The Masterpiece Classic season premiered last night on PBS with Return to Cranford. For those of us who loved Cranford, the award winning 2007 miniseries set in an idyllic English village populated by bustling bonnets and a bit of melodrama, this new two-part period drama was tagged as must see TV. Dame Judi Dench reprises her role as the compassionate and kindhearted Miss Matty Jenkyns, the heart and soul of the small insular Cheshire village resisting the encroachment of the industrial revolution in 1844 England.
Again, we see three plots cleverly interlaced revolving around the characters of Cranford. It has been two years since Miss Matty’s older sister Deborah died, but her household is lively with the return of her brother Peter (Nicholas Le Prevost), her maid Martha (Claudie Blakley), Martha’s husband Jem Hearne (Andrew Buchan) a capenter with the railroad and baby Tilly who she cherishes. As the opening credits roll, the camera follows Miss Matty as she proudly takes baby Tilly for a stroll down Cranford’s main street meeting her closest friends; the eccentric Mrs. Forrester (Julia McKenzie) and her beloved cow Bessie (still in protective flannel pajamas), dotty Miss Tomkinson (Deborah Findlay), snobbish Mrs. Jamieson (Barbara Flynn) and quirky gossip Miss Octavia Pole (Imelda Staunton) reminding us of the importance of personal connections in this tight-knit community. This was a nice touch by director Simon Curtis, one of many moments throughout the production that add pause and sentiment.
Meanwhile, Local aristocrat Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis) is anxiously awaiting the return of her prodigal son Septimus (Rory Kinnear) from Italy after a long absence. Her health is failing and Miss Galindo (Emma Fielding) fears he will not return in time. Also under her watchful eye is young Harry Gregson (Alex Etel), the impoverished local lad who inherited the fortune of Lady Ludlow’s stewart, now on his way to public school in Shrewsbury to receive a gentleman’s education. When Lady Ludlow’s son returns and discovers that the estate has been heavily mortgaged and that young Harry holds the note against it, he attempts to swindle him out of repayment and his fortune.
Newly returned to the neighborhood is wealthy widower, Mr. Buxton (Jonathan Pryce), his handsome Eton-educated son William (Tom Hiddleston) who aspires to be engineer and his outspoken ward Erminia Whyte (Michelle Dockery) fresh from finishing school in Belgium. Miss Matty calls on her old friend and recommends a re-introduction into Cranford society, namely Mrs. Bell (Lesley Sharp) also a widower and her two children Edward (Matthew McNulty) and Peggy (Jodie Whittaker) who live under reduced circumstances at nearby Thorn Cottage. William and Peggy spark a romance challenging social strata and the objections his father.
Even though the railroad’s plans to bring the line all the way to Cranford were halted by Lady Ludlow’s refusal to sell her land, Captain Brown (Jim Carter) is determined to proceed and a new scheme may challenge the resistant village residents in ways they had not imagined, until it too is thwarted. As the economic impact of the railroad’s loss affects Cranford’s young prompting them to leave to seek employment elsewhere, Miss Matty realizes that Cranford’s desire to maintain tradition may be its demise. When she consults her conscience remembering her sister Deborah’s advice, “Examine all things. Hold on to what is good,” she has a revelation. Can she convince her dear friends to also stand behind her new plan?
It was a delight to be back in the parlor sipping tea and melodrama with the endearing ladies of Cranford. Their Victorian life of “busy nothings” is a welcome respite in our modern techno-infused, multi-tasking, frenetically paced world. The elements that I enjoyed in the first mini-series: finely drawn characters, beautiful production values and an outstanding British cast all return in this new sequel. If it suffers in comparison to the original, it is that it has lost a bit of its freshness. The surprise discovery of a new set of characters and plot is now gone. That was inevitable. Adapted by Heidi Thomas from stories written by Elizabeth Gaskell, this sequel is chockablock full of details in its three hours making it a bit too rushed. Cranford was six hours long, and had the great advantage of telling the story involving three plots and multiple characters in a more leisurely pace. There were many funny moments (Miss Pole and the parrot) and some great plot twists for a drama set in a provincial town. However, being the hopeless romantic, I wanted the story to be more drawn out between the two love interests William Buxton and Peggy Bell. Beyond him being handsome, rich and well educated, I was not quite convinced of their attachment to each other and was surprised at his proposal. Overall, the storyline did not quite match my interests as much as the first, but the cast, especially Dame Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton and Andrew Buchan made up for an deficit carrying it along to a shining conclusion. Since this will be the last period-drama produced by the BBC/WGBH for some time, I must savor every be-ribboned bonnet and yard of opulent silk while it lasts. Anglophiles will be quite charmed by Return to Cranford. It does not get much better than this, unless of course, it is Austen!
- Visit the official Return to Cranford website at PBS
- Read about comparisons of Elizabeth Gaskell & Jane Austen
- Read a preview of the 2010 Masterpiece Classic Season
- Links to R2C on Enchanted Serenity of Period Films
- Thoughts about R2C on Jane Austen’s World
Image courtesy © BBC Worldwide 2010 for MASTERPIECE