First of all, sorry to have been silent – I’ve been busy again, but have been watching costume dramas even though I haven’t been writing about them! Elizabeth Gaskell is one of my favourite 19th-century authors and I’m now planning to have a season on my blog about adaptations of her work, starting with Cranford and its sequel and then going on to North and South and Wives and Daughters.
There were also 1970s adaptations of all these books, which I would love to compare with the more recent versions, as well as a 1964 Mary Barton and a 1982 version of her novella Cousin Phillis – but sadly none of these are ever repeated or available on video/DVD, so it seems unlikely I’ll get the chance to see them unless the BBC starts delving into its archives.
In any case, I do love the recent version of Cranford – which is actually made up of characters and incidents from the Cranford stories woven together with those from two other novellas by Gaskell, My Lady Ludlow and Mr Harrison’s Confessions. In the behind-the-scenes featurette The Making of Cranford, producers Sue Birtwhistle and Susie Conklin tell how they put the three works together, getting piles of index cards for all the characters and moving them around, so that the plot was at least roughly worked out before screenwriter Heidi Thomas took over and made further changes. Between all of them and directors Simon Curtis and Steve Hodson, I think they came up with a weaving together which works very well. The costumes, sets and landscapes are all so detailed and to me seem perfectly chosen – with Lacock in Wiltshire used for most of the town scenes and the National Trust’s West Wycombe Park for the main exteriors of Lady Ludlow’s house, Hanbury Court.
It is a delight to see so many good parts for older actresses, from Dame Judi Dench and Dame Eileen Atkins as Miss Matty Jenkyns and her older sister Deborah to Imelda Staunton as Miss Pole, Julia McKenzie as Mrs Forrester, Barbara Flynn as the snobbish Mrs Jameson, and Francesca Annis as the white-faced, softly-spoken but fiercely feudal Lady Ludlow, who rarely shares a scene with any of the others. (Annis is one of my favourite costume drama actresses and is also wonderful in the BBC Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, and as Blanche’s insufferable mother in the most recent Jane Eyre). All the rest of the large cast are great too, though, including Jim Carter as Captain Brown, Michael Gambon as Miss Matty’s lost love Mr Holbrook, Philip Glenister as Lady Ludlow’s steward Mr Carter, Lisa Dillon as the book’s narrator, Mary Smith, who is unhappy at home and so spends much of her time on extended visits to Cranford, Claudie Blakley as Martha, Andrew Buchan as her sweetheart Jem Hearne… and the list goes on and on.
From watching Cranford three years ago, I’d mainly remembered the peaceful, sunlit atmosphere and the sense of life going on in a sleepy, unchanged way. Watching it again, I was surprised to realise that in fact every episode sees some sort of upheaval and change to the community. On the one hand there is a nostalgic yearning backwards to the way in which things have happened since time immemorial – the sedan chair still in use and the clinging to 18th-century fashions such as the older doctor’s wig – and on the other, the modern world is encroaching with the nearing of the railway and the changes to all sorts of little social rules and certainties.
There are many poignant incidents where different members of the small community step beyond the normal social framework and rules to help others – from the incident in the opening episode where all the ladies of Cranford provide precious candles to allow Dr Harrison (Simon Woods) to carry out an operation to the decision by Miss Jenkyns to walk with Jessie Brown (Julia Sawalha) behind her sister’s coffin, even though it has never been the done thing for women to attend funerals. I was surprised to realise that neither of these incidents actually happens in Gaskell – and many of the other scenes which work best in the drama also seem to be original to this drama. I do feel it is true to the spirit of Gaskell’s book, though - bringing a lovingly detailed depiction of small-town life which shows how attractive and warm it can be, and yet how it can also sometimes be suffocating and make it very difficult for any individual to step out and do something even a little bit outside the norm.
I was also surprised to realise just how many disasters and tragedies happen, often with startling speed, in between the humorous little incidents like Miss Pole’s cat swallowing the muslin and the pet cow having to wear flannel after its mishap in the water. There are deaths, diseases and accidents in every episode - I think there are rather more of these in the mini-series than in the text of Cranford itself, partly because of the inclusion of the doctor as a major character. This all gives a feeling of just how fragile this little society really is.
Watching it again, I realised it is noticeable that the plot involving Lady Ludlow – who really belongs to a slightly earlier period than the ladies of Cranford – is largely separate from the other two sets of characters. However, although the story is distinct, I think it’s important that it has been included, because Lady Ludlow’s insistence on clinging to the past and not allowing the working classes to get above their station by getting education shows the damaging effects of the feudal system. Her story avoids any danger of the picture of rural life painted becoming too idyllic. Having said that, though, Lady Ludlow is quite a sympathetic character despite her views doing damage to others – and, like the other residents of Cranford, she is often forced to modify her opinions.
I did watch the Cranford sequel at Christmas, but, although I liked it and was moved and amused by many of the scenes, I found it quite hard to follow as I hadn’t remembered all the characters and their relationships in detail, so am now hoping I will get more out of it by watching it again with the original series fresh in my mind. I also just want to add a link to the Cranford Chronicles fansite, which has loads of thoughts and information about the series.