Monday, December 17, 2007

The BBC's Cranford proves a triumph

Well, having wept my way through the final episode of BBC1's Cranford last night, (I was deeply saddened at the death of Carter, one of my favourite characters), I felt I should write a few paragraphs of heartfelt praise for what has been one of the BBC's most successful and brilliant TV series.

I wasn't over-hopeful about the televising of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford when it was first announced, even when supplemented by two of Gaskell's novellas, to ensure a little romance (Dr Harrison's troubled courtship of Sophie Hutton) and the moving redemptive arc presented by the story of arch-conservative Lady Ludlow and her relationship with her estate manager.

How wrong I was! First, the screenwriter who adapted Gaskell's works, should have inspired me with sufficient confidence. Heidi Thomas has proven to be one of our foremost writing talents with an increasingly illustrious CV, and Cranford was a highly worthy addition. Thomas's script here was delightfully fluid, cohesive and wonderfully witty. It was also replete with its fair share of moving moments, which often reduced me to a blubbering mess, at least twice per episode.

The second key factor in ensuring Cranford was one of the BBC's most brilliant outings was its extraordinary cast. Judi Dench made for a winsomely endearing Matty Jenkyns, but Cranford was typified by a strong supporting ensemble - hearteningly female-centric and often middle-aged or older. Special mention must go to Eileen Atkins, who was majestic in the role of Deborah Jenkyns - kindly, conservative and thoroughly uptight, a real bastion of Cranford's 'Amazonian' society - and Imelda Staunton was simply fabulous in the comic role of Miss Pole. Her hilarious 'double-take' when catching sight of Mr Holbrook's sewing table in Dr Harrison's drawing room in Episode Four was one of my favourite TV moments of all time. Julia McKenzie was also a welcome supporting comic character as Mrs Forester, and her speech in Episode Five, explaining her fondness for Miss Matty, was one of the most affecting moments in the entire series. Philip Glenister also put in a flawless performance as Carter, Lady Ludlow's estate manager, who is devoted to educating young Harry Gregson.

But it seems almost churlish to pick out any particular standout performances from such a wonderful cast. I cared about each and every character. Each and every storyline. Which is why, amidst the laughs and smiles prompted by so much of the narrative action, there was also so much potential for genuine poignancy and humanity. For example, Deborah Jenkyn's unexpected joining Jessie Brown behind her sister's coffin in Episode One, was such a moment, establishing this series, very quickly, as a classic in the making.

Cranford was equally adept at portraying charming, whimsical fun (for example, the hysterical sequence depicting Mrs Forest's cat eating her prized lace), with darker, heavyweight satire exploring a broad swathe of hot potato topics which dominated mid-Victorian society, including the education of the lower classes, rural poverty and lawlessness, gender roles, and the inexorable advent of modernity, as represented by the railway coming to Cranford and the utilisation of modern medicinal methods by young Dr Harrison.

These themes were all resonant of George Eliot's Middlemarch, which was set some twenty years earlier, and were strongly representative of Gaskell's own writing, which never shied away from the issues dogging her day. Mary Barton, for example, spotlights the trials and tribulations of the Chartist petitioners, while North and South offers a study of industrial unrest in Northern mill towns (notably via a fictionalised version of Manchester). In contrast, and at first glance, Cranford seems to provide a more benign view of society, focusing on the demure, regimented lives of the lady inhabitants of small town England. But this is deceptive. Gaskell is cleverly covering a whole range of topics, albeit with a soft, deft, ultimately feminine and arguably proto-feminist touch - a charge which would have likely horrified Gaskell herself. Still, Heidi Thomas's script has ensured that these issues are elicited, fleshed out, and given full rein in this production.

After the dismal period adaptations broadcast by ITV this year, it was enormously refreshing to finally relax and unwind in the company of a BBC masterclass, reveling in what has proven to be a highly satisfying and successful TV experience, judging by the ratings. Hopefully Heidi Thomas will be gainfully employed in adapting more literary works to screen, as she has taken what might have been viewed as tricky source material, most particularly in view of Cranford's notable lack of 'sexy romance', which is the preferred mainstay of most period drama on TV these days, and penned a classy, engaging narrative, which will endure as an example of one of the BBC's finest for many years to come.