The Screenplay: Gaskell Revisited
Based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1851 Cranford, but also on other of her writings (mainly My Lady Ludlow and Mr. Harrison’s Confessions), the screenplay of the 2007 BBC TV series (signed by Heidi Thomas) manages to recreate most successfully the atmosphere of the fictional provincial town which was, according to Gaskell, “in possession of the Amazons”. Despite combining several writings, the plot is most convincing and the characters’ interaction plausible, so the intertwined stories only contribute to constructing a more complex and dynamic story than that initially contained in the 1851 Cranford. Not only does the screenplay – which brought Thomas several nominations and awards – add dynamism and depth to the original storyline (which is not so common in the adaptations of classics) but it also successfully combines comedy and drama, both through the situations (and the topics it tackled) and through the characters.
Following the spirit of Gaskell’s Cranford – which was, as mentioned above, explicitly led by “Amazons” (“all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women”) –, the TV series is from the first scenes dominated by a group of female characters of different ages and positions, the most remarkable being the Jenkyns sisters, Mathilda (Matty) and Deborah, both spinsters. This group of Amazons or Cranford “sorority” proves more than once its influence in preserving an unwritten code of behaviour rules, in accepting or rejecting a member (or even progress itself), and most of all, proving, when needed by the community, their unconditional support and solidarity. The latter is exemplary and makes the essence of the TV series: in any difficult situation the Victorian “delicate and reserved” ladies (re)act promptly and combine efforts. Amazed by such a collective initiative, the newly arrived doctor says: “Nothing like this is ever done in London”, to which the “uncrowned” monarch of the sorority, Deborah, answers calmly: “You’re not in London, Doctor Harrison, you are in Cranford now” (Cranford, Episode 1).
Atmosphere and Historical Accuracy
For a period drama which is also a literary adaptation, the accuracy in reproducing the historical details, costumes and set designs is extremely important. In this case, as in many others, the BBC professionals worked brilliantly; Sue Birtwistle, the producer, in particular, proved once more her talent, following other award winning productions (such as the iconic 1995 Pride and Prejudice).
The cast is a very important argument in favour of seeing this BBC series, the choice of actresses, in particular, being most fortunate. They are most convincing and agreeable both as a community and as individuals, each with her “one weakness” (as another BBC “Amazon” worth watching – Dorcas Lane from Lark Rise to Candleford – puts it). The uncrowned queen of the group, Deborah, played by Eileen Atkins, is one of the most remarkable characters and symbolises the undisturbed order and unchanged habits of the place. However, when necessary, Deborah is wise enough to accept change or unconventional behaviour (such as women attending a funeral) and she and her group end up by accepting technological progress, most significantly marked by the railway.
Although timid and childish in appearance, Matty (played by Dench) is a very important figure in the community, which shows her love and great support, while they respect her sister, the community “matriarch”, Deborah. At the beginning, Matty’s mature life seems to pass undisturbed, however, she must face unexpected situations such as the return of a former fiancé, financial difficulties (which force her to change her lifestyle) and the loss of the utmost authority of her world, her sister. All these mark difficult transitions, taking her out of her comfort zone and forcing her to make decisions. Dench is brilliant in this shy and lovable character, perfectly matching the authoritarian character played by Atkins and the group of memorable characters played by Imelda Staunton, Francesca Annis, Lisa Dillon and others. A period TV series worth seeing.