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Sunday, December 20 at 9 p.m. Masterpiece Classic: Cranford

(Rochester, NY) A sleepy 1840s English village comes to life with gossip, parties, romances, sudden death, bankruptcy and the drama of an encroaching railway in Cranford, based on the beloved Victorian-era writings of Elizabeth Gaskell. Masterpiece Classic: Cranford airs Sunday, December 20 at 9 p.m. on WXXI-TV (DT21.1/cable1011/cable11).

A cross between Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, Gaskell’s novels are love stories with a social message, set amid the turmoil of the industrial revolution in England. Cranford was her most popular novel, but Masterpiece viewers may know her already from Wives and Daughters, which was adapted for the series to wide acclaim in 2001.

During its UK broadcast on the BBC, Cranford earned eight million viewers and a spectacular 29 percent audience share for each of its first two episodes. “It’s wonderful,” raved the New Statesman. “Lovingly and scintillatingly brought to life,” wrote the Daily Mail. And from the Evening Standard: “The reason why Cranford has captivated us is that the concerns of this mid-19th century town are similar to ours today.”

Topping the all-star cast are Judi Dench (Casino Royale) and Eileen Atkins (Cold Mountain) as Matty and Deborah Jenkyns, two unmarried sisters living together in a small town ruled by an eccentric code of antiquated customs. Miss Deborah, the elder sister, is the stern enforcer of Cranford’s decorum, while kind-hearted Miss Matty is content to be swept along by events. “You must gird your loins,” she says. “It is all go in Cranford!”

The magnificent cast also includes Michael Gambon (Harry Potter films) as Mr. Holbrook, a melancholy country gentleman who courted Matty decades earlier; Francesca Annis (Jane Eyre) as Lady Ludlow, the town’s reigning aristocrat, who promotes medieval ideas about public education; and Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake) as Miss Pole, who prides herself on being the first with any piece of gossip, accuracy be damned.

Among the other major characters are Simon Woods (Rome) as Dr. Frank Harrison, a newly arrived medical man who inadvertently becomes engaged to three ladies at once; Julia McKenzie (Bright Young Things) as Mrs. Forrester, a sprightly widow devoted to her cow; Barbara Flynn (Miss Potte) as the haughty Mrs. Jamieson; and Philip Glenister (Island at War) as Mr. Carter, Lady Ludlow’s progressive-minded steward.


Cranford follows a year in the life of an early-Victorian backwater, from June 1842 to May 1843. Although the locals are only dimly aware of it at first, a new era is dawning in England, heralded by the railway that is blasting its way through hillsides in its relentless approach to Cranford.

Meanwhile, there are important matters to attend to, such as Dr. Harrison’s London-learned technique for treating compound fractures, which means that Jem Hearne’s (Andrew Buchan, Jane Eyre) arm may not need to be amputated after all, prompting dismay among the citizenry.

Then there’s the disastrous lace-ingestion incident, when Miss Pole’s trick for whitening antique lace by soaking it in buttermilk goes horribly awry due to a hungry cat.

And, of course, there’s Lady Ludlow’s annual garden party, the high point of Cranford’s social season and the occasion for ceaseless debates about proper fashion among the ladies. During such times of stress, a bit of hubbub in the town center sets the rumor mill grinding: “What is all this agitation?” demands Mrs. Jamieson. “Are the summer gloves come in?” Originally serialized in 1851 in a magazine edited by Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Cranford served as the nucleus for this production, which has been expanded to include characters and incidents from two of her stories, “My Lady Ludlow” and “Mr. Harrison’s Confessions.”

The fictional Cranford is modeled on rural Knutsford, near Manchester, where Elizabeth Gaskell spent much of her childhood amid scenes very much like the ones depicted in this loving tribute to a bygone England.

 

Pictured: Lisa Dillon as Miss Mary Smith, Eileen Atkins as Miss Deborah Jenkyns, Dame Judi Dench as Miss Matty Jenkyns and Imelda Staunton as Miss Pole.
Photo Credit: ©Nick Briggs/BBC 2007 for Masterpiece

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