*ooof*: Thornton, the Cover Boy

Hello everyone – have you all recovered from FanstRA 4? Or are you indeed suffering from acute withdrawal symptoms, now that we have returned to normal? I am not quite sure which applies to me. Let me preface today’s *ooof* quickly by saying that I have HUGELY enjoyed FanstRA 4. A massive thank you to Traxy at The Squeee for organising it and an equally massive thank you to all of you who engaged with me on my *spooof* series of less-than-perfect RA images. I appreciate your interest and your engagement – without you, this would be half as fun! – Today I am secretly relieved to be returning to my usual drooling analysing over perfect portraits of our man – somehow, it did not feel *quite right* to be pointing out the unattractiveness of some of his pictorial work… So here goes…

It was the role of “overbearing master” Thornton that initially brought my attention to the man who embodied mill owner John Thornton in the BBC dramatization of Elizabeth Gaskell’s classic novel North and South (2004). The expletive *ooof* was not yet part of my vocabulary, but there was already a quiet fascination with the dark haired, blue-eyed Northerner who greeted us from his high horse platform at the beginning of the series. It is only too fitting to take a closer look at an image that was not only part of the promo material for the series but has become somewhat of a placeholder for the BBC dramatization as it was used for the cover of the DVD set.

NORTH AND SOUTH

It was her brother, not the lark… or something like that.
Richard Armitage as John Thornton in episode 4 of North and South.
Image sourced via RAnet.

In order to determine whether this was a specifically taken still and not simply a frame from the film, I had to go through the film again (the hardship…) A number of small differences bring me to the conclusion that this was in fact shot by a stills photographer on set. Compare the image with the film caps: First of all we notice that the actual film frames have Higgins’ shoulder in the shot, rooting the images in the conversation between Thornton and his faithful employee. Secondly, the perspective is slightly different. The stills photographer, logically, was not standing in the same spot as the cinematographer but probably further to the right. Thus, Higgins does not appear in the still. It also gives the appearance of having been shot from further away. Thirdly, the still has been put through some colour post production, most notably the colours. The background has been lightened considerably while Mr Thornton’s skin colour has been enhanced so as to look less grey and more “natural”. On second glance you might also notice the specks of white cotton fluff that appear in the still. This is somewhat contextually wrong as the scene in the film takes place after the work in the mill has been wound down – therefore no cotton fluff graces Thornton’s features in that scene.

This is *really* the pivotal scene of the whole episode, if not the entire book: While Thornton had resigned himself to the fact that his love for Margaret Hale was unrequited, that he would never see her again, and that she had another lover, it now becomes clear to him that the man he had seen her with at the station and whom he took for her lover, is in fact her brother. This sets in motion the final dénouement of the story and is the beginning of the happy end. In that respect it is only fair that an image that represents the emotional high point of the story should be used as an illustration for the DVD cover. Moreover, it also encapsulates the backdrop of the whole novel: It places the story in an industrial setting (the machinery in the background) – or more specifically in a cotton mill (the fluff floating around indoors i.e. NOT snow flakes)– while also introducing one of the main characters to us. Never mind that the BBC also very quickly copped on to the fact that with the brooding dark looks of Mr Thornton they had a direct line to the female audience’s hearts – and wallets (as they would be unable to resist buying the DVD…)

That’s how marketing works, readers! Cover choices are not made lightly. Every trick in the book is employed to get the customer to buy a product. And when we are talking about a classic English novel, we can assume that the majority of the audience is female. Hence the graphic designer responsible for the cover, places a hunky male on it – and not the heroine. They have also chosen an image that shows the handsome features of the main male character – but one that is not too dark and brooding. No burrowed frowns here. The look on Thornton’s face is neutral enough to imagine him smiling as well as smouldering. The facial expression pictured here leaves room for the viewers’ imagination – there are hints of the “overbearing master” but also of the passionate lover and desperate suitor, as well as a thinking individual.

The photographer has shot this with a large aperture. This means that only the person in the foreground is in focus while the background has been blurred out. Our gaze does not find anything to get distracted by. As a cover shot, this image also works well in terms of its composition. The subject has been placed off-centre, leaving negative space to the right of him. This will serve well in the final design of the cover when text will be added to the image. Or other images – as a number of DVD versions feature a profile shot of Margaret Hale imposed into the image. Interestingly, those versions of the cover feature a larger image of Thornton than of Margaret – an unusual decision in light of the fact that the novel really centres on the female lead. Shouldn’t Margaret’s image have been the most prominent portrait on the cover then? Logically, yes. But for marketing reasons… see above *grins .

Not that I am blaming the BBC. There is nothing wrong with placing a handsome face promminently on a cover. I don’t mind my ovaries taking over my purse – at least with North and South one can still claim to be a literature buff when all one really wants to do is *swooooooon*…

~ by Guylty on March 19, 2013.

51 Responses to “*ooof*: Thornton, the Cover Boy”

  1. Thanks for the analysis, Guy-ity. Somehow I don’t think those buying it are focusing too much on Margaret’s image, as lovely as DDL is. 😉 The overbearing master is definitely the draw!

    Also, I have seen several different DVD covers for N&S advertised-varying from country to country, I suppose?

    I have to say some of the publicity stills for N & S are actually not very flattering (in my opinion) of RA or DDL. I guess I felt they could have done a better job, considering what they had to work with. Just my opinion! 😀

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    • Yep – Yep – there are a number of different covers. Actually, even the one that I own is different to this one. I researched it in the BBC webshop, though, and the DVD advertised there has this picture on the cover, sans Margaret!!!
      Hehe, yes, sex sells. Or maybe: overbearing masters sell. And completely in agreement with you on the less-than-flattering images for N&S promo. I suspect they were taken before the BBC copped on what a firecracker they had on their hand…

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  2. The photoshopping in a lot of them is really obvious — I think because the historical drama crwod was always fairly accustomed to sets / settings that were obviously stages. N&S was more realistic than a lot of that stuff is …

    Guylty, I will be back. I *must* get myself ready for class …

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  3. I must admit that I think this picture lacks intrigue or emotional impact. Maybe because it’s not a still from the actual performance. Richard is not engaged in being Thornton, but posing for a photographer. Whatever it is, I’ve always disliked the cover for having no ‘punch.’ I’m certain the fandom could come up with a far better DVD cover and milk the Master’s image for all it’s worth!
    I think another aspect of the shot/cover that annoys me is the white background. What other DVD covers do you know of that have cropped head images pasted onto a white background? ! Almost the entire film has a very dark, Milton tone to it. So the cover is completely out of context.
    Anyway, I can’t believe that they’re happy with this banal cover. This is what they’ve chosen to market a masterpiece? But then again, I often wonder if anyone at the BBC really understands what they’ve created.

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    • That’s a good way of putting it – no emotional impact. It really is very much a canvas, quite neutral. It doesn’t really give that much away about the story, except that there is a handsome man acting in it. And I think you have really put your finger on it with the lack of marketing theory applied to this DVD design. It is reminiscent of a cut and paste job. “Let’s just get this out there. Ah, your man is liked by the ladies, we’ll plaster him on top. Here, take that still – it’s got him looking grand. And there’s space for some writing.”

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      • If you take a look at most DVD covers, they are saturated in color, usually with one or more images from the film to give you a feel for the setting or drama.
        We get …nothing. No clue whatsoever what this film is about. It’s a miracle people keep finding it on Netflix and try it despite the cover.

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        • Maybe they are in league with him – trying to keep him a secret so he can keep his head down… Just kidding. No, I wonder whether DVD sales are just a by-line for them, hence they don’t invest resources in it.

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          • That’s a good point–about it possibly being more of a sideline for the Beeb. I’d think if they were making much money from the sales they’d want to promote the heck out of it. Aren’t they always financially strapped and in need of more revenue?

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            • That’s what I thought. But actually it is a profitable business for the Beeb: “BBC Worldwide’s DVD business performed extremely well in the UK, despite a challenging market, finishing 2010 as the UK’s fifth-largest distributor and outperforming the market in the US, where overall DVD sales declined;” Mind you, that is a quote from a 2011 BBC press release on their annual financial review for 2010. And N&S was six years earlier…

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          • Well, it’s true that they weren’t even going to make a DVD of the series. The new-born fandom had to beg for a DVD to be made. So I guess the slap-a-photo-on-it-let’s-get-it-out-the-door mode is what indeed produced our current cover. Still no idea at headquarters that this mini-series is one that could become the granddaddy of the half-century?

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            • You would think it would have sunk in by now, wouldn’t you? What about this–a new edition with commentary added and new interviews with Richard, Daniela, Brendan Coyle, an additional documentary of some sort–new packaging with a sharp new cover. You tell me that wouldn’t sell like hotcakes??

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              • If they did that, they would soooo cash in!!! Ok, my vision is clouded, but Armitage’s profile has been raised through the roof – that is bound to be reflected in renewed interest in N&S. It would definitely sell, on Richard’s commentary alone…

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                • Exactly! Richard’s commentary–a new interview–people would eat it up. And my vision may also be a tad filmy (actually it literally is lately, allergies driving me nuts!), But as you say, with Richard’s elevated profile and more and more interest in his earlier stuff, NTM all the older fans who would find this a must-have for their collections, well–seems like a no-brainer.

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      • I suppose it would have been giving the plot away, but I always thought something that was a variation on the train station scene might have worked . . . Chatty’s suggestions are good, too. Really a lot of missed opportunity to promote this when they had to know they had a hit on their hands after the first night . . . ah well.

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        • I don’t really mind when they use specifically made stills for a cover. It doesn’t *have* to be a cap from a scene, but in this case it should definitely feature both main characters equally big on the cover, symbolizing some of the North/South opposites and the potential for romantic drama. Possibly against a backdrop of the industrial setting of the novel.

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          • I just think of those heartfelt, longing looks RA as Thornton gave Margaret in those scenes–basically made love to her with his eyes, wouldn’t you say?– and wish somehow that could be at least hinted at on the cover.

            I’ve had discussions with some of my blog regulars wondering about the dismal lack of marketing re N&S. It seems to be more word of mouth that promotes it than the BBC. I’ve had new RA fans come on board through Thorin and of course, they want to know what to watch. Naturally, N&S is on the list . . . as his first iconic role.

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            • It’s a blooming shame, it is! I really have no idea why N&S has been kept so low-key, considering that they knew the impact these serialised period dramas have had ever since Colin Firth emerged dripping wet from the lake at Pemberley…
              I am off on a tangent here, researching the DVD turnover and profits of BBC. 2005 they had a turnover of 101 m GBP for DVD sales alone. That gave them a profit of 13m GBP for DVD sales. N&S is not quoted as one of the sales highlights – which that year included Little Britain – series one, Michael Palin series Himalaya, That Peter Kay Thing and Shameless.

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  4. Yes, I am going to have to agree with Trudy on this one. While the picture is lovely and Richard, of course, looks very handsome, there is no passion there. Maybe it’s the Latin blood coursing through my veins, but I would have chosen the ‘look back at me’ shot or one of him with the top hat, looking at Margaret like he a lion about to devour a lamb…something like that. Surely you guys remember Fabio and his infamous romance novel covers? Obviously this is not the same, but that’s the type of lustful reaction the cover of a North and South DVD should elicit. This is an angry man whose life is full of constant tension, of the burden of being responsible for the livelihood of hundreds of families, a man who is sexually repressed, whose childhood was cut short in one of the most cruel and frustratingly humiliating ways possible. He has had to live with the shame of his father’s cowardice, with the pity of those who know what happened, with the longing for freedom. He is full of passion!!! OOOF!
    Thank you, S, for giving me an excuse to watch the mini-series again. 😉

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    • Great character description there, B! What a missed opportunity to get this appealing character to speak for himself and for the whole dramatisation of the story. The more I think about it, the more I wonder how they made any sales at all…

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      • They made sales because the country’s ovaries exploded and that DVD was going to be the only cure. The men of Britain needed their women back, and so they made sure their wives could watch North and South as many times as possible. Believe you me, they must have reaped the benefits! ;p

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    • I agree wholeheartedly that the mini-series should be marketed to show something of the passion of the story. I guess that’s why the cover seems almost ridiculous to me. There’s nothing there.
      On a side note, I’ll have to politely disagree with some of your character analysis of Thornton. I don’t believe he was driven by anger or shame. You can differ with me at my latest blog post: http://www.westofmilton.com/the-thornton-myth/
      😉

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      • Trudy, remember that I am analyzing Thornton’s character as per the movie, not the novel. When I read the novel I’m sure my perspective will shift somewhat. Even so, the suicide of a father – especially at a historical time where true ladies did not work to support their families – must have been a devastating blow to the boy. From listening to people who had a parent kill themselves, I believe it’s a perfectly logical and normal reaction for John to be angry and ashamed that his father did not face the consequences of his money speculation like a responsible “real” man would have.

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        • Sorry, I didn’t want to discuss here. And I didn’t mean to jump on you as an individual (and newbie!). My interest in Thornton’s charcter is a personal passion. If some of you have RA obsessions, I understand. Mine is with Thornton. And I need to learn to chill sometimes! 😉
          Glad to see you’re reading the book! some love it, others find it a bit dry or overwrought.

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          • Oh, believe me when I say that I love Thornton! He is just about everything I want in a man, and I have a feeling I will love him even more in the novel! 😉

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            • Not sure how anyone can not be affected by some of the passages Gaskell writes of Thornton’s anguish. RA was just putting all those words into silent acting. Brilliantly done. Staggering performance. How many people see N&S only once? Hmm…

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  5. You’ve hit a major artery with me on the topic of marketing this film. I’m serious about trying to get N&S aired on Masterpiece Theater (PBS) in the US, but have to idea where to start or who to contact.
    Can you imagine the DVD sales that would result if the program aired nationally like the much ballyhooed Downton Abbey? I’d estimate that most viewers who see the show would want to see it again and buy the DVD. Who doesn’t want to watch the train scene over and over again?!
    The BBC really doesn’t know what they’re sitting on. It’s the highest rated period drama at Amazon. 91% of people viewing it give it 5 stars. Higher rated than P&P 1995.

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    • That’s just what I was thinking, Trudy, re its ratings. Very, very few period dramas, or any sort of drama, including many classic films, get that many 5-star ratings at Amazon. So you have quality and popularity.

      I understand that it was aired at some point on BBCA but I swear I don’t remember it. Apparently it was edited down considerably to allow for commercials. :-/ And they didn’t hype it much whenever they did air it or I am sure I would have watched anyway. My opportunities to see Richard on American TV have been quite limited thus far and I try not to miss any.

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      • What??? Do I hear right? N&S was never properly shown on US TV???? I am flabberghasted. I mean, now is the perfect time. The series is not too old, RA hasn’t aged, but he is widely known to a large audience as Thorin. What must we do to get them to show it?

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  6. I don’t think that it was to scene with Higgins as there are pieces of wool floating about and when that conversation took place the mill was not working.

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  7. Masterpiece Theatre aired a version of BBC N&S in 2005. Apparently, it was not the full original version. About a year ago, there was postcard campaign to contact the PBS programme person recommending a proper re-run.

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    • Doesn’t seem to have elicited much response, does it? :-/ So it would seem N&S has never been aired in its entirety here in the U.S.

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      • I’m not sure if it was aired nationally. And the postcard campaign was at least two years ago. N&S is nearing its ten year anniversary. I’m interested in rustling up a serious effort to get this wonderful piece of art aired nationally on Masterpiece, where it deserved to be heralded. Anyone interested in helping can contact me at Twitter (@TrudyBrasure), FB, C19, Wattpad. Thanks, Guylty for sparking this discussion:)

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        • All to happy to spread the word, Trudy 😉 I think it is great to see people so interested in sharing, rather than keeping these gems of British television to ourselves. (Have replied, btw.)

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          • I have just finished a long phone conversation with the Director of Programming at our local PBS station. He and I clicked and he promised to get the wheels moving to see how he can make it happen. He emailed me and promised to keep me posted. I will let you all know as soon as he contacts me again. Yee-haw!!! 😀

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          • It’s a great work of art that shouldn’t be hidden.

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        • Well, I wondered, because I watch a lot of MT and just don’t remember it being on the APT. Maybe it never did air here in the first place. And the 10-year anniversary is just a year away, isn’t it? Time for an airing here and for that new DVD I mentioned.

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  8. Cheers, mujertropical! Good going!

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    • Thanks, everyone. It turns out that the man is an RA fan because Spooks is his favorite British show ever and he thinks Richard was brilliant as Lucas! I am going to be positive and have hope it will work out for us. Yes!

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  9. Also, could you guys go visit my blog today? I left a surprise for you all and would like to know if you like it. Thank you.

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  10. Thank you Guylty 🙂
    Strangely, I would rather incude this photo into *spooof* 😉

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  11. I am late again but I have enjoyed the comments. If N&S aired on my two PBS stations that I got in 2005 (now I get 3) I was dead. No kidding, I never miss MT and if I do there is a repeat on Monday’s at 10:00 p.m. In the BBCA cataloge they put that it was on MT, I had seen that for years and said to self no I have never seen N&S. After having seen Richard in Robin Hood did I finally buy the DVD. To think I could have got N&S sooner and fell for Richard sooner (because I know I would have) I just don’t want to think about it. That also goes for if my PBS station would have aired it in 2005. When I finally got the DVD in 2011 and watched it with my husband I asked him if he remembered it from MT (yes he watched N&S the first time and watch’s MT with me too) he said no.

    Maybe we should all get in touch with our PBS stations and that will also give this a great push to get it on there.

    Guylty I like this picture, but yet I don’t. It is the picture on my DVD cover and before we watch it I would just stare at the picture. There is still something about the picture that does want one to know more about John Thornton. This was the first DVD that I bought with Richard in it. I have never looked back since then.

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    • Better late than never, Katie ;-).
      So you are sentimentally attached to that photo? 😉 I don’t blame you, Mr Thornton looks still quite handsome in it, even if the image doesn’t really give much away about N&S as such.

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