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'Return to Cranford,' airing Sunday on PBS' 'Masterpiece Classic'

Mary McNamara
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

If you need proof that Americans are different from Brits, you need look no further than "Cranford."

The star-studded series — Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Imelda Staunton, Jonathan Pryce — based on the slim 19th century novels of Elizabeth Gaskell, followed the adventures of a tiny market town in Cheshire. Full of as many frilly bonnets and quaint platitudes as fine performances, "Cranford" aired in 2007 in the U.K., where it not only was lauded by critics, it was a smash hit, averaging close to 8 million viewers for each of its five parts.

Imagine, just for a moment, 8 million Americans tuning into a period drama. HBO's lavishly awarded "John Adams" was quite happy with 2.5 million viewers for its first two installments, and AMC was over the moon when "Mad Men," more modern but still period complete with requisite headgear, hit a 4-million cume for its premiere.

So great was the British response to "Cranford" that a sequel was devised, almost entirely out of the imaginations of the creators. "Return to Cranford" was written by Heidi Thomas, with the aid of creators Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin, the three who had already pulled an "Under the Tuscan Sun" trick of creating cinematic narrative where there was almost none for the first one. (Gaskell's books are heavy on domestic detail, light on action.)

All the formidable leads save Atkins (whose character died early on in "Cranford") returned, with the addition of Tim Curry, as an accented conjurer. In the U.K., "Return to Cranford" ran during this past Christmas week, a sacrosanct time slot reserved for things like the final episode of David Tennant's "Dr. Who."

To the delight of most American critics, "Cranford" came to the U.S. in 2008 via PBS and so "Return to Cranford" airs Sunday. Be warned, it is very much a holiday pudding, just as chockablock with Victoriana — gorse-strewn landscapes, chaste and thwarted love, faded dance cards, death by childbirth, pesky class issues and of course, all those frilly bonnets — but lacking the narrative resonance of the first.

Just as "Cranford" did, "Return to" revolves around Dench's Miss Matty Jenkyns, the soft and sweet spinster who found a bit of spine after the death of her more formidable sister (Atkins) early on in "Cranford." As the controversial new form of transport — the railroad — spreads across the land, many fear it will destroy the sylvan yet often stagnant way of country life. As events unfold, Miss Matty, once very anti-rail, finds herself torn — she cherishes the simple dream of Cranford, while at the same time realizing that it has become a town of old people, with the young leaving to find work and excitement elsewhere.

There is something still glorious about trains on film, and the tension between the old ways and the new goes far in giving "Return to Cranford" a raison d'etre besides, you know, those super ratings, though not, perhaps, far enough. Although it is lovely to see those green, green fields and Miss Matty with all her friends bobbing over tea and bits of what passes for excitement — a magician is coming to town! Wait, no he isn't because so many people have just tragically died! — all the various B plots feel rushed and familiar.

This isn't helped at all by the fact that the young doctor who drove so much of the action in "Cranford" is now dead, freeing his comely young widow, Sophy (Kimberley Nixon), to enact yet another courtship, this time with the scion of the local gentry, marked by far too many sad but hopeful smiles and looks of longing from beneath lowered lashes.

Some of the undone ends from "Cranford" are tied up — Lady Ludlow's (Francesca Annis) errant son Septimus (Rory Kinnear) returns and is just as awful as one imagined (also, it appears, homosexual — still shorthand, it seems, for depraved); the stalwart and handsome Captain Brown (Jim Carter) finally finds love. But for all the uber narrative of progress, not much happens in "Return to Cranford," at least not in terms of character development. Still, the sets are lovely, and the acting so fine that you find yourself wondering if there is any narrative bog that Dench, Staunton and their colleagues cannot illuminate with splendid bits of humor and humanity, even under 5 pounds of lace and ribbon.

For those who loved "Cranford," "Return to Cranford" is another chance to visit a world in which one found happiness and is certainly worth watching. For those who did not, or for viewers with a low treacle and teacup tolerance, perhaps another show would serve better.

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