There is mischief afoot in Cranford: Dr Harrison and Mrs Rose hear a noise and leave their (separate) beds to investigate. Dr Harrison is clad only in a nightshirt, (which gives Miss Caroline Tomkinson a heady burst of delight when imagining it later on in the episode) and has nothing to fend burglars off with except quite a miserly stub of a candle. A window is open and Mrs Rose breathily exclaims that someone has stolen the mutton! Yes, they're the worst type of thief, those that go around at night stealing meat.
It seems that Cranford is in the midst of a crime wave, while extinguishing the gas lights outside his shop, Mr Johnson is attacked by a stranger. Meanwhile, to make ends meet and feed his large, quite grubby, although extremely photogenic brood of children, Job Gregson (a heavily bearded Dean Lennox Kelly) takes his son Harry out to poach pheasants from the Hanbury Estate. Harry is reticent, but does as his father asks.
Miss Pole is entreated to buy clothes pegs from her door by a decrepit gypsy lady, who offends her by assuming she's the servant and asking to see the lady of the house. This unsettles Miss Pole who, convinced she'll be murdered in her bed, gathers all her silver plate and other valuables and bundles them up and seeks refuge first with Mrs Jamieson, whose butler takes pot shots out of his window at them and then with Miss Matty, whom she chastises for opening the door to her, claiming that she might have been anybody, adding for good measure, "with a cutlass!" Miss Poles lone gypsy has now become a band of evil men, one of whom "has a hump!". As ever Imelda Staunton is fabulous, her exclamations could be histrionic and over the top, but she judges them exactly right and gives Miss Pole the correct amount of hysterical exuberance without tipping over into pantomime.
Miss Matty generously allows Miss Pole to stay the night in Mary's bed, while Mary will share hers that night. This gives Mary the opportunity to observe Miss Matty's night time routine, which consists of rolling a small ball under her bed to ensure that there are no rogue men hiding under there. Mr Johnson mistakenly fingers Job Gregson for the attack on him and Job is arrested and placed in the town prison, which is a single cell marooned in the middle of the town green with the warder sitting outside balancing his cudgel on his knee. Harry visits his Dad to give him his meal and beseeches his father to tell the truth. If convicted of the attack on Mr. Johnson, Job is facing the prison ship and exile to Australia. But Job, in an admirable effort to keep his son from jail refuses to tell the truth for fear of Harry being convicted of poaching.
Harry in desperation confesses all to Mr. Carter, who is icily angry and sends Harry home. Nevertheless, Mr Carter asks for Lady Ludlow's influence in getting Job released as he is not guilty for anything other than poaching. Lady Ludlow refuses and seems determined not to get involved when learning that the Gregson family are not her tenants and therefore not her responsibility.Dr Jack Marshland (Joseph McFadden) comes to visit his friend Dr Harrison for Christmas. Jack is a charismatic and mischievous fellow and is delighted that he'll get a chance to spend Christmas Eve in the company of ladies. What he doesn't know is that Cranford ladies are a breed apart and would eat him for breakfast given half a chance.
Once at the party and sandwiched between the Tomkinson sisters he realised that his earlier exuberance was unwarranted and realises why Dr Harrison was less than over enthusiastic about attending.
Despite the dismal prospect of spending a long winters evening playing Whist, Jack perks up when he catches sight of Mary and entertains her with scurrilous stories about his and Frank Harrison's student days, somebody put a dog in the others bed. Mary thankfully thinks it is hilarious and there is a genuine spark between her and Jack, something that was missing between her and Dr Harrison.Lady Ludlow has been to see the abject poverty that the Gregsons lived in and has had a change of heart. She summons Lord Maulver (a criminally underused Greg Wise) to inform him that the charge of attacking Mr Johnson be dropped and that herself will pay the fine for the lesser charge of poaching. Lord Maulver isn't happy, but acquiesces and Job returns home free.
It is now February, and Jack Marshland is with Dr Harrison when they meet the Hutton sisters leaving the store. He sees that Frank is taken with Sophy and is enchanted by the younger sister too, so Jack decides to send a Valentine to each of the younger girls. Also in a fit of mischief and devilry, he also sends one to Caroline Tomkinson, almost definitely expecting her to believe it's from Dr Harrison. And it seems that doctor's handwriting has always been awful, at least nowadays we don't have to put up with blotches and spatters of ink as well.
Martha has received a Valentines Day card too, from Jem and she props it up next to the bowl of dirt she got at Christmas, which has bloomed into a fine crop of crocuses. Miss Matty sees it and is shocked that Martha has gotten a "follower". Such a thing horrifies Miss Matty and a tearful Martha resolves to tell Jem that she can't go against her mistresses orders and that she can't see him again.
The postman has been to the Hutton household and Lizzie and Helen are delighted to have received a card each from a mystery admirer, Sophy is handed a box inside which is a posy of snowdrops from Dr Harrison. She looks very pleased and her father asks if she'd like to invite him around to which she happily agrees.
Dr Harrison arrives to eat pancakes and to the admiration of younger Hutton girls manages eight. Pancakes obviously taste better when the object of your affection is cooking them.
Alas when he gets home Dr Harrison, so stuffed already with pancakes, is presented with another pile made by the fair hands of Mrs Rose. He looks slightly sick, but the well bred boy that he is, politely thanks Mrs Rose and sits down to his ordeal.
Matty, Mary and Miss Pole are invited to Mr Holbrooks house for dinner for their own culinary ordeal. They are given a two pronged fork each and a pile of peas. Miss Matty spikes them on a prong and eats them one by one, Miss Pole ignores them with disdain and Mr Holbrook balances a teetering pile on his knife and gulps them down. To prevent any embarrassment Mary does the same. Then Mr Holbrook spends the rest of the evening spouting poetry at full volume at the ladies, despite this Miss Matty is delighted to be there, while Miss Pole complains of sitting in a draught.
Mr Holbrook comes to call on Miss Matty and brings, as was his wont when they were both younger, a small bunch of primroses. Mr Holbrook says that he is going to Paris and that by the time he returns that he hopes that Miss Matty will have made her mind up about their relationship. He mentions that they are not in the habit of making speedy decisions and at their time of life why should they break the habit of a lifetime.
Miss Matty is pressing the primroses (and we catch sight of her first bunch from Mr Holbrook kept all these years) and using the heavy family bible to do so, when Mary catches sight of another name in the family bible beneath Deborah and Matty's and asks: who is Peter.
Miss Matty tells Mary that Peter was a young rogue and after a practical joke in which he had dressed as Deborah and pretended to have had a baby out of wedlock, he had run away. The last that they had heard from him was from India when he had promised to send some Indian muslin for a dress for Matty. The muslin never arrived and Peter is presumed long since dead.Mr Holbrook returns from France, but he is mortally ill. Miss Pole fetches Miss Matty and they both go to visit Mr Holbrook. Miss Pole shows her sensitive side and allows Miss Matty to sit with Mr Holbrook and say goodbye. The programme doesn't flinch from the deaths of its characters and does so particularly un-melodramatically, Mr Holbrook is allowed to expire in a dignified and compassionate way and his death is all the more affecting for it.
Miss Matty has been deeply affected by Mr Holbrook's death, coming as it does so soon on the heels of Deborah's. She comes to a decision, calling Martha, she kindly and carefully states that she "does not want to grieve any young hearts" and allows Martha to take a follower. Martha jubilantly runs to find Jem to tell him the good news. Jem is quite pleased, but doesn't feel that their celebration is quite appropriate right now seeing as he's currently ferrying around Mr. Holbrooks coffin.
Miss Matty goes to Miss Galindo's to get a new cap made, she asks for one like Mrs Forresters, Miss Galindo states that Mrs Forrester wears a widows cap and Miss Matty gently says yes.Another fantastic episode, Cranford is turning out to be a jewel in the BBC's crown. I don't think anyone can deny the fantastic performances all round, from Judi Dench, from whom a solid turn is expected, to the wonderful Lisa Dillon, who gives Mary Smith a quietly sparky personality, imbuing Mary with generosity, good humour and vivacity without being too showy. I'll look out for her in future.
I expected more from Michael Gambon, but was disappointed in the brevity of his part, although it did bring into sharp relief the depth of emotion that Matty felt for him.
One criticism is that the show has no overarching storyline, so without all the sterling performances, it would be in danger of falling a bit flat. Nevertheless it is incredibly enjoyable and one of the best shows I've seen all year, I'm going to miss it when it over!