Judi Dench reprises her Emmy-nominated role as the kind-hearted Miss Matty Jenkyns in “Return to Cranford,” which premieres Sunday on PBS’ “Masterpiece Classic.” But she did double duty on the sequel to 2008’s “Cranford” — the Oscar-winning actress also supplied the squawks of a parrot.
Dench recalls the bird wasn’t available to dub in some chirps the microphone didn’t pick up during the production on the two-part drama.
“I said I was in the scene and I knew exactly what he said that day,” she says, laughing. “I mean I said it half-jokingly. But I did get to play him. I don’t know he feels about it, but I liked it!”
Two years ago, “Masterpiece Classic” scored a critical and audience hit with “Cranford,” which was based on the novellas, short stories and essays of Elizabeth Gaskell, a contemporary of Charlotte and Emily Bronte.
The British series, which drew about 8 million viewers in England, examined the everyday lives of the inhabitants of a small Cheshire town in England in the early 1840s.
The sequel picks up in 1844, a year after the original ended. Miss Matty is still mourning the loss two years earlier of her beloved, but taciturn, older sister Deborah (Eileen Atkins).
The railroad has reared its ugly head, though the tracks stopped about five miles from the town. The wealthy widower Mr. Buxton (Jonathan Pryce) has returned to town with his handsome son William (Tom Hiddleston) and his niece (Michelle Dockery).
Wearing her heart on her sleeve, Matty takes Peggy (Jodie Wittaker), who lives in the country with her domineering mother and sleazy older brother, under her wing and plays matchmaker between the young woman and William.
Dench says it was lovely to step into Miss Matty’s shoes and bonnet again.
“It was also sad to leave some people behind,” she explains. “Eileen Atkins was killed off in the first one. But I had a life size cutout of her made so she was there, metaphorically speaking.”
“Masterpiece Classic” executive producer Rebecca Eaton believes there are several reasons why the “Cranford” stories have struck a chord with audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.
“I think it’s the impeccable production values and impeccable performers,” she says. “You just want to watch these actors working their magic.”
But also it is the remembrance of things past. “I think we are losing community every day,” Eaton says.
“I think people are desperately trying to make a community, whether it be your Facebook community or Twitter community, or your book club. We are trying to get something back. I think people have a hunger for community in the sense of being in it together and taking care of each other, and, without invitation or occasion, showing up for each other.”
Dench says she feels lucky to live in a village where there is a sense of community. “Still, it’s not the usual thing to have people looking out for other people and seeing if they are all right. It’s about real people.”
Director Simon Curtis found working on both series to be very much a community experience in its own right. “I was directing a community from tiny babies to the most senior members of the profession,” he says. “I was directing the whole of British equity in a way!”
Gaskell’s “Cranford” tales were originally written as monthly episodes in Charles Dickens’ magazine, “Household Words.”
“She wrote about the place she grew up in,” says producer Sue Birtwistle (“Pride and Prejudice”), who created both series with Susie Conklin.
The stories were so popular with readers, Dickens commissioned her to write more. “She famously said, ‘If I knew I was going to write more of them, I wouldn’t have started to kill people off,’” Birtwistle says.
After the first series, Birtwistle says there was an abundance of material to create a sequel.
“We left two story lines from ‘Cranford’ out of the original series, so we did have some original material to go back to for this,” Birtwistle says.
“We joined it together with another novellas and a short story she wrote about Cranford. We did the same process as the first with interweaving all the stories.”
Birtwistle says that she doesn’t know if there will be a third visit to “Cranford” in the future. “The actors always say, ‘Can we do this every summer?’ But it does take a long time to do the story lines.”
“I don’t know if there is any more to tell about them,” Dench says. “But you never know, do you? I never thought I would get to play Miss Matty again or get to play a parrot.”