Somehow this time of year always feels right for a good dramatic adaptation of a Victorian novel, just as it always feels right that the adaptation should be on a Sunday evening. Last year the BBC gave us a gripping adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House; last Sunday they gave us the first instalment of Cranford, the drama serial that was very nearly cancelled two years ago. The adaptation takes in not only Elizabeth Gaskell’s mid-nineteenth century novel Cranford, but also the closely-knit communities taken from the writer’s novella My Lady Ludlow, the short story Mr Harrison’s Confessions, and one of her articles entitled ‘The Last Generation’.
Gaskell’s novels Mary Barton and North and South etched themselves upon my consciousness almost mythically: all those hard talking and hard living resilient characters of the great industrial North and the towns where the struggle for life and love is played out against a backdrop of unprecedented social and political upheaval. But I have not had the pleasure of reading Cranford. I am therefore writing this review from a certain disadvantage but also free from the need to weigh the film against the book. And I say, from this perspective, that I enjoyed the first episode in the serial a great deal.
In this first episode of Cranford, Judi Dench (who plays an immediately loveable Matty Jenkyns) and Eileen Atkins (who plays an equally loveable if not significantly more sombre Miss Deborah, Miss Matty’s elder sister) gracefully set the tone for the small Cheshire village of 1840s Cranford. It appears as a village governed by strict but respected codes of stern decorum and self-composure, but which also ripples with a communal spirit of shrewd wit and fortitude from a predominately female community.
Its sprightly rebellious spirit reveals itself in various concealed moments throughout the normal run of everyday life. In one amusing moment, at an evening supper of oranges where the Jenkyns sisters have great difficulty working out how to eat the exotic unruly fruit in a manner fitting to the decorum of Cranford. Miss Mary Smith (played by Lisa Dillan), a newcomer to Cranford, timidly suggests that the sisters make a small hole at the top of their oranges and suck the juice out of them. Needless to say, Miss Deborah is left speechless and Miss Matty timorously explains that her sister does not care for the word suck. The solution is to retire to their own rooms to eat their oranges in silence; we see them indulgently and mischievously sucking on their oranges in private.
Two other outsiders from the village also herald the beginnings of change and modern ways into the quaint rural village. A dashing young doctor Frank Harrison (played by Simon Woods) shocks the village by wearing a red (rather than the traditionally conservative black) coat in public. But when Jim Carter (played by Andy Buchan), the local joiner in the village, breaks his arm falling from a tree during one of his jobs, Dr Harrison wins approval by refusing to follow the normal procedure of amputation and successfully carries out a new medical practice he had been taught in London.
Meanwhile, an imposing Captain Brown (played by the spectacular Jim Carter) moves in over the road from the Jenkyns sisters. Captain Brown causes great discomfort and embarrassment to a reserved and stolid Miss Deborah with outspoken reference to his financial difficulties. When Captain Brown is called away on business Miss Deborah bravely ignores the conventions of Cranford to accompany his daughter Jessie (played by Julia Sawalha) on her bleak solitary walk behind her sister’s coffin. Captain Brown manages to win the affection of his neighbour by hand-making the sisters a new coal shovel as a thank you gift.
I think the BBC’s Cranford will win an avid audience this winter. Even my partner admitted to enjoying it and he would much rather watch Top Gear on a Sunday evening than anything remotely resembling ‘just another bleak boring period drama’. We perhaps expect the slow quiet but nevertheless emotionally charged rhythms of a past village community to appeal to an older generation. I know that my grandmother would have watched Cranford on Sunday, just as she watched Bleak House last year and was afterwards inspired to buy the book. But to also appeal to that particular niche of young adult males, who only read FHM and would normally run a mile from anything remotely resembling a serious novel, is surely something of a feat.
By Clare Williams
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