Blightyvision: “Cranford”

Created by Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin
Based on three novels by Elizabeth Gaskell
Directed by Simon Curtis and Steve Hudson
Starring Judi Dench, Julia McKenzie, and Imelda Staunton

As I don’t watch soap operas, I have to get my “soap opera”-y fix from elsewhere.  And I believe there is a subgenre of shows (albeit a subgenre that jumps genres) that qualify as soap-substitutes, where you can get all sorts of wrapped up in characters’ relationships to the point of becoming defensive and/or emotionally invested.  I suppose I’m an odd one to consider “Cranford” to be one of those sorts of shows, but something about the super-personal spying-over-the-shoulder nature of it does — to me, at least — get one involved pretty quickly.

The series is based on three works by class-conscious Victorian author Elizabeth Gaskell: the titular novel, Mr. Harrison’s Confessions, and My Lady Ludlow (with a bit of help from her nonfiction article “The Last Generation in England”).  Put together, the stories create a snapshot of small-town life in the 1800s, which is far more interesting than some may thing it sounds.

The protagonist (or as close as can be named) is Miss Matty (Dench), a timid spinster who — much like her friends — considers her life of dressmaking and low-level gossip to be the height of excitement.  The story as such is made of mostly of isolated episodes, though underneath it is the running thread of her long-unaddressed romance with Thomas Holbrook (Michael Gambon ). The beginning of the series sees things properly “shaken up” at the arrival of a young doctor (Simon Woods, recently of “Rome”) as the female population, both young and old, begin going out of their way to catch his eye — with unfortunate results.  Somewhat detached is the story of the widowed Countess Ludlow (Francesca Annis) and her land agent Edmund Carter (Philip Glenister), who are at odds concerning the education of a poacher’s son.

My first impression of “Cranford,” right within the first five minutes, was that it was utterly adorable.  Or, in particular, the little old ladies in it were.  They’re introduced to you not as oblivious or sheltered, but rather as very proud of whatever drama they can claim as their own in their town (which, at its height, initially amounted to knowing that the lace your friend is wearing has passed through the digestive system of a cat).  The lightheartedness early in the stories is deceptive, though; the ladies of Cranford insist that their town is buzzing with scandal and activity, but before long this turns out to be the case.  And when it does, you’ve been so charmed by the characters that you’re drawn in.

This is, as you may have guessed, a slow-paced show.  But the pacing is offset by the movement amongst the three sets of characters (though Mr. Harrison’s story crosses over with the others fairly frequently), and never truly stagnates.  A lot of the humor comes from seeing the ladies of town dramatize their day-to-day activities to a pitch that makes teenage girls look downright sedated, and conversely a lot of the drama comes from the upending of that comedy when things really do take a dramatic turn.

You don’t have to be particularly versed in the works of Mrs. Gaskell to appreciate “Cranford” — even as a lover of Victoriana, I find myself somewhat unfamiliar with her books in general.  If you have even a sliver of interest in that oft-ignored part of Victorian literature that is genuinely normal and down-to-earth, give it an episode to see if it takes you in.

“Cranford” and its two-part sequel “Return to Cranford” are available together in a DVD box set.  And don’t let the frump-gear fool you — having seen Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, I can tell you that Dame Judi looks better in a low-cut dress than any of us ever will.