It's 1844 and it's been two years since Miss Deborah died, but Miss Matty (Judi Dench) happily fills her time, with great obvious pleasure, tending to Martha and Jem's baby Tilly. Miss Matty happily wheels Tilly along the Cranford high street, nodding to the townsfolk; we spy Mrs. Forrester (Julia McKenzie), now so attached to Bessie the Cow that she takes it on a walk with her. Lady Jamieson (Barbara Flynn) is still cradling a dog and being carried around in a sedan chair and much to my delight by the same hardy extras as last time.
With a screech, Miss Pole, so indignant that even the feather in her bonnet is quivering with anger, accosts Miss Matty, who is urged not to near the 'George' for fear of the ghastly pool of 'effluvia' the Navvies have left behind. Miss Matty looks aghast. It seems that the 'Railway!' is still occupying the thoughts of the Amazons and they are still against it.
Even Lady Ludlow is behind them; her refusal to sell her land for the railway means that it has gotten no further than Hanbury Halt and looks to go no farther.
It's Sunday, which can mean only one thing in Cranford. The ladies hit the church and it says a lot for their standing that they are all squashed into the front pew. However all does not go smoothly, a strange dog gate-crashes the service and baptises the pulpit, much to the disgust of entire congregation, apart from Mrs Forrester, who giggles like a schoolgirl. The Rector (Alex Jennings) isn't allowed to throw his hymn book at the wretched creature, so instead simply grimaces and sings at a slightly higher volume to scare it away.
After the service the ladies gang up on the Reverend, who can't get a word in edgewise and is reduced to umming and erring in between the ladies complaints. The ladies are all quite small in stature and, well, the Reverend isn't. This means that he's surrounded by a semi-circle of ladies craning up to complain and fears losing an eye from Miss Poles bonnet feather.
They are disturbed by Master William Buxton, who is admiringly appraised by Mrs Forrester as having grown broad. She means buff, but she lived in the 'Olden Days' so we'll allow her that. William (Tom Hiddleston) is looking for his dog. The Reverend upon hearing this, who at first seemed to relish speaking to someone that he could actually look in the eye without getting a back strain, excuses himself coldly (presumably to go and mop up the puddle inside).
William Buxton spies his dog Napoleon (and as Mrs Forrester wearily says: 'How could he be expected to behave with a name like that?') and chases him around the churchyard, knocking over the vase of flowers placed on top of the late Mr Bell's grave to the abject consternation of Mrs Bell (Lesley Sharp), the indifference of Edward Bell (Matthew McNulty) and the meek acceptance of Peggy Bell (Jodie Whittaker). William, does of course, apologise profusely, which gives him ample time to notice the grave Peggy, who despite scraped back hair and a scrubbed clean face, has cheekbones to die for and sweet smile.
Jem (Andrew Buchan) arrives at the Railway works for his pay and mindful of his obligations and the new baby on the way, asks after more work. Captain Brown (Jim Carter), tactful yet honest, says that he has none. If the Railway can't get further than Hanbury Halt then there is no more work.
Jem is despondant, he doesn't have enough money to pay Miss Matty her rent; though Miss Matty kindly tells Jem that neither of them shall tell Martha, which while no doubt something of a comfort, is still a bitter blow to someone as proud as Jem Hearne.
Miss Matty goes to call on the newly returned Mr Buxton (Jonathan Pryce), who is effusive in his welcome and wonders why she hadn't come to call sooner.
William comes haring down the stairs after his dog and in some disarray, much to the disapproval of his father, who tells him to 'arrange his linen'.
Um, no, don't.
Ahem. Anyway, just after William goes to let the dog out, Erminia Whyte (Michele Dockery), Mr Buxton's ward, wafts down the stairs, oblivious to the hour (it's noon) and wanders into the morning room to pound out a waltz on the piano, still in her night clothes.
Miss Matty's brain starts to whirr, she decides to bring the Bell's and the Buxton's together.
Harry Gregson (Alex Etel) is about to start school and is being fitted for his uniform by Mr and Mrs Johnson (Adrian Scarborough and Debra Gillett). They are being keenly observed by Miss Galindo (Emma Fielding), who tartly reproves the Johnson's for pushing their more expensive fabric on the impressionable Harry.
Miss Galindo also accompanies Harry to visit the ailing Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis). Harry has grown quite tall and Lady Ludlow enquires to ensure that tucks to accommodate further growth had been incorporated into his uniform. Harry answers that Miss Galindo has seen to it and then tells her Ladyship that her clock is wrong. Lady Ludlow replies that it was a gift from her absent son Septimus and that it pleases her to have it nearby, despite the fact that it misses beats. The cheap cad has sent her a defective clock.
Harry notices how ill Lady Ludlow is and asks Miss Galindo if it is her heart, Miss Galindo says that the malignancy is in Lady Ludlow's bones and that she has written to Septimus.
Harry is off to school, both Miss Galindo and his mother (Emma Lowndes) come to wave him off. His mother gives him a pen wiper adorned with X's, that he says mean kisses and secretes it safe in his pocket, appreciating the gift with a gravity that belies his age and sets off for school apprehensively. Mrs Gregson and Miss Galindo both watch him go with heavy hearts.
Miss Matty has arranged for the Bell's to attend a tea party at the Buxton's. Erminia is polite and friendly, William can barely tear his eyes away from Peggy and Mrs Bell coughs in warning at the slightest hint of a slouch from Peggy. Miss Matty deftly prevents a social disaster as Peggy suggests that she might like an orange. Miss Matty looks horrified and Peggy quickly develops a taste for grapes instead.
Fun and games in the garden: Badminton doubles. Peggy and Ermina are exceptionally spry for women in crinolines and Edward's competitive nature is displayed by his vicious whacking of the shuttlecock. A particularly rough thwack right at Peggy causes her to fall and rip her clothes, whereupon she's spirited away by Miss Matty to repair her dress. As Miss Pole exclaims: ' Your stays are showing.' Scandalous indeed.
Miss Matty is called away from her dress repairs by a scream from the kitchen: Martha has gone into labour. Miss Pole has arrived to tell Martha that Lady Ludlow is near death, that the Rector is already en-route and that Jem should dust off his undertakers jacket. Martha bustles around preparing for the birth, fetching Jem's jacket and clean linen herself.
The birth is not painless and Martha has no one to help her except Miss Pole's maid, Bertha, who can do nothing except hold Martha's hand. Miss Matty is asked to fetch a doctor, but Cranford doesn't have one: Dr Harrison has moved away with Sophy and Dr Morgan has just left with his wife. In desperation the barber surgeon from the Railway works is summoned, but his expertise is only with broken bones. Neither Martha nor her baby survive and Miss Matty carefully lays out Martha's body, gently brushing her hair and tying a ribbon at the end of her plait. Jem is bereft and heartbroken, as is Miss Matty.
Septimus (Rory Kinnear) is on his way home, but he has to keep stopping on the way as his companion Giacomo, is so disturbed by the jolting of the carriage that he has to vomit every half mile.
Alas Septimus is too late, his mother has already been laid out. He is just in time for the funeral and of course the reading of the will.
Septimus is somewhat louchely trying on his mother's jewelery when he's told that the estate has a mortgage on it by Lord Maulver (Greg Wise). Septimus is shocked even further to hear that he'll have to pay Harry Gregson £20000. Giacomo sits around waiting for Septimus to show him the ha-ha as promised.
Peter Jenkyns (Nicholas le Provost) has returned from Liverpool with all his Indian possessions. The ladies fear that there might be snakes hiding in the folds of all the treasures and Miss Pole, averring that she has no fear of snakes, sets to beating a rug as if her life depended on it. Mrs Forrester's personal fear is of spiders and when Peter mentions that Indian spiders can grow as large as dinner plates, Miss Pole's arm gets very tired and she trots home, as quickly as she can.
Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon) has heard about Martha and has come to comfort Miss Matty. She also has good news: she's engaged to a soap flake manufacturer called Mr Turnbull, which pleases Miss Matty greatly, especially after Mary's 'disappointment' last year. Caddish Dr Marshland I've no doubt.
Septimus can't give away £20000 to Harry Gregson; he has a house in Italy that require repairs and Giacomo's hair doesn't back-comb itself. He summons Harry from school and instead proposes to give only £5000 to Harry immediately, as a bankers draft, if Harry will shake his hand as 'a Gentleman'. Harry is flattered and awed at such a lot of money and not knowing any better, agrees.
Miss Matty has had enough of tripping over the tiger's head rug and the parrot that Peter has brought back is 'dropping lime' all over Miss Deborah's chair. Peter therefore 'gifts' the rug to Mrs Forrester, who is taken aback, but avers that she loves all dumb creatures and the parrot to Miss Pole; who, even when suddenly confronted with a squawking parrot that attempts to eat her collar, her bonnet and will possibly start nipping chunks out of her ear, remains polite and afraid only for the state of her carpet.
A cage for Polly Parrot has to be procured, and at the insistence of Erminia that the best cages are from France, an order is placed. When the package arrives, despite Bertha's darkly muttering that Miss Pole will regret it, the cage is assembled and hung outside the Pole residence, with Miss Pole posing alongside it.
Peter Jenkyns passes by and admires the construction of Polly's new abode. Mrs Johnson joins in the admiration and then baldly informs Miss Pole that she has strung a parrot inside an under-skirt. Miss Pole is mortified and races inside screeching for Bertha.
There is grand announcement to be made at the Johnson's Store. Outside are two men playing fiddles and inside are displays of Nurse Huckaby's Traveller's Friend Elixir, handwarmers and veils to 'Protect your cheeks from smut'.
The grand announcement is made by Captain Brown who states that now that Septimus has decided to sell the Hanbury Estate, that the Railway is coming into the heart of Cranford and he has the model to show the amassed crowd what it will look like.
People are shocked. Mr Buxton seeing the route of the railway states that it actually passes over his land and that he isn't selling. This is much to the relief of Harry, whose Mother lives in the cottages that would have to be pulled down.
Harry has confided in Miss Galindo in Septimus' proposition to him. Miss Galindo realising how slimy Septimus is, rushes to Hanbury Hall and tells him that he hasn't a leg to stand on legally, that his gentlemans handshake means nothing in a court of law and, as she tears the bankers draft to shreds, tell him it was a 'bastard thing'. Miss Galindo is superbly feisty and forceful. She basically tells Septimus to shove it up his Giacomo and shove off. Septimus takes her advice and he and Giacomo leave.
Harry thankfully gets to keep Mr Carter's inheritance, but now he also has to leave and return to school, despite not particularly wanting to.
It seems that people leave in threes. If the railway can go no further, then there is no work for Jem and he decides to leave Miss Matty and take Tilly to live in Bolton where he has family and there is work. Miss Matty's home now feels so empty without Jem and Tilly and she's grateful for Mary's company, even if Mary is writing so much that she wearing out candles at an awful rate.
Jem's leave taking causes Miss Matty to think very hard about the future of Cranford and whether such a small town can afford to lose so many young people. She begins to doubt Miss Deborah's stance against the railway and decides to try the railway out for herself. But she knows that she'll need the support of the Amazons and duly invites them to travel with her in First Class as well.
Mary, Miss Matty and Captain Brown stand on the platform at Hanbury Halt waiting. The train arrives puffing and hooting, but no one else has joined them, until out of the steam, arm in arm, the remaining contingent of Cranford females arrive triumphantly clutching their first class invitations.
Mrs Jamieson has brought smelling salts, Miss Tomkinson states that she mustn't sit with her back to the horse, Mrs Forrester asks if the scenery will move and Miss Pole confidently says that the movement will fray her optic nerve. Captain Brown takes all this with bluff good humour and politeness and fills first class up with the just arrived Erminia and Mr Buxton. This leaves William and Peggy to sit in the third class carriage by themselves. There isn't much difference to first class apart from the cushions.
The train starts jerkily and the people inside are thrown about a little, but the ladies trepidation soon fades, with Mrs Forrester enjoying herself immensely and Miss Pole shading her eyes from scenery to protect her optic nerve.
Peggy and William are delighted with the ride, both of whom stand in the swaying third class carriage and when thrown together by the movement of the train, cling to each other which leads to William to state his love and asks Peggy to marry him.
The only person very affected by the journey is Miss Matty herself, who feels a bit nauseated by the motion and is palpably relieved when the journey is finished. The train ends up back where it started, which seems to suggest that railway will only ever travel in a loop.
Mr Buxton, impressed by Miss Matty's courage in arranging the jaunt, decides to sell his land and not stand in the way of the railway. After he and Captain Brown depart, the ladies decide that is their fortitude that has wrought such a change of affairs and we end on Miss Matty looking pensive, wondering if she has done the right thing and what will come of it all.
The performances were uniformly faultless, the writing sublime and period detail as finely wrought as the last series. The only minor criticism I have is that some scenes were so short and flew by so fast that the episode had a slightly fragmented feel. It could have benefited from some longer and deeper scenes, but that was the only gripe I had. Judi Dench is the moral and emotional centre of Cranford, her acting is so good that emotion just radiates from her. I'm just glad that there was enough Gaskell material for one more episode.