Look out for the women of “Cranford”

Let’s face it: High-quality
television dramas with female-heavy casts are few and far between. Particularly
when many of the women involved are over 40. In fact, I think the last
real standout I remember in this respect was The Jewel in the Crown
in 1984, where actresses of the caliber of Peggy Ashcroft
(then in her 70s) were given full range to strut their stuff.

American viewers have got a
real treat in store, though, as according to this
, the BBC’s
latest costume drama Cranford will be coming to Masterpiece Theatre
on PBS sometime between January and May.

Having watched, laughed like
a maniac, and cried like a wuss over this miniseries when it screened
in the U.K. last month, I can honestly recommend it as one of the best
things I’ve seen on British TV in years.

Here’s a trailer for the


The drama is adapted from three
short novels by the Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell: Cranford,
Mr. Harrison’s Confessions
, and My Lady Ludlow. Created
by Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin (of the 1995 Pride & Prejudice
fame) and scripted by Heidi Thomas (who also wrote the recent Emma Watson

Ballet Shoes),
the drama takes place in Cranford, a fictional town in the north of
England, in the 1840s. Most of the town’s inhabitants are single or
widowed middle-aged women, and over the course of the series we follow
them dealing with dramas both small — like the loss of a cow or having
one’s best lace swallowed by one’s cat — and large, such as bankruptcy,
death, and the advent of the railway.

Mary Smith, the book’s narrator,
is played by the sweet-faced actress Lisa Dillon
(pictured below center), who manages to make the character a moral center
without becoming dull or bland:

Mary has come from Manchester
to stay with the sisters Miss Deborah Jenkyns (played by Eileen Atkins,
pictured right) and Miss Matty Jenkyns (played by Judi Dench,
pictured left). Although Dench is regarded in the U.K. as something
of a national treasure, I have to say I’ve felt somewhat ambivalent
about her in the past, as she seems to me to keep playing the same type
of woman: authoritative and prickly. As the shy, uncertain Miss Matty,
though, she shows herself capable of something completely different,
and is excellent.

Newcomer Kimberley Nixon
plays Miss Sophy Hutton, the romantic ingénue who is tougher than she
looks (she has raised her younger brother and sisters after her mother
died when she was a child):

Imelda Staunton (of
Vera Drake
and Harry Potter fame) plays Miss Pole, an intense
gossipy spinster:

Francesca Annis plays
Lady Ludlow, an aristocrat trapped in her crumbling estate and trying
to come to terms with the modern world:

Warning: minor spoilers!

Much as I loved the series,
I did have a few reservations about how it treated some of its female
characters. One strand of the plot concerns the confusion that takes
place when, due to various misunderstandings, both the older spinster
Miss Caroline Tomkinson and the widow Mrs. Rose come to believe that
the male Dr. Harrison (who is really engaged to Sophy Hutton) is in
love with them. The program treats Miss Caroline, in particular, as
a figure of fun — and it is difficult not to feel that that is partly
because she is so much older and plainer than the lovely young Sophy.
To me, there wasn’t much funny about her pain.

The last episode also showed
a bit too much enthusiasm for pairing every single character off with
some sort of male love interest, even when there had been no room in
the ensemble show for the relationship to be developed. Not only did
this suggest that women aren’t really complete till they marry, but
it also just seemed inartistic.

Overall, however, the series
was consistently excellent, and it is well worth watching when it shows
on PBS.