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Fun Friday—Cranford on Masterpiece Classics

Friday, May 2, 2008


Welcome to Cranford, circa 1840…a rural English town where etiquette rules, undergirded by a healthy amount of gossip. Modernity is making a move in town as construction of a railway comes harrowingly close. Cranford’s eclectic residents, among them Matty Jenkyns (Dame Judi Dench) her sister Deborah (Dame Eileen Atkins), and Miss Pole (Imelda Staunton), stay immersed in the sweet pleasures and sometimes heartbreaking realities of simple village life. But when a handsome, young doctor arrives with cutting-edge new techniques, it rapidly becomes clear that as the world changes, so Cranford will change with it. Boasting an all-star cast, and based on the works of Elizabeth Gaskell,
Cranford breathes life into one town during one extraordinary year.
(Courtesy of the PBS/Masterpiece website)

I’m sure all of my wonderful readers have heard of Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens. But most of you have probably not heard of another wonderful author who was a contemporary of Charles and Charlotte: Elizabeth Gaskell. For some reason, she never gained the popularity outside of England as authors such as Dickens, the Brontes, and Jane Austen. However, her works remained popular in Britain . . . so much so that adaptations were made of two of her novels, the unfinished Wives and Daughters and, perhaps the most popular, North and South (not about the American War Between the States, but about the differences between the “industrial” northern part and “genteel” southern part of England during the industrial revolution of the 1840s), bringing her to the notice of lovers of BBC costume dramas and making Richard Armitage a very popular piece of British eyecandy.

Judi Dench as Miss Mattie Jenkyns

This Masterpiece/BBC version of Cranford is actually based on three of Mrs. Gaskell’s novels: Cranford, My Lady Ludlow, and Mr. Harrison’s Confessions. Here’s the back cover blurb on the copy of Cranford I have at home:

    Cranford is a humorous account of a nineteenth-century English village dominated by a group of genteel but modestly circumstanced women. By eschewing the conventional marriage plot with its nubile heroines and focusing instead on a group of middle-aged and elderly spinsters, Elizabeth Gaskell did something highly unusual within the novel genre. Through her masterful management of the novel’s tone, she underscores the value and dignity of single women’s lives, even as she causes us to laugh at her characters’ foibles. Charles Dickens was the first of many readers to extol its wit and charm, and it has consistently been Gaskell’s most popular work.

Heidi Thomas, whose best-known work as a screenwriter is probably the indie film I Capture the Castle says of the Cranford adaptation, “There is no sex. You are dealing with a lot of very excitable virgins, and that to me is so much more delicious than sexing it up.” ( And that is probably one of the things I liked best about this film. It’s funny, poignant, and romantic without having to “go there,” as even the venerated Andrew Davies did in the latest adaptation of Sense & Sensibility.

The casting in Cranford is absolutely superb. I actually had to stop the DVD in the first episode and look it up on IMDb, because I kept recognizing faces but couldn’t quite place them, then had “Oh, of course” [smack self on forehead] moments as soon as I saw each actor’s list of film credits. (Which we’ll get into in just a moment.)

Everything about this adaptation is of the highest quality. The costuming, the sets, the screenplay, the art direction, the acting. As I told Ruth yesterday, I feel it’s the best new film the Masterpiece Classic Series has put on this spring—yes, better than the new Jane Austen adaptations.

Watch it when it comes on (the next three Sundays), and record it or go ahead and preorder the DVD, because this is one you’re going to want to watch over and over and over and over . . .

The Austen Connection
Just in case anyone doubted my Austen obsession, we’ll now get into the Austen Connections . . . or how the actors in this film are connected with film adaptations of Austen’s novels:

Simon Woods (Dr. Harrison)—played Bingley in Pride & Prejudice 2005.

Judi Dench (Mattie Jenkyns)—played Lady Catherine in P&P 2005.

Lisa Dillon (Mary Smith)—was in Hawking with Peter Firth (Henry Tilney, Northanger Abbey 1986); was in Bright Young Things with James McAvoy (Becoming Jane); was in Cambridge Spies with Tom Hollander (Mr. Collins, P&P 2005), Samuel West (Mr. Elliot, Persuasion 1995), and Rupert Penrey-Jones (Frederick Wentworth, Persuasion 2008).

Imelda Staunton (Miss Pole)—played Mrs. Palmer in Sense & Sensibility 1995.

Julia McKenzie (Mrs. Forrester)—was in Bright Young Things with James McAvoy (Becoming Jane); was in Adam Bede with Susannah Harker (Jane Bennet, P&P 1995) and Jean Marsh (Mrs. Ferrars, S&S 2008).

Alex Etel (Harry Gregson)—was in The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep with David Morrissey (Col. Brandon, S&S 2008).

Kimberly Nixon (Sophy Hutton)—is in the upcoming (2009) film Easy Virtue with Colin Firth (the third best Mr. Darcy, P&P 1995).

Deborah Findlay (Miss Tomkinson)—was in Wives & Daughters with Tom Hollander (Mr. Collins, P&P 2005) and Rosamund Pike (Jane Bennet, P&P 2005).

Barbara Flynn (Mrs. Jamieson)—was in Miss Potter with Ewan McGregor (Frank Churchill, Emma [GP version] 1996) and Phyllida Law (Mrs. Austen, Miss Austen Regrets, and Mrs. Bates, Emma [GP version] 1996); was in Hornblower: Duty with Greg Wise (Willoughby, S&S 1995) and Julia Sawalha (Lydia, P&P 1995) in which she played Julia’s mother.

Philip Glenister (Mr. Carter)—was in Hornblower: Mutiny and Hornblower: Retribution with David Rintoul (the best Mr. Darcy, P&P 1981).

Julia Sawalha (Jessie Brown)—played Lydia Bennet in P&P 1995. (Was also in a couple of Hornblower movies along with Barbara Flynn, who played her mother, and Greg Wise—S&S 1995—though not the same episodes as Philip Glenister/David Rintoul—hmmm . . . maybe I should do all of these with connections to Hornblower one of these days . . .)

Jim Carter (Captain Brown)—was in Bright Young Things with James McAvoy (Becoming Jane); was in Hornblower: Duty with Greg Wise (Willoughby, S&S 1995) and Julia Sawalha (Lydia, P&P 1995—see, I told you I could do this with the Hornblower films too). He’s also married to Imelda Staunton (yes, who’s in this film and who was also in S&S 1995).

Claudie Blakley (Martha)—played Charlotte Lucas in P&P 2005.

Francesca Annis (Lady Ludlow)—was in Wives & Daughters with Tom Hollander (Mr. Collins, P&P 2005) and Rosamund Pike (Jane Bennet, P&P 2005).

Greg Wise (Sir Charles)—played Willoughby in S&S 1995.

Alistair Petrie (Major Gordon)—played Robert Martin in Emma (KB version) 1996. He’s married to Lucy Scott (Charlotte Lucas, P&P 1995).

Michael Gambon (Mr. Holbrook)—aside from his connections to all of the JA-adaptation actors in the Harry Potter movies (another version of “degrees of separation,” anyone?), was in Wives & Daughters with Tom Hollander (Mr. Collins, P&P 2005) and Rosamund Pike (Jane Bennet, P&P 2005).

Whew! And those were just the ones I could come up with that were one or two degrees of separation!

Links of Interest
The Writings of Elizabeth Gaskell on Google Books
Wikipedia Article on Elizabeth Gaskell
The Gaskell Web
Elizabeth Gaskell Page on VictorianWeb
The Gaskell Society
Cranford Chronicles (a blog dedicated to the film)

Reviews of the Film:
Why We All Want to LIve in Cranford (Daily Mail)
Where Gossip Is a National Treasure (Times Online)
Splendid but Sudsy (The Guardian)
“Very Excitable Virgins” Dominate Town (
Jane Austen Today’s Review
Cranford Brings Memories for Judi Dench (Los Angeles Times)

Be sure to come back and leave your thoughts about the first section of Cranford that airs this Sunday evening!

  1. Leslie S permalink
    Friday, May 2, 2008 7:45 am

    Wow – what a comprehensive list… lol

    Sounds like a fun movie. I will I will have to check it out 🙂


  2. Friday, May 2, 2008 10:30 am

    I’ve been looking forward to this for…. gosh, a year now? How long is it since it was in the filming stage?

    I love Mrs. Gaskell’s North & South, and Wives & Daughters, and I agree, the casting for Cranford looks to be of the highest quality.

    More Sunday evening fun!


  3. Friday, May 2, 2008 10:42 am

    Can. Not. WAIT. I read that the Beeb has commissioned a two part Christmas “Cranford” to air next year (I think…). So it’ll be what, another 2 years before that comes over here? *sigh* I wish they could air these things simultaneously worldwide! LOL!


  4. Friday, May 2, 2008 10:48 am

    As I was watching it, all I could think of was that it would be a wonderful ongoing series.


  5. Friday, May 2, 2008 2:31 pm

    Oh man! I totally need a VCR or TiVO, or whatever can record. You’ve got me all excited now. If you’re saying a cast is great, I believe you.


  6. Junec permalink
    Saturday, May 3, 2008 6:53 am

    If you enjoy Elizabeth Gaskell, you might like to try another of her contemporaries – Mrs. Grace Linneus Banks. her novel The Manchester Man is set in the early 1800’s with the troops comming back from fighting Napoleon. It concerns the rise from poverty of Jabez Clegg, a foundling who becomes (a little like Thornton in N & S) a Master.


  7. Ana Beatriz permalink
    Sunday, May 24, 2009 5:08 pm

    I’m brazilian, and a big fan of Elizabeth Gaskell novels, here in my country I had a chance to watch “Wives and Daughters” from BBC, when I was studying in UK, I bought “North and South” and “Cranford”, and loved all.
    She is an amazing writer , I can say she is amazing as my other favorite Jane Austen.It’s a pit we can watch and buy this movies just in England or America, I will love to have the opportunity to purchase all BBC movies, but here in latin America, maybe some day.


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