Picking up very nearly where the first installment of the BBC’s interpretation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels left off, Return to Cranford features almost all of the same characters and proffers a glimpse into their lives as the arrival of the railroad turns everything upside down. Cranford, the 2008 BBC production, combined three of Gaskell’s works: Cranford, My Lady Ludlow, and Mr. Harrison’s Confessions. I definitely recommend watching this sequel only if you’ve seen the original Cranford, as the writers have not included much in the way of explanation for the uninitiated.
When the first adaptation of Gaskell’s story about the town of Cranford wrapped up in 1842, the railroad had been halted a few miles outside of town. Unable to continue construction because a large estate blocked the way, and the owner was determined not to sell, Cranford appeared safe. In Return to Cranford, a combination of factors make the entry of the railroad right into town a likelihood once again.
Writer Heidi Thomas jumped on the opportunity to include more of Gaskell’s stories about the same characters in this second adaptation. With more opportunities to bring character idiosyncrasies to light, moments of farce creep in and keep the mood light even as the railroad bears down on the town.
It is now 1844, and the supports that have held the railroad outside of Cranford are failing. As industry develops, the old traditions of the town are disintegrating. There are those who attempt to maintain the status quo, and then the handful who are eager to see progress and modern ways come to Cranford. Return to Cranford is constantly teetering between old and new, the experienced and the unworldly, tradition and industry.
Miss Matty (Judi Dench) attempts to draw everyone in the community together even as some of her actions are interpreted as tearing the town apart. She finds herself giving the idea of the railroad another chance as she sees how important it could be to the livelihood of some of the people she cares about.
As any fan of historical adaptations and BBC period productions can imagine, Return to Cranford has conflicts between members of different stations, broken gentlemen’s agreements, unseemly engagements, and a certain standard of genteel manners. The production value is outstanding, and the actors all throw themselves enthusiastically into their roles. I’ll leave the details of the story lines undisclosed for your enjoyment.
A half hour special feature directed by Sven Arnstein looks at all the details of the filming, costuming, and lighting effects. It is excellent to hear from many of the central actors about how much they enjoyed making the production. It seems that the continuity between this and the original production is very much appreciated, as many of the costumes were reused for the sequel, adding to the thoughtfulness of the whole affair. Every detail, from the doorknobs to the wall decorations, has been so meticulously recreated that while watching the two part series itself, they go largely unnoticed.
After watching Arnstein’s supplementary work, I plan to watch the entire series over again and just pay attention to the china plates on the walls and the pleats and stitching in the bodices. One of the actors was trained in period calligraphy so her character could send a handwritten note to Paris requesting a large bird cage for a huge parrot that has been gifted to another resident. A different actor displays her sample sheets of music and a portable keyboard that she practices on so that her character can appear to accompany a singing friend at an evening social call.
Several of the actors energetically explain how their jobs are made so much easier when the period details are so well attended to. As a viewer, it seems almost possible to transport yourself to the middle of the 19th century in rural England. The town where central Cranford is filmed, Lacock in Wiltshire, is an important partner in the production. This time around, many of the residents were able to appear as extras. And the explanations of how parts of the existing town were incorporated into the production are wonderful.
It’s not only the details that made the production so much fun to be a part of once more. A de-wigged Dench proclaims her excitement at getting to work with Tim Curry, who makes an unexpected appearance. As for Curry, he explains about his obsession with the first Cranford, and how he instructed his agent to beg for a part if there should ever be a continuation of the story.
It’s charming to see most of the central actors participating in a dance rehearsal together. The waltz has only just arrived in England, and has never been danced in Cranford until the very end when Miss Matty succeeds in reuniting the community. For the first time while dancing together, couples can look into each others eyes, taking a step toward modern gender relations. Delightful as ever, an extremely talented cast bring Cranford to life, but they couldn’t do it without the tremendous support of all the writers, designers, costumers, and of course, Gaskell’s excellent source material.