I’ve now watched Return to Cranford (that’s the title on the DVD, though on TV it was just billed as the Cranford Christmas special) twice. When I first watched it, over the Christmas holidays, I found myself slightly bewildered, as I didn’t remember who all the characters were or how they tied in with one another. However, after re-watching the original series I did get a lot more out of this sequel, as I’d hoped. I’m going to discuss the whole plot in this review, so, if you haven’t watched it yet, you might want to come back to my review after you have!
Rereading Cranford, I was surprised to find that the major storyline about the railway arriving and causing upheaval to the old-fashioned small town, which is at the centre of this two-part drama, carrying on from the end of the first series, isn’t in the book at all. As I mentioned in my review of the first series, it contained quite a lot that isn’t in Gaskell’s text, including some of the most moving incidents – but there is even more new material in this two-part series. In fact, just about the only sections which are taken from Gaskell’s Cranford stories are the story about Mrs Jameson’s cousin, Lady Glenmire (Celia Imrie) coming to stay and dismaying her snobbish relation with her down-to-earth attitude… plus the hilarious sequence about Miss Pole (Imelda Staunton) ordering a “cage” from Paris for her pet cockatoo (this is the plot of the short story The Cage at Cranford) and another comic section, near the end, about a magician, Signor Brunoni (Tim Curry) putting on a show in the town.
Most of the rest of the material involving the Cranford characters, from Martha (Claudie Blakley) and her death in childbirth to Miss Matty (Judi Dench) determining to bring the railway to Cranford after all in order to create work for the local community, has all been added in by the creators of the series, scriptwriter Heidi Thomas and producers Sue Birtwhistle and Susie Conklin. This includes my very favourite scene, where the ladies of Cranford decide to take their first ride on a railway, terrified at the prospect but also fascinated and rather proud of themselves.
All the new material about the dying Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis), who is seen waiting for her son to arrive and grimly determined to keep standing there in state until he comes, is also not in Gaskell’s novella Lady Ludlow. Her son, Septimus (Rory Kinnear) is an entirely new character, and his attempt to cheat young Harry Gregson (Alex Etel) out of his fortune is all added to the book, as are Harry’s sufferings at the hands of snobbish school bullies. It may be that some of this is taken from other Gaskell works which I haven’t read, but I think it’s equally possible that most of the material is original to the scriptwriters. Either way, I find it moving and gripping to watch – the opening scenes of the drama do become much darker than I’d probably expected in a Christmas special, with the deaths of both Martha and Lady Ludlow (the always brilliant Francesca Annis), but the power of the acting carries it all through.
The first series focuses on how an old-fashioned community must adapt to change, both in technology and in terms of social attitudes, and this second series builds on this – and also again shows, through little incidents, how members of the small community must break through established prejudices to help and reach out to one another.
Snobbishness and its damaging effects are at the centre of another Gaskell novella which has been worked into the mini-series, The Moorland Cottage. I’ve just read this story (there is an etext online) and loved it – it is quite similar in atmosphere to her late masterpiece Wives and Daughters, and a couple of the characters in the two works are very similar too. For the adaptation worked into Return to Cranford, some of the names have been changed and the timescale has also been shortened – in the text, the heroine and her brother are shown as children at the start and their relationship is followed through to adulthood, whereas in the TV version they are adult from the start.
Jodie Whittaker gives a poignant performance as quiet, restrained Peggy Bell, who accepts a proposal from the young man she loves, William Buxton (Tom Hiddleston) – only to be bullied by his rich, socially ambitious father, Mr Buxton (Jonathan Pryce), who tries to bargain with her to get her to drop the engagement, and to force her to sacrifice herself for her dishonest brother. Mr Buxton’s attempt to bully and flatter both at once is very similar to the way Septimus tries to bully Harry in the Lady Ludlow story – showing how beautifully all the different strands have been worked together.
I was quite surprised to realise how much of this mini-series isn’t in Gaskell at all (unless it is in writings I haven’t read, which is always possible), but I’m not a purist and this isn’t a criticism, as the added material is all excellent in itself. I also loved the quality of the acting in this sequel, especially Dame Judi Dench’s wonderful performance as Miss Matty. I had meant to add a link to a blog with a good detailed summary of the first episode of the sequel and lots of screencaps – just editing now to add that in.
I’m now looking forward to re-watching North and South and writing about that next.