This has possibly the most stellar cast ever assembled for a BBC costume drama. With Mrs Gaskell writing (most of) the words and the likes of Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Francesca Annis, Barbara Flynn, Lesley Manville, Julia Sawalha, Philip Glenister… (the list goes on and on and on) speaking them, what could possibly go wrong? Happily, nothing at all. The only difficulty is stopping oneself being totally gobsmacked by the awesomeness of it all. And naturally, the sets and costumes are all wonderful, too.
The plot… well, it doesn’t really matter, does it? I’ve never read the book, but that doesn’t matter either, and even with a cast of thousands, all with their own little sub-plots, it was never hard to work out what was going on. Cranford is a small town on the cusp of being dragged into the forward-thinking Victorian era by the arrival of the railway, in the teeth of the residents’ opposition. The ladies of the town (and there seem to be surprisingly few gentlemen) are keeping up with their mannered round of small and inconsequential happenings as if they were still back in the Georgian era, but gradually life and death bring them a little nearer the future. It may have been just my imagination, but the costumes seemed to change from the somewhat high-waisted and narrower-skirted late Georgian styles straight into the natural waists and full skirts of the early Victorian, even though only a single year is supposed to have elapsed. If this is so, it was a clever and subtle allusion to the progress of industrialisation.
The only problem with it, for me , anyway, was the high level of tragedy that seemingly hit this one small town. Every episode seemed to have at least one death, and sometimes more, and the poor Rector’s family were under constant assault from life-threatening illnesses. That gave it a very Dickensian air of doom and gloom, but there were also light-hearted moments, too, and the poor new doctor, a very naive young man, gets caught up in both, mostly inadvertently.
Of the actresses, Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench and Francesca Annis are incomparable, bringing out out all the pathos and underlying tragedies of their constrained lives. Honourable mentions, too, for two of my favourite actresses, who rarely get top billing but are always wonderful, Lesley Manville and Barbara Flynn. But really, there wasn’t a sub-par performance in the whole cast. Terrific stuff.