Look out for the women of “Cranford”


Let’s face it: High-quality

television dramas with female-heavy casts are few and far between. Particularly

when many of the women involved are over 40. In fact, I think the last

real standout I remember in this respect was The Jewel in the Crown

in 1984, where actresses of the caliber of Peggy Ashcroft

(then in her 70s) were given full range to strut their stuff.

American viewers have got a

real treat in store, though, as according to this

, the BBC’s

latest costume drama Cranford will be coming to Masterpiece Theatre

on PBS sometime between January and May.

Having watched, laughed like

a maniac, and cried like a wuss over this miniseries when it screened

in the U.K. last month, I can honestly recommend it as one of the best

things I’ve seen on British TV in years.

Here’s a trailer for the



The drama is adapted from three

short novels by the Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell: Cranford,

Mr. Harrison’s Confessions
, and My Lady Ludlow. Created

by Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin (of the 1995 Pride & Prejudice

fame) and scripted by Heidi Thomas (who also wrote the recent Emma Watson

Ballet Shoes),

the drama takes place in Cranford, a fictional town in the north of

England, in the 1840s. Most of the town’s inhabitants are single or

widowed middle-aged women, and over the course of the series we follow

them dealing with dramas both small — like the loss of a cow or having

one’s best lace swallowed by one’s cat — and large, such as bankruptcy,

death, and the advent of the railway.

Mary Smith, the book’s narrator,

is played by the sweet-faced actress Lisa Dillon

(pictured below center), who manages to make the character a moral center

without becoming dull or bland:

Mary has come from Manchester

to stay with the sisters Miss Deborah Jenkyns (played by Eileen Atkins,

pictured right) and Miss Matty Jenkyns (played by Judi Dench,

pictured left). Although Dench is regarded in the U.K. as something

of a national treasure, I have to say I’ve felt somewhat ambivalent

about her in the past, as she seems to me to keep playing the same type

of woman: authoritative and prickly. As the shy, uncertain Miss Matty,

though, she shows herself capable of something completely different,

and is excellent.

Newcomer Kimberley Nixon

plays Miss Sophy Hutton, the romantic ingénue who is tougher than she

looks (she has raised her younger brother and sisters after her mother

died when she was a child):

Imelda Staunton (of

Vera Drake
and Harry Potter fame) plays Miss Pole, an intense

gossipy spinster:

Francesca Annis plays

Lady Ludlow, an aristocrat trapped in her crumbling estate and trying

to come to terms with the modern world:

Warning: minor spoilers!

Much as I loved the series,

I did have a few reservations about how it treated some of its female

characters. One strand of the plot concerns the confusion that takes

place when, due to various misunderstandings, both the older spinster

Miss Caroline Tomkinson and the widow Mrs. Rose come to believe that

the male Dr. Harrison (who is really engaged to Sophy Hutton) is in

love with them. The program treats Miss Caroline, in particular, as

a figure of fun — and it is difficult not to feel that that is partly

because she is so much older and plainer than the lovely young Sophy.

To me, there wasn’t much funny about her pain.

The last episode also showed

a bit too much enthusiasm for pairing every single character off with

some sort of male love interest, even when there had been no room in

the ensemble show for the relationship to be developed. Not only did

this suggest that women aren’t really complete till they marry, but

it also just seemed inartistic.

Overall, however, the series

was consistently excellent, and it is well worth watching when it shows

on PBS.

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