Return to Cranford (2009)
One year has passed for Return to Cranford, and Miss Matty Jenkyns (Judi Dench) has given up trade in tea to appease her brother, Peter (Nicholas Le Prevost), but she cannot accept the tiger rug nor the free-flying parrot that leaves little memorials of its journeys around the home. Sadly, Martha (Claudie Blakley) dies attempting to give birth to their second child. Jem Hearne (Andrew Buchan) is heartbroken and under economic pressure because the railroad cannot come into Cranford. Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis) refuses to sell the land and the rails cannot conveniently go around it. With his work drying up, the one big sale proves to be a casket to bury Lady Ludlow. She might have survived longer but insisted on standing to await the arrival of the long-lost Septimus (Rory Kinnear). He was, at least, in time for the funeral. He then apparently buys off Harry Gregson (Alex Etel) with five thousand out of the twenty thousand owing. The boy seems relieved not to have to return to Shrewsbury School. The romantic stakes are set to run again with two new families. Mr Buxton (Jonathan Pryce) is the local salt baron and, having been living at the seaside for the health of his wife, returns when she dies bringing his son, William (Tom Hiddleston) and his ward Erminia (Michelle Dockery). The Bell family has a grieving widow (Lesley Sharp) and, conveniently, Edward (Matthew McNulty) a ponderous son and Peggy (Jodie Whittaker), a repressed daughter. Needless to say, William and Peggy are eyeing each other with interest.
Matters now move apace. Septimus sells the estate’s lands to the railway company and runs off back to Italy. Harry reluctantly returns to Shrewsbury with his financial matters unresolved. Mr Buxton sells the final piece of land and now the railway can come to Cranford. Unfortunately, this is not in time to prevent Jem from moving up north to stay with his sister. He has no work and so Miss Matty loses the chance to love the child. To make things worse, Miss Smith also leaves to become a full-time writer. Mrs Jamieson (Barbara Flynn) has a sister, Lady Glenmire (Celia Imrie), who comes to visit and eventually is accepted into Cranford society. Mr Buxton disapproves the proposed marriage between his son and Peggy. In frustration, William joins Captain Brown (Jim Carter) to train as an engineer.
We now have what you might call an action-packed final episode. As we might have anticipated, Harry has been tortured by the prefects at Shrewsbury School. He’s a jumped-up little oik and, as such, fair game. When Miss Galindo (Emma Fielding) learns of this, she’s outraged but understands little of life in an upper class boarding school. She insists he’s to return. Harry therefore runs away. When he borrows a little milk from the cow owned by Mrs Forester (Julia McKenzie), he accidentally breaks the frayed rope holding her in place. She wanders off. Meanwhile, Edward is found to have stolen sixty pounds from Mr Buxton. When the police are called, he and Peggy are on the train to Liverpool to escape arrest. Miss Mattie tells William what has happened and he sets off in pursuit. When Harry jumps on to the train from the bridge, that sets everything up for the train being derailed when it hits the cow. A short while later, the engine explodes and kills Edward. Everyone else survives with varying degrees of injury. Mr Buxton nurses William back to health and agrees to allow the marriage to Peggy. Miss Galindo nurses Harry back to life and they agree he will go to Manchester Grammar to complete his education. Lady Glenmire marries Captain Brown and, in an emotional moment, Jem moves back to Cranford with his daughter, thus restoring love to Miss Mattie’s life. There’s a completely over-the-top cameo by Tim Curry as Signor Brunoni who brings a little magic into Octavia Pole’s (Imelda Staunton) life. In a way, everything ends as it should.
Frankly, although I’m never surprised by a company like the non-profit BBC giving its customers more of what they want, I think this second three episode reprise is neither fish nor fowl. Although we return, it’s frustrating to have a major new storyline introduced in the Buxtons and Bells but then have such an inadequate time for the various romantic issues to play out. It all feels rushed with Edward suddenly revealed a villain and, of all things, a railway accident caused by the inadvertent release of the cow. How much better it would have been to focus on Miss Matty’s household. Peter settles into the village, but insists the sale of tea shop. Without this additional income, how does the household manage? Then we move on to Martha’s tragic death and Jem’s financial troubles shown against the railroad’s final triumphant entry into Cranford. As it is, we get to see far too little of everyone. There are a few slightly jokey scenes for the ladies, Septimus gets to be suitably dishonest, and Mrs Jamieson is humiliated until the final redemption through a possible relationship with Peter Jenkyns. There’s absolutely no attempt to unravel the complicated financial status of Harry and the Hall. With Septimus gone, are we to assume the Hall would just fall into disrepair with no-one paid to maintain it? Although we learn Mary Smith has published her first story, we never see Erminia again. She’s just abandoned in the Buxton household. However, through all this fog of unresolved issues, the ladies shine. Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton, Julia McKenzie and Deborah Findlay make a wonderful quartet as they slowly inch into the steam age of Cranford. Celia Imrie is given just enough to do, but more or less everyone else gets the short end of the stick. Yes, Return to Cranford is enjoyable. With a little more thought, we could have either excluded the new families or allocated four or five episodes to see it all play out at a proper speed. Now those would have been genuinely worth seeing!