Did we like it?
A brilliant adaptation of the tales of Elizabeth Gaskell that, with masterly skill, weave the disparate narrative threads into a beguiling story about change and its impact on a stubborn little north England town.
What was good about it?
• Eileen Atkins as Deborah the stern, stoical embodiment of Cranford’s tenets of conservatism and spinsterhood. She can be terribly harsh, at one moment scolding the well meaning Captain Brown merely for offering his arm to an ailing pregnant lady, and in doing so exhibit that side of her character that helps ensure that Cranford remains morally, socially and technologically inert.
• The acting is uniformly excellent, we won’t labour listing each and every one of them – just look at the names, imagine them acting – wonderful aren’t they?
• Yet at the end of episode one, her selfless compassion in accompanying the distressed Jessie (Julia Sawalha) as the only mourners at the funeral of Jessie’s sister (women aren’t allowed to attend funerals), which perfectly showed that while she is a slave to tradition she also has a heart – and it’s this wrenching conflict that makes her such a hypnotic presence.
• Dr Frank Harrison (Simon Woods), as while Deborah exemplifies stability and inaction, he represents change and the future. Not only does he bring with him new fangled medical practices that help save the arm (and livelihood) of carpenter Jem Hearne (Andrew Buchan), he is also a dashing young man newly arrived in a town of groaning single young women. At the moment the silly romantic music is played when he is in the presence of Sophy, but that could change as Mary has her eye on him.
• The comic vignettes that speckle the story, being made far more amusing through the superb actresses (Judi Dench, Julia McKenzie, Imelda Staunton), such as feeding a cat laxatives to retrieve a precious ribbon, which sounded as if it belonged in a Reeves & Mortimer sketch. Naïve Mary’s willingness to “make little holes in oranges and suck them”, which caused Deborah to break out in an attack of moral indignation, “My sister,” confided Matty (Dench), “does not care for the expression ‘suck’.” Still seething, Deborah decreed: “We shall repair to our rooms and consume our fruit in solitude!”
• And when Frank is grateful for the maid’s kindness towards him, and he warmly thanks her. She brusquely replies: “Oh they do it for everyone, Dr Harrison. It’s not particular to you!” Little sparky surprises in the dialogue such as this really help keep you engaged as you’re never quite sure what’s going to be said next.
• Or when Matty and Deborah are disturbed by “a visitor! At this time of night”, they light an extra candle as a way of maintaining their social dignity.
• And all this witty erudition in the script made the potentially risible moment when Frank is in gratitude for the women clubbing together to gather candles so her can perform surgery on Jem – “Nothing like this has ever happened in London”, “You’re not in London, Dr Harrison, you’re in Cranford” – a mordant spoof on modern TV and film dramas clumsily who use such crass statements to roughly give the viewer a crude perspective on the philosophy of the town rather than, as Cranford does, using character and dialogue.
• When Frank reset Jem’s broken arm it was the most bloodcurdling DIY medical moment since Kathy Bates took a sledgehammer to James Caan’s ankles in Misery.
• The as yet largely unexplored storyline about Mr Carter (Philip Glenister) and the icy, tyrannical Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis). As the conservatism of Deborah begins to thaw, she perhaps even more so, is the impervious barrier to change, but with her raising the taxes to fund her last surviving child’s convalescence in Italy, Mr Carter is faced with the dilemma of his faith in helping the working classes and his loyalty to his employer.
• Nobody in Cranford seems to be married, giving it an otherworldly and unique identity.
What was bad about it?
• The way in which the women of the town flock together to exchange gossip was amusing at first, but after about the fifth congregation it became a little boring.