Occasionally, critics like to muse upon the influence of Great Unseen Characters in the world of film and television such as Maris in Frasier, Her Indoors in Minder and, best-known of all, Rebecca in Daphne Du Maurier’s eponymous novel and the various adaptations thereof. Although strictly speaking Rebecca is not unseen in the screen adaptations as her portrait does appear. But let’s not quibble. The BBC’s prestige adaptation of Mrs Gaskell’s novel (with a couple of her novellas thrown in for good measure) features such a character, Lord Septimus, the seventh and only surviving child of Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis) whose caprices and whims motivate her actions which affect all those who work and live on her estate, in particular the estate manager Mr Carter (Philip Glenister). This theme of family is one of many which permeates this excellent and extremely popular drama, first screened by the BBC in winter 2007 to superb reviews and high ratings.
The drama unfolds in the fictional rural town of Cranford, 12 miles from Manchester, in the years 1842-43, a period of significant change in the inhabitants’ lives. Not only does a new and handsome young doctor (Simon Woods) stir many flutters in the bosoms of the town’s assorted ladies but the arrival of a retired army officer Captain Brown (Jim Carter) and his two daughters ultimately causes the town’s pillar of moral rectitude, Miss Deborah Jenkyns (Dame Eileen Atkins) to re-assess her values and bend to the wind of change. However, the greatest perceived threat to the rural tranquillity and ordered society of Cranford is the arrival of The Railway, viewed with great dismay by many of the older townsfolk but which is embraced by the younger and more entrepreneurial inhabitants.
The theme of family, both real and surrogate, pervades the story. The core characters, as in the book, are the two spinster Jenkyns sisters, Miss Deborah and Miss Matty (Dame Judi Dench) and their houseguest and surrogate niece/daughter Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon) who acts as the modernising counterfoil to the sisters’ ingrained habits and notions of what is ‘right’. The other significant family groupings are the Tomkinson sisters, Captain Brown and daughters, the Rev Hutton and his children and the gypsy Gregson family who squat on the estate lands.
However as the story progresses, surrogate families begin to appear – Mr Carter, Lady Ludlow’s estate manager is, to all effects, the son she deserves rather than her feckless unseen heir, Lord Septimus who languishes in Italy ‘for reasons of his health’ and who bleeds the estate’s coffers dry to fund his evermore lavish lifestyle. Despite appearances, Francesca Annis is 19 years older than Philip Glenister so could quite comfortably play his mother. Although Septimus is never seen the audience is able to paint a fairly accurate picture, quite at odds with his mother’s perception of the chronic invalid, thanks to the subtleties of scripting and performance by everyone around her. Carter, in turn, takes under his wing a young lad Harry Gregson (Alex Etel) at risk of turning out to be a bad ‘un like his father. He initially finds the boy poaching to help feed the ever-growing Gregson family due to the father’s absences and the mother’s constant state of pregnancy. But, as penance, he hires the boy to do odd jobs and then, recognising his potential, teaches him to read and write in order to assist his estate management duties – much to the disgust and opposition of Lady Ludlow who firmly believes the lower orders should remain uneducated to keep them in their place lest there be an uprising similar to the recent events in France.
|The following text contains spoilers. Click and drag over this box to view.|
|By the final episode, and on his deathbed (fatally injured by a dynamite blast during railway construction), Carter dictates a will that is extraordinarily beneficial to both Lady Ludlow and Harry, by now his surrogate son. Her Ladyship, against Carter’s advice, had mortgaged the estate to fund her wastrel son’s latest venture and Carter, who reveals himself to be a former businessman of considerable means now turned philanthropist, loans her his fortune (millions in today’s money) to pay off the mortgage and also fund Harry’s further education, as well as set him up for life. This seemingly simple relationship also reflects the theme of class in the piece – Lady Ludlow, an elderly faded beauty, played elegantly with funereal gravitas by Francesca Annis, represents the last bastion of the old feudal aristocracy. Carter is the self-made middle class businessman and a member of the new breed of Victorian philanthropist. Harry, the lowest of the low, a gypsy poacher is empowered by both Carter’s wealth and Lady Ludlow’s patronage to potentially become a Great Man.|
This is only one of the many storylines and themes that weave through the rich tapestry that is the BBC’s Cranford and, incidentally, belongs entirely to one of the ancillary novellas (My Lady Ludlow) brought in to expand the sphere of the novel. Such a single storyline would normally be deemed sufficient for an entire mid-afternoon American TV drama but is simply one of many in the larger whole here. Within the main body of the drama, significant and universal themes appear such as unrequited love, bereavement, love lost, love gained, family reunion, loss, friendship, community, the effects of progress, poverty, snobbery, pride as well as more specific themes such as the rise of proto-feminism in the early 1800s and the industrialisation of Great Britain. Indeed, there is a now-significant storyline about the failure of a bank reducing one of the principal characters to near-destitution!
Don’t anyone be put off by the notion that this is a collection of distinguished elderly actresses playing twittering spinsters in bonnets and shawls. There is, of course, an element of this present but it would be a very simplistic way of looking at this piece. The source novel and novellas are clear-eyed accounts of daily life in Northern England in the early 1800s with rounded nuanced natural characters rather than Dickens’ more melodramatic archetypes. The two additional novellas were brought in to expand the scope of the drama beyond the rural middle class milieu of the novel. To do these works justice, a strong script was produced and given to (with a few exceptions) an extremely skilled and experienced array of talent. The production appears to have been filmed with scrupulous historical accuracy in a relatively naturalistic manner. It doesn’t go quite as far as HBO’s John Adams with its handheld cameras but, being a BBC Prestige Drama, has to display a certain stylistic conservatism while dripping quality.
Repeated viewings only show me just how rich and satisfying this work is. There are numerous moments in which simple lines of dialogue are brought completely to life by the cast and which enrich the work as a whole creating an involving fictional world into which you are drawn subtly and completely.
I do however have a few minor criticisms. There is a slightly twee element of comedy which sometimes, as with the story of the lace collar in episode 1, descends almost into farce. But as the serial progresses it settles down. There is also a slight air of undue sentimentality now and again at odds with the tone as a whole. Also, as the general standard of acting is so high, there is the odd (male) performance which doesn’t quite come up to scratch – you may be pretty Mr Woods but your performance still has a way to go to catch up with the ladies. Being a Scotsman and a connoisseur of bad Scottish accents on the screen, I have to place Lesley Manville’s effort on the bad end of the spectrum. Not quite up there with Richard Attenborough in Jurassic Park and (potentially) Simon Pegg’s Scotty but definitely aspiring to it.
The serial is split into five one-hour episodes spread across two dual-layer discs. Subtitles are provided but the only extra is a 30-minutes making-of puff produced in-house. As you would expect it consists of a series of talking heads, production staff and actors on location, interspersed with brief excerpts. Everyone speaks of just how wonderful the whole endeavour is. The most entertaining moment comes when Julia Sawalha admits she loves doing costume dramas because she’s so shallow she just loves dressing up.
The picture quality of the serial is faultless. Shot digitally on location and in the studio in a wide range of lighting conditions including real candlelight, the image is sharp and the colour palette is rich and natural with naturalistic lighting. There is one significant stylistic exception to this – most scenes featuring Lady Ludlow in the interior of ‘Hanbury Hall’ appear to be drained of colour and some are almost monochrome. Francesca Annis also appears to have been deliberately aged-up and her complexion lightened to the point of being almost marble-like no doubt to evoke a similarity to the many statues which litter the Hall. As you would expect from one of the BBC’s most prestigious releases of 2008, the transfer is flawless. I watched this on a widescreen CRT telly and spotted no obvious blemishes. The soundtrack is clear and atmospheric with such touches as ambient village sounds being clearly discernible – for example the sound of dogs through an open window in interior scenes – but never distracting.
In all, I can’t recommend this set highly enough. It’s as entertaining on the third viewing as the first. If you see it on a bargain shelf in a soon-to-close High St retail outlet, buy it.
Interestingly, as the serial was so wildly popular on first transmission on 2007 a sequel, Christmas at Cranford, was promised for transmission in December 2009. However I can find no indication that this is still in production. Pity.
And finally, for fans of trivia, here are a couple of factoids. Back in the 1980s, Julia McKenzie, who plays Mrs Forrester and is mostly known now as a sitcom actress and the next Miss Marple, was a huge star of West End musicals. When she played Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls in 1982 her understudy was a then-unknown young actress called Imelda Staunton (who plays Miss Pole). Also in the same production the villain, Big Jule, was played by a then-unknown young actor called Jim Carter (who plays Captain Brown and also became Mr Imelda Staunton).