Costume Drama Thursday: North & South (Jakes)
In 1985, ABC premiered a “novel for television” based on North and South, John Jakes’s novel about the rising tensions between the Northern and Southern American states and bought us, in full costumed and accented splendor, Patrick Swayze. This was a year after his breaking role in Red Dawn and two years before what is arguably his most famous role of Johnny Castle in Dirty Dancing.
What will surprise people unfamiliar with the miniseries or the books is that North and South actually covers a span of about twenty years . . . from 1842 when Orry Main (Patrick Swayze) and George Hazard (James Read—oh, man, was I in love with him back then!) are on their way to matriculate at West Point as cadets at about seventeen or eighteen years old, to the beginning of the Civil War in 1861.
In the decade of Dynasty, Falcon Crest, Knots Landing, and Dallas, of course the miniseries had to be very soapy—and North and South delivered in spades, with sexy leading men and tons of daytime and evening soap opera regulars to appeal to female viewers, and gorgeous women in cleavage-creating corsets and battle scenes to appeal to men (though I doubt many men actually watched willingly—and the battle scenes in this series were from the Mexican-American war of 1845).
Because a saga like this must include at least one epic love story, in the first episode, we get the introduction of one of the relationships that would drive much of the emotional drama of the series—the meeting of Orry Main and Madeline Fabray (Lesley-Anne Down, using her best Scarlett O’Hara imitation to cover her British accent). But Madeline is on her way to marry Orry’s much older, dastardly neighbor, Justin LaMotte (David Carradine), leading to Orry’s pining for her and trying to figure out how they can be together throughout the entire first miniseries, which does get annoying after awhile—especially in one of the areas in which the miniseries diverges from the book, when they start an illicit affair.
Better than the Orry/Madeline/Justin story, though is when, in the second episode, George meets and instantly falls in love with the lovely Irish lass, Constance Flynn (Wendy Kilbourne), at a dance after the end of the fighting in Mexico. Oh, how I wanted to be her! (And her father was played by Robert Mitchum—back in the early to mid-1980s, it was amazing the caliber of guest stars they were able to get for these miniseries!)
But beyond even these two epic romances—one unconsummated for more than twenty years, the other deliriously happy—was the “bromance” between Orry and George, which is truly the epic relationship that these novels/the miniseries were based on. (How many times, especially in the second series, does Constance say to George, “Ya’re thinkin’ ’bout Orry, aren’t ya?”)
Running a very close second to George and Constance, my other favorite couple in the series is Brett and Billy—whose relationship follows the typical Civil War–era romance novel scenario: she’s from the South, he’s from the North, and the tensions brought on by the divisions in the country threaten their happiness. But even with as much as I loved them in the first series, I was never overly thrilled with the actor who played Billy, George Hazard’s younger brother—he seemed oddly miscast with his straight, sandy hair, compared to James Read, Jonathan Frakes, and Kirstie Alley as his siblings.
A little trivia from this series: Several real-life romances came out of North & South—most notably, James Read and Wendy Kilbourne, though they did not actually marry until 1988. Also meeting on these sets (and still married) were Jonathan Frakes and Genie Francis, who also married in 1988. Lesley-Anne Down fell in love with a lighting technician, Don FauntLeRoy, whom she married in 1985—and, according to IMDb, they’re still married, too! (Unfortunately, the series wasn’t golden for everyone’s relationships—Kirstie Alley and Parker Stevenson, who had been married a couple of years by the time Stevenson joined the cast for the second series in 1986, divorced in 1987.)
Now, speaking of the second series . . .
ABC managed to turn out even more stellar guest stars for North and South: Book 2, based on the second book in Jakes’s trilogy, Love and War—LLoyd Bridges (CSA President Jefferson Davis), Linda Evans, Morgan Fairchild, Hal Holbrook (US President Abraham Lincoln), Lee Horsley, Wayne Newton, David Ogden Stiers, Olivia de Havilland, and Jimmy Stewart. This series opens up with Orry, George, Billy, Charles (Orry’s cousin), and everyone else riding off to war—a war that no one expected to last longer than ninety days. And, as we all know, that estimate was a little bit off. Though the filmmakers took some pretty big liberties with history here, I have to say that this, more than anything else, is what made me fall in love with Civil War history and led to my minoring in it in college.
With the re-casting of Billy Hazard—with former Hardy Boy Parker Stevenson—I fell even more in love with the characters of Brett and Billy, and the second series, focusing on the four years of the Civil War, for me is all about their relationship.
Now, I can’t talk about a costume drama without mentioning the costumes. In both Book 1 and Book 2, costumes were used not only to contrast the different levels of society (the wealthy Northern industrialists vs. the working class abolitionists; the plantation owners vs. the slaves), but also the effect of the war, especially on those in the South. Of course, I believe everyone’s favorite costume from the series was Constance’s “Charles Worth original” (the green and gold gown). And, whether blue or gray, there’s just something about a man in uniform . . .
There was a third miniseries made in 1994, based on the third novel in the series, Heaven and Hell, but my advice is to skip it. They recast many of the main roles, and took characters into places/relationships they never should have been in.
About five years after the first series aired, my sister and I had the opportunity to visit Greenwood Plantation in Louisiana, the antebellum home they used for Resolute, Justin LaMotte’s home. This past summer, I had the opportunity to bring my North & South experience full circle, when I got to visit Boone Hall Plantation just outside of Charleston, South Carolina, which they used for the exterior shots of Mount Royal (discovered when we got there that they hadn’t actually shot inside the house, as they had at Greenwood). My pictures of Boone Hall are here.
And, in closing, my absolute favorite scene out of the entire two miniseries: