With all the attention that Downton Abbey is getting, other BBC period dramas may get a boost – a highlight from the bunch is Cranford, a lovely 5-part miniseries based on the novels of Victorian author Elizabeth Gaskell. Crammed full of famous British thespians, this is a fantastic show, combining elements of social critique, comedy, tragedy, soap opera and history. Adapted from a trio of books by Mrs. Gaskell by Heidi Thomas, Cranford‘s one of the best dramas produced by the BBC.
Set in the 1840s in the fictional Cheshire village of Cranford, the story revolves around certain members of the community. The most prominent are the Jenkyns sisters – Deborah (Eileen Atkins) and Matilda, or Matty (Judi Dench), spinsters who live together – Deborah is the kind, but severe and practical sister, while Matty is more emotional and deferential. The two sisters open their home to Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon), the daughter of an old family friend. The village has just gotten a new doctor – the dashing Frank Harrison (Simon Woods), who is working with the venerable Dr Morgan (John Bowe). Dr Harrison’s arrival has many of the women of the village excited, including the beautiful Sophy Hutton (Kimberley Nixon), a rector’s daughter. While Dr Harrison’s new practice is getting on its feet, he meets the other residents including the gossipy Miss Poole (Imelda Staunton) and the gentle Mrs Forrester (Julia McKenzie), and catches the attention of some of the single women of the village. Along with Harrison’s arrival, the Jenkyns sisters welcome more new arrivals: Captain Brown (Jim Carter) and his spinster daughter, Jessie (Julia Sawalha). As if this list of characters isn’t exhausting enough, there’s an Upstairs-Downstairs element with the wealthy Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis), who lives in splendor in a large estate. Her land agent Mr Carter (Philip Glenister) is continually watching over the steadily dwindling finances of the estate. Lady Ludlow also is assisted by the very capable Laurentia Galindo (Emma Fielding).
It’s absurd to think about how much Thomas crammed into 5 one-hour episodes. She’s managed to stay faithful to the spirit of Gaskell’s novels, yet she expertly weaves the three stories. The dialogue is often crisp and crackling; Gaskell was known to be a wit and there are some comedic moments. At other times, the show deals with tragedy with a steady hand – just be forewarned there’s a lot of death on this show, and unlike many serials, where peripheral characters are killed off, some of the principal players die throughout the season. While strict historical accuracy isn’t tantamount, it’s nice to see some details, such as costumes, settings and social mores being displayed. The encroaching change which is a backdrop on much Victorian fiction proves to be ominous due to its unfamiliarity.
With a top-shelf cast like this one, Cranford is also rendered completely believable. Dench and Atkins are predictably the standouts, though their costars all have moments to shine – Sawalha, no stranger to period dramas, is also particularly good. Cranford has all the elements of a first-rate production and is yet another jewel in the BBC’s crown of television.