Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Cranford Episode One

I thoroughly enjoyed Cranford and meant to get this cap up sooner rather than later, but circumstances proved otherwise, but better late than never.

The story starts with the arrival of Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon) to Cranford to stay with the two Miss Jenkyns'.
The eldest sister, Deborah (Dame Eileen Atkins) is imperious, aloof, bossy and snobbish. Her sister Matty (Dame Judi Dench) is the opposite: warm, generous and open, if a little scatty. Both actresses are utterly marvellous, Eileen Atkins can summon up a contemptuous demeanour with a slight purse of the lips and raise of her eyebrow and Judi Dench just glows with generosity, good humour and gentleness.

Mary is inducted into the etiquette of Cranford, no visiting until noon which runs until three o'clock and then the visit must be no longer than fifteen minutes. And upon the consumption of oranges, one must repair to her bedroom to partake of the "sucking" of this fruit in solitude. Miss Deborah sensibly cuts hers into segments, while Mary and Matty both prefer to suck theirs dry through a single hole in the rind.

The ladies first visitor of the day is Dr Morgan (John Bowe) who informs them of the new doctor, Dr Harrison, that has been employed to deal with the sick of Cranford, 'cos he's getting on a bit. Dr. Morgan not only has the requisite period drama sideburns, he also has wig that he wears on the occasion of (medical) house visits. Dr Morgan in deference to Miss Deborah's status as queen of the Cranfordian Amazons has come to tell the Misses Jenkyns' in person about this development, however the rest of the village must make do with Miss Pole, whom Dr Morgan has already appraised.
Miss Pole (Imelda Staunton) is more than just the village gossip, she takes it upon herself to impart her knowledge and all other pertinent village developments with such determination and diligence that she, with scant regard for her own safety, even flings herself in front of travelling sedan chairs to spread the news.
Imelda Staunton is a wonderful actress and Miss Pole is a genuine comic revelation. She bustles about Cranford imparting and spreading news and finds herself often in the midst of things, occasionally mischief of her own making. She lives to purvey a lively story and exaggerates enormously, rarely letting her companions get a word in edge ways. In some ways she is the most pantomimic of the characters, being larger than life and always in the thick of it!

She is aided and abetted by the rest of the Amazons: the Tomkinson sisters Caroline (Selina Griffiths, the one that has a hairstyle like someone put a mop on her head) and her elder sister Augusta (Deborah Findlay). Caroline hasn't yet given up hope that she might find a husband and Augusta encourages her, but they are both devoted to each other and are played by two fine actresses. Selina Griffiths is suitably fussy and a tad neurotic, while Deborah Findlay is more reflective and stoic.

Julia McKenzie as Mrs Forrester, a lady who doesn't have the best luck with animals completes the group and works very well as Miss Pole's foil.
Dr. Frank Harrison finally arrives, with his top hat well rammed down and looking all of about twelve. He attributes his lateness to his horse requiring to be shod and is shown in by Dr Morgan to his spare, to the point of emptiness, lodgings. It seems that he is to see patients perched on a tiny stool in the middle of the room, as it's the only furniture in the place. Despite this he seems happy enough.

St. John Rivers turns up and asks Jane to go to India, oops sorry wrong period drama. Andrew Buchan, (who was St. John in last years Jane Eyre) arrives. He is Jem Hearne, carpenter, joiner and general odd job man. He is here to measure the surgery for all it needs, but he warns Dr Harrison, very matter of factly, that if there's a funeral, he'll have to wait as he's to make the coffin.
The following morning, Dr's Harrison and Morgan visit the rectory to call on the housemaid and her sore knee, while there, Dr Harrison meets Sophy Hutton (who's played by Carey Mulligan, no wait, she's actually played by Kimberly Nixon, who bears a striking resemblance to Carey, but without the dimples). Sophy is playing with her beloved brother Walter, who she has raised since her mother died six years ago. Dr Harrison is immediately smitten, understandably as Sophy is undeniably pretty.

Sophy and Walter lead Dr. Harrison to the garden where they begin to beat cherries off a tree with a rake, well it gets the job done I suppose. In the original short story, Sophy picks pears, but just to ram home the fact that Sophy and Frank fancy each other, they have to pick cherries together. Yes, actually we noticed that, thanks, but isn't June a bit early for cherries?
While illicitly knocking down cherries, Sophy and Frank are observed by Sophy's father, a stern looking Reverend Hutton (Alex Jennings, a hundred years and a couple of dressing gowns away from Garry Essendine. Coincidentally both Alex and Lisa Dillon are still in Present Laughter, which is on at the National Theatre, in which Alex, as Garry, is irresistible to women and Lisa is nearly unrecognisable in a virulent red wig, playing vampish Joanna, a very funny play, as I've blogged about below, get tickets while you can).

Anyway, Reverend Hutton doesn't like the look of his daughter cherry picking with a complete stranger and interrupts on the pretext of young Walter's education. Sophy spotting her father rushes off too, leaving Dr. Harrison under a tree clutching some cherries. Reverend Hutton is described by Elizabeth Gaskell as being dignified and commanding respect and Alex Jennings manages to convey all that, despite having only two lines.
Meanwhile Jem Hearne is up a tree in the Tompkinson sisters back garden, he's been employed by the women to lop off some branches. When Jem states that he'll need help, Augusta vehemently disagrees, no doubt because it'll cost more and they aren't rich. Jem acquiesces and then in a moment that starts out comically, Jem falls out of the tree, turns quite gory as it appears Jem has broken his arm very badly and lurches out of the garden for help, dripping blood like a nineteenth century zombie, but with less of an appetite for human flesh.

Jem manages to make quite an entrance in the middle of Cranford's main street and faints clean away. He's taken to Dr. Harrison's by the authoritative Mr. Carter (the wonderful Philip Glenister) and a young poacher Harry Gregson (Alex Etel) is press ganged by Mr. Carter, into obtaining some ice to pack around Jem's arm to give Frank Harrison enough time to ride to find some curved needles so he can save Jem's arm. The village is agog with the news of Jem's accident and ghoulish Miss Pole is a little disappointed that it wasn't instantly amputated and the stump covered with tar. It transpires that when Dr. Harrison returns with his needles, he discovers that he has no candles and that when he asks Mr. Johnson (Mayor and storekeeper) for candles ("Four candles, y' know, 'andles for forks" - copyright the Two Ronnies) that he doesn't have the right sort.

Frank sits despondently clad in a black coat on the store steps and originates the rumour that Jem has died and that he is distraught. Eventually the reason for his despondency is revealed and the ladies of Cranford rally around and arrive en masse to donate all their candles (subject to a substantial candle tax) to the doctor for Jem's operation. Well if Jem expired, that would be the end of the hot handyman and they'd only have Dr Morgan's sideburns to lust after. On a more serious note, if Jem's compound fracture can't be fixed, he would lose it or at least the use of it and would not be able to work anymore, no doubt leading to the poorhouse.

In any event the operation, on a still conscious Jem (!), goes ahead with Mary as Frank's assistant. The ladies of Cranford then send Jem jelly and other food for invalids with Martha (Claudie Blakley) who just so happens to have secret relationship with Jem, even though she's been forbidden "followers" by Miss Jenkyns. It's touching to see their close and tender relationship and it's nice to see that writer Heidi Thomas hasn't ignored the working classes in her adaptation as Jem and Martha's experience is just as valid as that of the far more middle class Cranfordians.

A new family arrives in Cranford, Captain Brown (Jim Carter) and daughters Jessie Brown (Julia Sawalha) along with a sick sister Mary, who doesn't say a word and expires quite silently a little later on.
Captain Brown has a magnificent set of sideburns. Many of the Cranford side burns have me itching to lean through the tv and give them a tug, to see how real they are. Dr. Morgan's and Captain Brown's are of special note.

Julia Sawalha , looking much older than her Pride and Prejudice days is filmed in unflattering and unfair close up shots, in which the poor thing looks quite haggard and washed out. Lord Charles Maulver (Greg Wise) arrives as a friend and the landlord of Captain Brown and stays for awhile. His lack of facial hair is noted and I have come to the conclusion that he is a cad, although this may be due to his previous acting roles. He can do smug and self satisfied with his eyes shut.

Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis) is holed up in her mausoleum of a house,
waited upon by Mr. Carter in the capacity of an estate manager and Miss Galindo (Emma Fielding) as her ladyships milliner. Lady Ludlow is opposed to the lower orders educating themselves as evidenced by her interrogation of a new maid. When told that the maid can read, write and cast accounts, Lady Ludlow spits that she is no good for anything but trade. Her servants are taught to obey her, do their jobs and learn their prayers and nothing else. This rankles with Mr. Carter and he is quite clearly annoyed by Lady Ludlows stance. Miss Galindo doesn't appear to care and may as well be made of stone for all the emotion Emma Fielding gives her.

Meanwhile back in Cranford, after setting a valuable lace collar in bowl of buttermilk to bleach, Miss Pole and Mrs. Forrester turn away to pass comments on Mrs Forrester's well fed maid. Taking its opportunity for some fresh delicious buttermilk, Mrs. Forrester's cat scoffs the buttermilk, lace collar and all. The ladies spring into action and begin a wild dash to the store to purchase a "compound". The procession gathers participants in the manner of Mrs. Jamieson, (Barbara Flynn plus sedan chair and carriers) who is attracted by the no doubt unusual sight of "some ladies running". The procession runs, somewhat out of breath, through the centre of Cranford, scattering inhabitants in their wake with Miss Pole's cry, "this is a matter of lace!" The lace in question residing in the cats stomach, but as it was woven by silent French nuns, is extremely valuable and must be retrieved.

When in the possession of the emetic compound, it is administered to the cat, which is placed in a boot that fought at Waterloo. The looks on the faces of the actresses as the cat evacuates it's bowels are wonderful and just goes to show fart jokes work!
The lace is washed out of the boot by a disgusted looking maid and held up now brown and worse for wear, though intact much to the delight of Mrs. Forrester.

Mary Brown dies while Captain Brown is away on business and the funeral has to be arranged by a distraught Jessie, who states that if her father does not return then she will walk behind the coffin, so that her sister will not be alone. This horrifies Miss Deborah, as women are not permitted to attend funerals. She retires to her room to meditate on the matter and in the morning appears at Jessie's side to walk alongside her behind the coffin. The consensus now being that if Miss Jenkyns is allowed to attend a funeral, then it must be ok, as she is the arbiter of all Cranford etiquette and thus Miss Deborah ensures that the scandal of a woman at a funeral is averted.Dr Harrison gains a full house of furniture, and a housekeeper, the recently widowed Mrs. Rose (Lesley Manville) who in one short scene and a few lines develops Mrs. Rose into a vulnerable and fragile woman, though kindhearted and gentle.
Jem's arm is healing well and he is able to use it well enough to fix Frank Harrison's plaque to the door, meanwhile Sophy and the rest of her family pull up outside to deliver some cherries, which is just an excuse to reiterate that Sophy and Frank are attracted to one another.
Cranford is stuffed with fantastic characters and even better performances, Eileen Atkins and Imelda Staunton nearly steal the show, but with great restraint don't steam roller every other performance in deference of their, they generously allow the other actors to shine and do their best also. From Captain Brown who emanates generosity and good humour, to Jem Hearne's stolid and everyday charm, to Mary Smith's patience and shrewdness, to Harry Gregson's youthful resilience. One especial mention must go to Heidi Thomas's script which retains almost all of Gaskell's original humour and is successful in melding all three sources into one very satisfying whole.

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