By Rebecca Thomas
Entertainment reporter, BBC News
Costume drama Cranford, a lavish production based on works by Elizabeth Gaskell, is at the heart of the BBC's winter TV schedules.
Dame Eileen (left), Dame Judi and Staunton (right) rule Cranford
The cast boasts some of Britain's best-loved and most experienced actresses, including Dame Judi Dench, Dame Eileen Atkins, Imelda Staunton and Francesca Annis.
Compared with Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, Gaskell is a relatively unexplored writer when it comes to TV adaptations.
Her novel Cranford was not thought meaty enough to make a serial, so has been amalgamated with elements of three of the author's other works to make this five-part drama.
Cranford also took more than five years from conception to final cut, going through several rewrites along the way - and a change of director.
The resulting drama follows a year in the life of the close-knit, mainly female-populated Cheshire village of Cranford, based on Gaskell's childhood home of Knutsford, in the early 1840s.
Imelda Staunton's gossip Miss Pole takes herself very seriously
The Cranford ladies are mostly concerned with small, often comic absurdities, such as social etiquette and village gossip.
But these women - called The Amazons by Gaskell - are not to be underestimated. Made of strong stuff, they also deal stoically with the tragedies of life.
Far more threatening are the looming changes of the industrial revolution, symbolised by the encroachment of the railway from Manchester.
Dame Judi plays gentle spinster Miss Matty Jenkyns, who lives with her elder sister Miss Deborah, the matron of social correctness, played by Dame Eileen.
Dame Judi says she signed up long before filming got under way after reading the script.
"From what I understood of Mrs Gaskell - I'd read Cranford at school - I could never have imagined it to have been so concisely adapted and the people are real," she says.
"You can only really go by that when choosing a part. Can I understand this person and why they say it?
"It doesn't matter whether you are wearing corsets or are in baggy jeans - as long as you can somehow think that you can make that person real."
Dame Judi says she was delighted to find herself among old friends and colleagues, such as Dame Eileen and Annis.
Her daughter also had a part in the drama, as did Staunton's husband and daughter.
Many of the cast - 47 in total - worked together every day, adding to the sense of community.
"It was like working on the film Mrs Brown where we were all working together a lot of the time like in a theatre company," says Dame Judi.
Gaskell's Cranford novel is written in incident-led episodes, rather like modern-day soap opera.
But the fear of change, present to some extent in all of the books used, is a unifying theme.
And insatiable village gossip Miss Pole, played by Staunton, also proves vital as she rushes from one event to the next.
"She's very nosey and vain, but she really means what she says and takes her role very seriously," says Staunton, whose character also gives the drama much comedy.
Staunton says it was refreshing to have lead characters with a certain maturity.
"Judi, Eileen, Francesca and myself, we're not 19 and having to look a certain way so the main job of the audience is to listen to what we are saying."
Francesca Annis's Lady Ludlow cannot let go of the past
As well as the indomitable Cranford ladies, there are men to be found. Michael Gambon and Greg Wise, among others, play leading roles.
Simon Woods plays the young Doctor Harrison, newly arrived from Manchester and trained in all the latest techniques.
Woods says initial nerves over working with "all these grand ladies" soon disappeared.
"It ended up being a very nurturing and cosy environment," he says. "They played a lot of games and got quite silly."
The doctor's polar opposite in the story is the staunchly traditional aristocrat Lady Ludlow, played by Annis.
"Lady Ludlow goes through a journey towards change," Annis says. "It's a coming to terms with it. At the beginning, she is definitely resisting. She is an old benign feudalist."
The project is political without being "in your face", the actress explains.
"The industrial revolution was coming, the corn laws and the resistance to the railway - and that mobility would change everything for everyone."
Cranford begins on BBC One on 18 November at 2100 GMT.