Friday, March 06, 2009

Miniseries Heresy

Cranford, Written by Sue Birtwistle, Susie Conklin, and Heidi Thomas, based on the novels by Elizabeth Gaskell, Directed by Simon Curtis and Steve Hudson, Starring Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton, Simon Woods, Eileen Atkins, Lisa Dillon, and Jim Carter , BBC, WGBH, Chestermead, 2008

My wife, like many women I know, is completely gaga for A&E’s Pride and Prejudice. One searches in vain for a period miniseries that can quite equal that one for its pacing, its flawless writing and acting, and its sheer timeless delightfulness. Without considering the length of the show (around six hours), it is something she can put on at almost any time and be quite content. It is a rare on-screen man who doesn’t get stacked up against Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy – and be found lacking.

We have sampled other Masterpiece Theatre pieces, BBC offerings, and A&E attempts, but nothing quite delivered on the must-have status. Until now. The five episode adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford novels might just about be one of the most enjoyable television experiences I have had in years.

Alerted to it through Dame Judi Dench’s Golden Globe nomination (and I wonder how long it’d have taken us to discover Cranford were it not for the service sometimes provided by these award shows), I sat down immediately after seeing one scene during the awards and requested Cranford from the library. And within two weeks, we were watching.

And we were riveted. To begin with, the BBC is just about one of the best companies for producing this type of work, so no expense seems to have been spared. From costumes to settings, the poor are realistically begrimed and ill-housed, the moderately well-off skimp on candles but go into raptures over new bolts of cloth at the milliners, and the aristocracy is icily filmed through blue filter in their palatial estates to emphasize their remoteness. One of the true rewarding elements of Cranford is that the writers haven’t glossed over the actual day-to-day workings of life in those ages. Indeed, you could even say it’s one of the most rewarding elements of the show.

For example, when a carpenter falls and breaks his arm in a compound fracture, the art of setting such a wound was cutting-edge for the time. The newly arrived Dr. Frank Harrison (Simon Woods, amusingly enough from the most recent cinematic Pride and Prejudice) can fix it with a technique he learned in London, but he is thwarted by a lack of candles at his home and at the village’s single store. Cranford’s established physician, Dr. Morgan (John Bowe), insists that amputation is the only way, indeed the preferred way for the times, to save the man’s life, though as a carpenter he’ll be thrown upon the poorhouse afterwards. As Dr. Harrison rides at full length to nearby Manchester for the required hooked needles, ice is procured from the town ice house to keep the man’s arm in an operable state. Within the first of five episodes, we are treated to contemporary medicine, the limitations of trade in pre-industrial Britain, and the sense of community as the ladies of Cranford come together to donate their candles for the operation.

And the entirety of the series is like that. We are educated as to the effects of the Enclosure Act of Parliament, to the penalties for poaching, to how the coming of the railroad affected small town England, to the appropriate manners in Cranford for visiting hours and just what color coat a gentleman doctor should wear (black).

I have yet to watch such a series that had the texture of the times so accomplished and so thorough. Most adaptations of Austen or Dickens era novels feel like merely modern times in period costume, an elaborate game of dress up and pretend that convinces no one. This is not to say that I expect authentically rotten teeth and toilet habits to make up the dominant thread of a program, but it is nice to watch how an old piece of lace is bleached for a garden party by being laid out in a bowl of buttermilk (with hilarious and additionally enlightening developments when said buttermilk and lace are scarfed up by a cat).

And as is fitting, the casting is stellar. Usually one turns into a Judi Dench program to see the spitfire personality she’s been typecast as. Here instead, as Matilda Jenkyns, she is the more retiring sister, afraid at all to give the wrong impression, hesitant and nervous, especially while her elder sister, Deborah (Eileen Atkins), lives and imperiously pronounces upon the correctness of behavior and attitudes. These two spinsters are joined by Miss Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon), their niece who is in flight from her marriage-minded stepmother and the voice of steady English reason throughout. Among other ladies of the town are the gossipy Miss Pole (the always entertaining Imelda Staunton), Mrs. Forrester (Julia McKenzie), a widow who loves her cow like a daughter, and Mrs. Jamieson (Barbara Flynn), a widowed snob who is frequently seen being carried through town in a sedan chair.

Cranford also excels at being a primer on the politics of the time through the story of the local aristocrat Lady Ludlow (Francesa Annis) an imperious widow who finds a serving girl’s ability to read and write sufficient cause not to hire her. The land agent of Hanbury Court, her estate, is the progressive reformer Edmund Carter (Philip Glenister), one of Cranford’s true unsung heroes, who is constantly imploring Lady Ludlow to exercise her mercy as well as her better judgment regarding her wastrel son. Carter takes under his wing young Harry Gregson (Aex Etel) the son of an indigent poacher, with at first successful, then disastrous, the ultimately uplifting and tear-inducing results.

Also, much as we’ve come to expect through such novels and such stories, there is romance. The dashing young Doctor Harrison is the object of crushes ranging from his landlady to a somewhat unattractive young woman determined not to remain a spinster, as well as his true love Sophy Hutton (the luminously beautiful Kimberley Nixon), daughter of the town’s minister. This three way race for Dr. Harrison’s hand leads to quite a bit of comedy as well as life-threatening drama.

Which is one of the other great pleasures of Cranford. For though it amuses and delights, it is also not at all afraid of completely sucker punching you with the deaths of characters seemingly out of the blue. It almost seems axiomatic for quite some time throughout that spinsters will remain so and true love will be thwarted, that the more vicious human nature will prevail and that miscommunications will forever stand not to be corrected.

I’d reveal more of the plot, but the intricacies, how one event unfolds and sets off a cascade of other events, are part of the absolute delight and charm of this miniseries. It may not be Pride and Prejudice exactly, but in many ways, I find it actually even better.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

For the record, as one of those Women Who Likes the A&E P&P, I have to say that Colin Firth is my least favorite. He hams it up too much. All that schlock about suffering dramatically is Wrong. Also, he's too substantial to make a good Darcy. Someone more along the lines of Richard E. Grant would have looked more the part.

My favorites in P&P are Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, who look and act exactly as I always imagined them in the book.

Jennifer Ehle is a hack but they manage to paint her into the part.