rushed. It’s just a crime that so many miniseries now get crammed into the shortest amount of time possible, given the costs of filming — budgets seem now to dictate such abbreviated, hustled-along tales. (It also seems that screenwriter Andrew Davies seems to have given a little less love to this adaptation than he usually does.) So it’s a good thing that Maxwell Martin, as the brash, attractive, feminist headmistress, hits the small town with so much verve and so many new ideas about educating girls to think for themselves, and to think beyond the gender expectations placed on them by the old generation.

She feels that imperative so strongly because, some 16 years earlier, she lost her fiancé during the Great War. Even as she thereafter transformed herself into a professional educator, his death left bullet holes in her personal life, a fact that she dishes out to keep the kindly Scottish-brogued, Marxist Joe Anstell (Douglas Henshall) at a comfortable arm’s length. She’s stunningly frank about the fact that she’s been with men since, but insists her dead fiancé was the love of her life.

This makes her educational philosophy all the more poignant, as she lays it out in her interview:

Sarah: I want my girls to know that they can do anything. That they don’t have to repeat the mistakes the previous generation made.

Interviewer, bristling a bit: Specifically?

Sarah: Blindly sending their sons off to be killed in the millions, without thought, without question. I’m determined that the girls I teach will not be the wives and mothers of the next generation of cannon fodder.

Sanctimonious interviewer: Miss Burton, wouldn’t you agree that the greatest calling for any young woman is to become a wife and mother?

Sarah: No! I would not! [catches herself] Not necessarily. But I do know that the wives and mothers of today and tomorrow are going to have to know as much as they possibly can about the world they’re living in. I mean, this is 1934! The world’s changing! And the future is going to be very different, and it’s our responsibility to prepare these girls to meet it. Well, that’s what I think, anyway.

She directs that feminist ethic not just at the (predictably) brilliant, impoverished Lydia (Charlie Clark, above), whose family lives in The Shacks in squalor, but also at Morrissey’s neurotic daughter Midge (Katherine McGolpin) who may or may not have inherited some of her mother’s tendency to madness. The girls’ lives are given only a truncated treatment in the series — the show seems eager to hustle along a romance between Maxwell Martin and Morrissey, and who’s complaining? — and are the most regrettably clichéd of all.

Look, it’s winter break time — we’re all slowing down during these darkest days of the year, when some of us (hem hem) find ourselves spluttering about workplace injustices and brewing enduring resentments. What we all need is a femi-tastic, fem-alicious period drama in which whatever strident feminism and socialism may have appeared in the original novel have been coated in a lovely cotton-candy costume miniseries. This is the medicine we need now, and by we I mean me.

But let’s also note that next on my list are the resolutely anti-heroic Charlize Theron in Young Adult and Rooney Mara kicking men from here to kingdom come in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The feminism might go down easy here, but just wait.