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TV Review: Masterpiece Classics – Cranford

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People who, like myself, had never heard of author Elizabeth Gaskell or Cranford have quite a treat waiting for them upon their first viewing of the new television mini-series based upon her work. People who were already fans of the Victorian-era writer will, I think, be immensely pleased at the cinematically “elegant economy” with which BBC has delineated the subtle strokes of Gaskell’s pen.

To the citizens of Cranford, a fictional town based upon the real village of Knutsford in Cheshire, England, “elegant economy” is as much a way of life as how and when to pay a social call, and whether or not a cow is essential but a "gig" (dandified carriage) is vulgar.

The arbitress of propriety in this bucolic town is Miss Deborah Jenkyns (Dame Eileen Atkins of Cold Comfort Farm and Gosford Park). The elder sister of Miss Matilda (Matty) Jenkyns, Miss Deborah has never forgotten the lessons she learned as the daughter of the village rector. The ladies of a certain age whose social set dominates Cranford mores and customs all look to Miss Deborah for her superior wisdom. Whether to burn one candle or two and how many days before one returns a social call are serious questions, and their apt resolution is a solemn matter in Cranford.

Matty Jenkyns (Dame Judi Dench) is all too content to defer to her sister on every matter of import. And so it went without question that she had to dissuade her sole suitor and co-exists with Miss Deborah as spinsters in their autumn years. The women of Cranford assist townsfolk and each other in any way possible, however, so no one need feel at the mercy of life. The ladies of Cranford – genteel of lineage if lacking material wealth – have mercy stockpiled. We see several times in the story that in the direst of times they have kindness to spare.

Elizabeth Gaskell wrote her novels during the Victorian age. Women in those days were often seen as inferior creatures lacking a male’s rational sensibility and also his superior physical strength. Class distinctions were severe in that time as well. One born into poverty had a very small chance of changing their fate in their lifetime. It was in this setting Gaskell, the daughter and later a wife of Unitarian ministers, set about threading her novels with the notion of social change and ‘equality for all’ the same way the ladies of Cranford might work at needlepoint quietly by candlelight. Or – perhaps – the way the silent order of nuns in France might work a piece of lace.

And so in this three-part BBC filmed series we see dollops here and there of social firebranding. It is to scriptwriter Heidi Thomas’s credit that it very rarely stands out or feels heavy-handed. Only in one instance, actually, does one wonder if something has been modernised. The female clerk ranting at her male boss that one day women will work in any profession seems a bit anachronistic. Since I haven’t read the novella (My Lady Ludlow) that subplot is taken from, I honestly can’t say whether that was a creation of the screenwriter or of Gaskell herself. It’s certainly possible it was Gaskell, who counted social reformers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Florence Nightingale among close friends. But to be frank, either way the scene feels a bit top-heavy and unrealistic in that moment.

Aside from that one tiny flaw – and a bit of a simpering romantic storyline between a young doctor and a blond, ringleted ingenue, which many viewers may find delightful and refreshing – the three parts comprising the Cranford mini-series are spectacular. In a quiet, tasteful manner, of course.

Dame Eileen Atkins is astonishing as Miss Deborah. Infinitely compassionate yet austere in her social judgments, Atkins shows us a woman who sees everything and is fooled by nothing. Dame Atkins must do most of this communicating with her eyes, and as all great actors are, she is a master of this. One sideways glance says more than a thousand-word monologue spouted by a lesser talent. Part one of this mini-series is dominated by Miss Deborah and I relished every single moment.

Dame Judi Dench (there’s nothing like a Dame!) is also stellar as Miss Matty. I had read most of the novel Cranford before viewing the screener of the filmed version, and I had imagined Miss Matty as being very delicate, breathy and nearly ghostlike in her dependence and deference. When I realised Dame Dench would portray her I wondered how the Queen of England twice over could possibly suit as the wisp of a self-effacing maiden lady Miss Matty should be. Silly me.

Dame Atkins in all her wispy physicality and Dame Dench in her stolid and solid form, somehow transform themselves into the essence of natural strength and of faintly fragile frailty as if Pygmalion had switched their souls. The program is worth watching solely for this feat, but there is so much more to its merit.

The supporting cast is also incredible. I’ve run out of Dames (for the moment – I would not be surprised if that changed by press time), but the actors are of such uniform excellence the level of quality in this film builds upon itself until I was practically ready to shout from my window: “Watch Cranford; watch Cranford!” It took two complete viewings before I realised the slightly forlorn, emphatically loyal, highly moral Mr. Carter was played by none other than crass, brash Chief Detective Gene Hunt of the police drama, Life On Mars. The articulation – especially physically – between the two portrayals is starkly different. In Mr. Carter, chief assistant to aristocracy, actor Philip Glenister creates an astounding homage to a man so conscientious he willingly risks all for others’ sakes. As with virtually all of the performances in the Cranford series, Glenister creates the supreme illusion — that his character actually lives.

Gaskell’s writing was artful as well; she not only pulled the reader deftly into the world she created within her pages, she kept them there. Her hand was so light, she could satirise with love and scold with affection and one never feels preached to. It is a sincere distinction that the script, direction, and acting which comprise the filmic version of Gaskell’s titular novel and assorted shorter works achieve the same. Simply put, one cares deeply about every citizen of Cranford-near-Manchester (that heaving metropolis), from the squatter family in the woods to the Lady of the Manor they feel forced to poach game from. And if one laughs along with any of them or even, sometimes, at them, it is with the highest simultaneous regard – as with people one actually knew and grew to cherish. So it may not be astonishing if at some point, the viewer actually finds oneself crying alongside them, as well.

The various ladies who make up the social whirl of this small town are written and acted with such subtle detail they spring to life off the screen. One feels one knows them and could write a letter to Cranford – or receive one, and read about a shocking risk of delicate lace (and its messy rescue), or perhaps be riveted by tales of the new spring muslins “direct from Paris”. Imelda Staunton (Sense and Sensibility, Peter’s Friends) is simultaneously hilarious and maddening as Miss Pole. Miss Pole’s bonnet feather dances up and down the side streets of Cranford eavesdropping or racing to share the latest overheard emergent scandal. Whether her report is accurate or not is hardly of import.

Julie Sawalha (“Saffie” from TV's comedic Absolutely Fabulous) brings sentiment but not bathos to Jessie Brown, the eternally self-sacrificing daughter whose family has seen much tragedy. We pull for her to finally get some just return, for all the love she has shown others. Deborah Findlay and Selina Griffiths are Miss Jessie’s polar opposites as the slightly self absorbed and scheming Tomkinson sisters. Lisa Dillon is sensible and steady as Mary Smith, a relative boarding with Miss Deborah and Miss Matty. Her character is a unifying thread throughout the three parts of this series and is likely based upon author Gaskell herself. Mary narrates the novel version of Cranford, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s early life played parallel to much in the novel, including being shipped off to live with relatives due to her own mother’s death.

Alex Jennings portrays the Reverend Hutton with a suitable combination of dignity and humility. It is to every actor’s great credit here that none seeks to overshadow or chew scenery but plays their part as the standing of the character actually requires. Which brings us to Her Ladyship Ludlow and the peasant boy whose social climbing – for sheer drive to learn everything he can about the world – unravels her, perhaps to her betterment. Francesca Annis’ portrayal of Lady Ludlow is such that her voice and movements seem slowed as if she cannot quite allow herself to wake. The costuming given Annis enhances the storytelling: Lady Ludlow appears caked in frost and dust, as if she sleeps in that underground ice cave she owns. Frozen in grief, Her Ladyship sends money to a profligate son for his extravagances abroad. He is her last surviving heir, who will likely never return until she is dead, and then only to collect his inheritance.

Alex Etel deserves special mention as Lady Ludlow’s innocent foil, the little peasant boy Harry Gregson. Upon first viewing Cranford, I was so caught up in the Gregson-Carter-Ludlow plot line I felt what the characters must be feeling. Then at some point watching the second time, during which I was also watching the response of the person watching alongside me and so perhaps had a more objective placement in the relationship between a work of art and the viewer, it suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks: Not only is this child acting – he’s a child. Somehow this actor in his short lifetime already knows how to breathe life into a character with subtlety, restraint and realism. Etel truly possesses an astonishing talent and is one to watch for in years to come.

The minor characters are also uniformly excellent: Hannah Stokely is stubborn, staunch, and smarter than given credit for, as the Jenkyns’ young maid Bessie. Andrew Buchan is her handsome but somewhat hapless ‘follower’, Jem Hearne. Lesley Manville does a good turn as the bewildered housekeeper Mrs. Rose. Simon Woods and Kimberley Nixon are blond.

The lives, loves, and losses of Cranford are shown us in three parts airing on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater Classics beginning Sunday May 4. Parts two and three air the consecutive Sunday evenings after that, May 11 and May 18. The creators of this mini-series (Sue Birstwistle and Susie Conklin) and all who took part in it have forged onto film a place so real and so delightful I wish I could vacation there. I wouldn’t mind Miss Pole spreading gossip about me, or town snob Mrs. Jamieson (actress Barbara Flynn) looking down her nose at me. I will ration the candles, and practise elegant economies. I don’t mind privation in place of material comforts. Just let me spend time in a place where everyone truly cares about everyone else. Let me go to a place where, when the tragic surprises in life occur, someone will happily give their best to help.

It isn’t possible to buy a ticket to Gaskell’s charming village, and anyway, the railway will be the death of its time-honored customs. So I will do the next best thing – and I urge you to join me. See Cranford, see Cranford, see Cranford.

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About Brandy

  • Reni Kistel

    Dear Brandy,

    Thank you so much for your witty, and wonderfully written review of “Cranford”. I have never read anything by Ms. Gaskell and only knew her name. I shall rectify that, inspired by your enthusiasm for her works.

    Truly enjoyed the first episode on PBS last night and looking forward to the rest, while repeating your “see Cranford, see Cranford…” cry to others!