Posted: 04/14/2008




by Del Harvey

Airs in 3 parts on PBS –
Sunday, May 4, 2008, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET
Sunday, May 11, 2008, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET
Sunday, May 18, 2008, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET

Think “Austen Meets Dickens” in this adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Victorian-Era writings.

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Perhaps best known for her biography of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels offer a detailed portrait of the lives of many strata of society, including the very poor, and as such are often of interest to social historians as well as lovers of literature.

Cranford is a sleepy 1840s English village brought to life with gossip, parties, romance, death, bankruptcy and the drama of the inevitable modernity of the railway.

A happy confluence of literary style often compared to being somewhere between Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, Gaskell’s novels offer love stories with a social message, set amid the turmoil of England’s industrial revolution. For Gaskell, Cranford was her most popular novel, but true-blue PBS viewers may know her from the popular 2001 mini-series Wives and Daughters.

Featured prominently among the all-star cast are Judi Dench (Casino Royale) as Matty and Eileen Atkins (Cold Mountain) as Deborah. The two unmarried Jenkyns sisters live together in the small town of Cranford, which is ruled by an eccentric code of antiquated customs. Miss Deborah, the elder sister, is the stern enforcer of Cranford’s decorum, while kind-hearted Miss Matty is content to be swept along by events. “You must gird your loins,” she says. “It is all go in Cranford!”

The inspired cast also includes Michael Gambon (the Harry Potter films) as Mr. Holbrook, a melancholy country gentleman who courted Matty decades earlier. Also in the case is Francesca Annis (this season’s earlier presentation of Jane Eyre) as Lady Ludlow, the town’s reigning aristocrat who promotes medieval ideas about public education. And rounding out the impressive cast is Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake) as Miss Pole, who prides herself on being the first with any piece of gossip, accuracy be damned.

Among other major characters are Simon Woods (HBO’s Rome) as Dr. Frank Harrison, a newly arrived medical man who inadvertently becomes engaged to three ladies at once; Julia McKenzie (Bright Young Things) as Mrs. Forrester, a sprightly widow devoted to her cow; Barbara Flynn (Miss Potter) as the haughty Mrs. Jamieson; and Philip Glenister (Life on Mars) as Mr. Carter, Lady Ludlow’s progressive-minded steward. 

Cranford follows a year in the life of an early-Victorian backwater, from June 1842 to May 1843. Although the locals are only dimly aware of it at first, a new era is dawning in England, heralded by the railway that is blasting its way through hillsides in its relentless approach to Cranford. 

Meanwhile, there are important matters to attend to, such as Dr. Harrison’s London-learned technique for treating compound fractures, which means that Jem Hearne’s (Andrew Buchan, Jane Eyre) arm may not need to be amputated after all, prompting unusual dismay among the citizenry. 

Then there is the disastrous lace-ingestion incident, when Miss Pole’s trick for whitening antique lace by soaking it in buttermilk goes horribly awry due to a hungry cat. 

And, of course, there’s Lady Ludlow’s annual garden party, the high point of Cranford’s social season and the occasion for ceaseless debates about proper fashion among the ladies. During such times of stress, a bit of hubbub in the town center sets the rumor mill grinding: “What is all this agitation?” demands Mrs. Jamieson. “Are the summer gloves come in?”

Originally serialized in 1851 in a magazine edited by Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Cranford served as the nucleus for this production, which has been expanded to include characters and incidents from two of her stories, “My Lady Ludlow” and “Mr. Harrison’s Confessions.” 

The fictional Cranford is modeled on rural Knutsford, near Manchester, where Elizabeth Gaskell spent much of her childhood amid scenes very much like the ones depicted in this loving tribute to a bygone England. 

The three-part series airs on Masterpiece Classic, Sundays, May 4 and 18, 2008, 9:00-11:00 p.m. and May 11, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET on PBS.

Del Harvey is a founding member of Film Monthly. He teaches film in Chicago.

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