In the remaining two episodes of Cranford, the women tie themselves in knots as we approach May Day. Miss Matty Jenkyns (Judi Dench) is trying to adjust to life without her dominating sister and is supportive of Martha (Claudie Blakley), her servant, who desires romance with Jem Hearne (Andrew Buchan). Later, Jem receives news that he has an inheritance, the letter containing a five pound note drawn on a Manchester bank. Believing himself in funds, he rushes to the local store to buy Martha a shawl. Unfortunately, the milliner refuses the note, asserting that the Manchester bank is in trouble. Overhearing this, Miss Matty gives him cash. Then her world collapses. The milliner was correct and the bank in which she had invested all her money is declared insolvent. Martha and Jem are distressed because they have benefitted from Miss Matty’s desire to help them and begin devising ways in which they can repay her generosity. The kindly manner Dr Frank Harrison (Simon Woods) shows to everyone is misinterpreted as courtship in the wrong quarters. This torpedoes his love for Sophy Hutton (Kimberley Nixon) when Caroline Tomkinson and Mrs Rose publicly claim they are engaged to him. And Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis) finds herself obliged to mortgage her land to pay for her son’s extravagance in Italy, while blighting Edmund Carter (Philip Glenister), first by sending Harry Gregson (Alex Etel), the poacher’s son, to work in the cow sheds and allocating Miss Galindo (Emma Fielding) to act as his secretary — he may be modern, but not yet modern enough to accept an intelligent woman working with him although, one one occasion, he’s observed smiling at her. Having had an episode focusing on death and the fundamental unfairness of the class-based way of life, we now have a shift to problems of romance when spinsters have nothing better to do with their time than speculate on who should pair off. The only one who comes out of all this with any credit is Miss Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon) who’s a paragon of common sense (although Miss Octavia Poole (Imelda Staunton) does rise to the occasion and buys a silhouette of Mr Holbrook when his effects are auctioned off — this she immediately passes over to Miss Matty, rejecting the offer of reimbursement).
Miss Matty and Jessie Brown (Julia Sawalha) compare notes. They both hope for news from India but agree it’s more painful to keep the hope alive. Meanwhile, Mary Smith is conspiring with the ladies of Cranford to save Miss Matty who may be forced to sell her home and move away. They club together to give her fifty pounds a year on top of her remaining thirteen. Captain Brown (Jim Carter) is introduced to sell this increase in income as an accounting error by the administrators handling the bank’s insolvency. At his urging, she agrees to turn her front room into a shop selling tea. All this, together with a small sum of rent from Martha and Jem as her tenants, should give her enough to live on.
Mary Smith is also busy on the doctor’s case. She has identified his friend as the one who sent the valentine to Caroline Tomkinson. He returns to Cranford to clear up the mess and is just in time to help deal with two crises. Having argued with Lady Ludlow over her decision to mortgage the Hall, Edmund Carter is talking with Captain Brown where the railway line is being driven through the hills when they are both injured in an explosion. Captain Brown may lose the sight in one eye but, despite the best efforts of both doctors, Edmund Carter dies. However, he does have time to dictate a will to Miss Galindo and roughly sign his name. This leaves all his estate to Harry Gregson subject to two conditions. First, he’s to go to Shrewsbury School. Second, he’s to lend the bulk of the money to Lady Ludlow for her to pay off the mortgage. The full amount of capital and interest will be repayable on her death by her son. This produces a moving reconciliation between Lady Ludlow and Harry who’s released from the cow sheds to study with the Reverend Hutton. This will bring his knowledge to a better level and reduce bullying at school. The second crisis comes when Sophy contracts typhoid. Fortunately, the Reverend Hutton relents and Dr Frank Harrison saves her life.
Mary Smith continues her work as the Fairy Godmother of Cranford by bringing Major Gordon (Alistair Petrie) back from India. He surprises Jessie and they confirm a marriage. Major Gordon also brings Peter Jenkyns (Nicholas Le Prevost) Miss Matty’s long-long brother back for a tearful reunion. Peter finally delivers the muslim promised for Miss Matty’s proposed wedding with Mr Holbrook. Miss Matty gives it to Sophy — as one old rectory girl to another. Caroline Tomkinson marries the butcher (at least she will eat well) and Mrs Rose takes up with Dr Morgan (John Bowe). The marriages represent the end of the original series and produce the requisite quality of “happiness” given the essentially romantic nature of the story.
This captures the major problem with the series. I confess my ignorance of the source novels so I don’t know how much could have been added to resolve all the other problems, but leaving this as essentially a romantic drama seems such a waste. This is supposed to be about Cranford, a fledgling town struggling to emerge from its early Victorian straitjacket and embrace the new age. That means dealing with the railway issue as deciding the economic future of the town, and looking more widely at the class issues at they affect the servants and workers on the land. It may be wonderfully “middle class” to neatly tie up all the romantic loose ends in such a pretty way, but this is not the reality for most who lived in the town. The story element featuring Harry Gregson has been a perfect opportunity wasted for we only ever see the rest of the family for a few seconds at a time. Similarly, Martha’s position could have been matched against one or one people working for Lady Ludlow. So despite finding the performances of all the ladies completely entrancing, I’m left feeling a little underwhelmed by the lack of social content.
Cranford (2007) is a rather elegant study in manners and etiquette based on three short novels by Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford, My Lady Ludlow and Mr Harrison’s Confessions. Set in a small town or large village near Manchester, Cranford’s society depends on its women to keep the wheels spinning smoothly. Series such as this are important for two rather different reasons. Obviously, we watch them as entertainment. The fact the culture may be different does not mean the story lacks relevance to our modern lives. Second, these dramas represent windows into the past. They remind us what life was like only a century or so ago. Cranford is particularly useful because, unlike the novels by Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters and others more often selected for adaptation, it gives us a complete spectrum of society from top to bottom. This makes it rather better than, say, Lark Rise to Candleford which focuses on village life for those still working on the land or providing services to the farming community at the end of the 19th Century. The Cranford trilogy is set in 1842 at a time of major change just as the industrial revolution is genuinely working to undermine traditional social structures. The world stands at a tipping point. This village knows it cannot remain in a kind of stasis, regulated like a clockwork machine by one or two key citizens. There’s to be democratisation through access to education and new opportunities for all to earn enough for financial independence. Large estates such as that owned by Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis) are about to lose more of their labour to factories in Manchester and the nearby cities. Farm workers will be drawn from a smaller pool of people — those who do not take advantage of the railway’s arrival to travel to work elsewhere.
When we start, we see two sisters, Miss Matty Jenkyns (Judi Dench) and Deborah Jenkyns (Eileen Atkins) at the heart of the social community. Even though they are only genteel and middle class, the latter has appointed herself as the arbiter of good taste in the township. She dictates the pace of social intercourse and determines the propriety of behaviour. In her self-righteousness, it never occurs to her that she’s a terrible bully, terrorising all around her with her judgmental ways. As the daughter of a local clergyman, now deceased, she assumed the role as if by divine right and has never wavered. The sisters do, however, break routine and accept Miss Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon) as a paying guest.
Although she’s an indispensable part of the community, Miss Octavia Poole (Imelda Staunton) somewhat spurns the normal rules of society. As the town’s gossip, she’s an unstoppable force for getting the message out. It may not always be the right message but, for better or worse, it always goes out on her network. Mrs Jamieson (Barbara Flynn) is included for comic relief. Full of aristocratic pretension, she’s always being walked around the town in her sedan chair, carrying her dog. There’s no better way to show how important you think you are. Socially more important, Lady Ludlow lurks out in Hanbury Court, convinced women should remain in the Dark Ages and never learn to read and write. This offends her land agent, Edmund Carter (Philip Glenister) who has seen the future and prefers the idea of equality and liberty for all. Except, on the quiet, he’s slightly less in favour of education for women. The relationship between these two is fascinating. As one of the nobility with set ideas about rank and status, Lady Ludlow is remarkably open with Edmund Carter. She trusts his judgement on many issues and, although they fundamentally disagree on politics, particularly when it comes to education, he’s a force for good in her life even if she does ignore his advice and continue to indulge her wastrel son.
Dr Morgan (John Bowe) is the stalwart doctor, but his position as the trusted physician is threatened when the young and dashing Dr Frank Harrison (Simon Woods) arrives and immediately saves the arm of the local carpenter Jem Hearne (Andrew Buchan). In his first survey of the town, the young doctor takes a shine to Sophy Hutton (Kimberley Nixon). Captain Brown (Jim Carter) arrives with his two daughters, one of whom dies almost immediately, leaving Jessie Brown (Julia Sawalha) in sole occupation of the house most of the time. There’s also a nice piece of business when a cat eats some lace and has to be relieved of it — that adds more humour to the pot.
Major Gordon (Alistair Petrie) arrives to visit Captain Brown and Jessie, and must then mount a search for missing cow. Such are the vicissitudes of life in this small town. Hanbury Court is getting ready for the annual garden party. Dr Frank Harrison is turning heads among the unmarried women while Edmund Carter is taking more of an interest in Harry Gregson (Alex Etel), the local poacher’s son, teaching him to read and write, and offering him work as a clerk. Mr Holbrook (Michael Gambon) emerges from the past to remind Miss Matty of lost happiness. At the garden party, news comes that the railway may be approaching Cranford with Captain Brown in charge of the building works. This offends the ladies who think change should stay away. It offends his daughter who has turned down Major Gordon’s invitation to marry and accompany him to India. Then overnight death strikes, taking away Deborah Jenkyns and Sophy’s brother. With Deborah’s departure, Miss Matty now has the chance to pick up her lost love for Mr Holbrook. They rekindle the spark but, on his way back from a trip to Paris, Mr Holbrook catches a chill that turns into pneumonia. Miss Matty now behaves as if she’s a widow. However, feeling everyone should have a chance for romance, she frees their maid, Martha (Claudie Blakley), from Deborah’s bar on relationships. Martha promptly confirms her “love” for Jem Hearne and they begin walking out together. Things are also going slightly better for Dr Harrison as Sophy may be forgiving herself and him for the death of her young brother. There’s then signs of hope for Lady Ludlow who, at the instigation of her land agent, intervenes to save Harry Gregson’s father who’s been wrongly accused of a violent robbery.
As to the cast, Judi Dench is magnificent as she slowly emerges from the years of oppression by Deborah. It’s as though she’s been reborn and is struggling to find her feet. No longer having someone to tell what to do and think, she must finally decide what kind of person she wants to be. Lisa Dillon as Mary Smith is calmly understated, surreptitiously supporting Judi Dench when necessary. The brief resumption of a relationship with Michael Gambon is touching and affecting. His tragic death before he can make good on thirty years of patient waiting is a moment of great sadness. Francesca Annis is doing rather better than playing Lady Ludlow as a dinosaur. We can see her bending in the wind even though she would rather not. Philip Glenister is worldly and knows just how far he can push Lady Ludlow. He will never be wholly liked, but will always do better than being merely tolerated. Finally Simon Woods is wonderfully naive and full of good intentions. If he can navigate through the choppy social waters, he will do well with the chaste Kimberley Nixon. Overall, this is a superior BBC drama and I wait with anticipation for the remaining episodes.