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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.

Peggy Bell (Jodie Whittaker) is feisty when given the chance

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.

Miss Matty (Judi Dench) getting to play mother to Martha's child

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.

Mr Buxton (Jonathan Pryce) as Victorian patriarch

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!

For the rest of the series, see Cranford (2007): the first three episodes and Cranford (2007): the final two episodes.

Cranford (2007): the final two episodes

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).

Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis) and Edmund Carter (Philip Glenister) in sympathy despite class differences

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.

Octavia Poole (Imelda Staunton) and Mrs Forester (Julia McKenzie) bring news of the railway

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.

Dr Harrison (Simon Woods) ties the knot with Sophie Hutton (Kimberley Nixon)

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.

For the rest of the series, see Cranford (2007): the first three episodes and Return to Cranford (2009).

Cranford (2007): the first three episodes

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.

Judi Dench, Lisa Dillon and Eileen Atkins trying to outface the future

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.

Philip Glenister and Alex Etel as the son he never had

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.

Simon Woods taking Kimberley Nixon for a ride

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.

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