Gossip Girls: Judi Dench and the cast of UKTV drama Cranford

“It’s all go at Cranford,” exclaims the kind-hearted spinster Miss Matty Jenkyns (Judi Dench) to the town’s newest addition, the self-described “indiscreet and incautious” Miss Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon).

Ironically, Smith has just arrived from the bustling metropolis of Manchester to the tiny town of Cranford, which provides the backdrop for UKTV’s lavish new 19th-century period drama of the same name. But true to Miss Matty’s word, Cranford is far from the sleepy hollow that one might expect. Rather, it is a happening hive of gossip, speculation and intrigue where anyone’s business is in fact everyone’s and a good rumour travels faster than a rat up a drainpipe.

A comedy of Victorian manners wrapped up in the guise of an engaging social drama, Cranford is based on the plots and characters created by Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell. A lesser-known contemporary of Dickens and biographer Charlotte Brontë.

Gaskell had a keen eye for the humour inherent in the social morays of the era. But unlike her literary predecessor Jane Austen, who was widely lauded for her biting social commentary, Gaskell was actually much better acquainted with the realities of life for the lower and middle classes. “She had a broader spectrum of life than Austen, says Eileen Atkins, who lays Miss Matty’s sister and the town’s moral conscience, Deborah Jenkyns. “She did actually work among the poor.”

Judi Dench, a best actress nominee along with Atkins for her work in Cranford at this year’s BAFTAs (she was trumped by Atkins on the night), fondly remembers the works of Gaskell from her childhood. “Recently, a neighbour lent me a copy [of Cranford]. It was just like the little red copy that I read at school with a raised portrait of Mrs Gaskell in the corner,” says Dench. “I remember I used to lick my finger and press it against that raised  oval and have the outline of her on my thumb. I remember that so terribly well, and I’ve loved coming back to the novel again.”

With its quaint customs and old fashioned insights, Simon Woods – who plays the brash new young doctor – believes that many viewers will find themselves tuning in to Cranford to escape the modern world. “If you look at the TV schedules these days, there is always some kind of loud character swearing in the middle of it all. We live in an ‘F-word’ world. Programs like Cranford are different… In all the loudness of modern life, period drama quietly reminds us of our lost values.”

But this five-part adaptation, created by the team who brought you the acclaimed BBC series Pride And Prejudice and Wives And Daughters, is far more than simply a flashback to a more ‘civilised’ past. “Cranford is light and funny and yet packs a real emotional punch,” explains executive producer Kate Harwood. “It is a complex portrait of a real town. On top of that are these delicious characters with this absolutely brilliant cast – it’s a winning combination all round.”

This article first appeared in AUSTAR magazine, November 2008