The Armitage Authors Network continues our celebration of the 1oth Anniversary of North & South this week with a special post from three of the authors we’ve archived: Elizabeth Hanbury, Phillipa Ashley, and Georgia Hill. They recently spent some time exploring Quarry Bank Mill, a site that Elizabeth Gaskell may have used as inspiration for Thonton’s Mill and the Master’s house, and they shared their photos and memories of what the early days of the fandom was like below.
This month marks the 10th anniversary of the first broadcast of the 2004 BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South.
Anyone who has only recently discovered the delights of N&S and John Thornton/Richard Armitage might not know the internet phenomenon that followed its original broadcast. The three of us (Phillipa Ashley, Liz Hanbury and Georgia Hill) were there when it happened and to celebrate this special occasion, we’re sharing our thoughts and recollections of those heady days.
So let’s begin with a bit of background…
Back in November 2004 there was very little pre-publicity about this new period drama series North & South, even from the BBC. It arrived on British TV screens on Sunday evening, 14th November, relatively unheralded and unannounced. Then (as now) the BBC has a specific area on its website – messageboards – for comments and discussion on TV and Radio programmes. A messageboard for N&S was started shortly after episode one was broadcast. At first these discussions took place on the BBC’s general drama board. The contributions were plentiful but initially fairly restrained because the board was strictly moderated – more on this later. Then, someone asked “Is it just me, or is Richard Armitage hotter than a thousand suns?” and the floodgates opened!
By the end of November, the volume of messages being posted had swamped the general board, so a new board was opened especially for N&S in mid-December which sparked another 5,000 messages. This unprecedented reaction to North and South and the outpouring of emotion caused such a stir it even got a mention in the UK national press.
I was desperate to find out more after watching North & South. I’d never had such a reaction before to a TV drama before and to this day I don’t know why this production and Richard Armitage/John Thornton got under my skin as they did. Some people have described it like falling in love and it’s a fair comparison. It was certainly a wonderfully intense response. Having searched on line, there was very little information about the adaptation and even less about Richard Armitage, unless you were looking for the former US Deputy Secretary of State! I didn’t make the connection when watching N&S but I’d actually seen Richard before briefly, on stage, when he played Angus in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Macbeth in 1999.
Eventually I found the BBC drama messageboard where a very long conversation was already going on about North & South. My first feeling was one of relief. I was just pleased to find others had been similarly affected. I thought I was the only one going crazy over it!
I joined and did at least remember to use a pseudonym although the weirdos I’d been worried about finding in an on-line chat room all seemed remarkably intelligent and erudite people, quoting Gaskell, comparing the original text with the adaptation and discussing many aspects of 19th century culture and literature. The atmosphere was heady and strangely comforting for those of us caught up in this extraordinary passion. Discussion was fast, furious and fun with dollops of desire for a certain TDHCMO (that’s short for ‘tall, dark, handsome cotton mill owner’ – we created our own acronyms and phrases for speed of posting and to get around the moderators. For example, ‘South American River’ was used when you wanted to point people towards ‘Amazon’!) alongside sensible literary discussion and analysis.
A campaign was started to get the series out on DVD as only a few lucky souls had had the foresight to record every episode.
The board was strictly moderated, and messages would be removed without warning if the moderators thought we had broken the rules. We never knew who the moderators were. We only knew the two BBC hosts, Ian and Claudia, who occasionally popped up to post in the threads. There were no pictures on the board and no smilies.
Also, the board was only open until 10pm in the evening, so there would often be a mad rush just before then to post messages. It was hard to tear yourself away, such was the intensity of the discussion. One evening I made the mistake of putting on a face pack thinking I’d spend a few minutes checking on the latest postings and news. Three hours later I was still staring at the PC screen, utterly engrossed and still wearing the face pack!
And some of the threads were side-splittingly funny and off-the-wall – there was a Milton Pantomine thread featuring Henry the Horse and a thread which discussed which washing powder Mrs Thornton used to get John’s shirts so white!
It was a magical and unforgettable time and out of it came things I’ll always I treasure: the N&S DVD which might otherwise not have seen the light of day, and which continues to gain the series new fans and incite the same passionate response we experienced back in 2004; some wonderful friendships and plenty of laughter; and indirectly the push I needed to take my scribblings out of the drawer, dust them off and start writing again.
I hope Richard and the rest of the cast and crew of N&S 2004 find it heart-warming to know how many good things N&S 2004 has been the catalyst for, and feel proud to have been involved in something that continues to delight 10 years on, as well as engender a strong sense of community and goodwill among its many fans worldwide.
I’ve never heard that face pack story, Liz! I’d love to have seen that.
Whizzing back ten years to that dark Sunday evening in November 2004…
I’d always loved period dramas and when I saw N&S trailered, I thought I’d give it a go, BUT (please hide behind the sofa at this point) I hated Thornton in the first episode. I thought he was vile when he kicked the millworker and not handsome, but scary. I told my husband and daughter that I might not bother with episode 2, however, they really enjoyed it so I decided to give the series a second a chance.
Some way into episode 2, I suddenly thought: wow, this is good and wow, this character has a magnetic charisma that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. Basically I was completely hooked on the series and on Richard’s portrayal of Thornton and I wanted more of both.
Internet forums were relatively new back then, so while I was looking for more details on the series I happened upon the BBC Drama messageboard. It was there I saw a thread that said something like: “It is just me or is John Thornton hotter than 1000 suns?”
The board is where I ‘met’ Liz and Georgia but they had screen names then. It wasn’t until many months later that we finally met in the flesh.
I have North & South to thank for that, and for introducing me to writing fiction and to my other C19 close friends.
Heady is exactly the right word. It was an extraordinary time. I’d gone through something similar with the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, back in 1995. The big difference? No internet! I had to make do with a ‘Making of’ behind the scenes book and a trip to some of the film locations. Although I still harbour a fondness for both television series and Colin Firth (who doesn’t?!) the obsession soon waned. With North & South, I had a access to a community of intelligent, educated and, let’s face it, swooning Richard Armitage fans! It revived my love of 19th century literature and history and introduced me to many books I probably would have otherwise overlooked.
I have very fond memories of the BBC site. I’d never been on an internet chat forum before and it was an absolute delight. Like having a non-stop gossip with like-minded people. We’d begin a thread discussing one thing and it would drift into something really quite different. What began as an opera topic, ended up as a discussion on whether we thought our literary hero was a virgin. There were in jokes galore too. The main snag was, at that time, I only had a dial-up internet connection. This meant not only was the phone ‘engaged’ for hours on end, I quadrupled the phone bill. That took some explaining.
Meeting up in London – for the first time – was scary. It didn’t help that a friend suggested all these women may not be all they seemed. The person who claimed to be a Jane Austen literature expert on the board may be something completely different for real! Thankfully, everyone turned out to be as lovely in real life as on the board – and as easy to talk to. We’ve gone on to have some really enjoyable weekends – to mills, Chawton and to Edinburgh where many N&S locations were filmed. I’ve made some lasting friendships which I treasure. And, of course, it sparked off my writing career.
Great fun and happy memories.
The BBC N&S board carried on until February 2005, when it was shut down in a cost-cutting exercise. Allegedly ;0) Actually I don’t think they could cope with the deluge of posts! Richard Armitage himself posted a message to us the day before it closed and the response caused the board to go into meltdown. It never quite recovered before its final closure the following evening!
One of the members had already set up another board elsewhere for discussion about 19th century literature. When the BBC board closed, she kindly set up some extra boards about N&S for us on the C19 Messageboard, and most of us moved over there.
Copies of some of the conversations we had about North & South on the BBC board in the three months after it was aired can be found in the archive board on C19. A few members had the prescience to save some of the best ones.
And that mention in the UK national press? The Times printed an article about the phenomenon that was the BBC N&S board just before Christmas 2004. You can read it here.
We hope those who were never on the BBC board enjoy reading about that heady time. We certainly will never forget it! Let us know if you have any questions about those early days and we’ll do our best to answer them.
You can find Georgia Hill in our archive here. Follow her on Twitter @georgiawrites. Phillipa Ashley is in our archive here. Follow her on Twitter @PhillipaAshley. Liz Hanbury can be found in our archive here. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Hanbury.