Page last updated at 08:20 GMT, Friday, 18 December 2009

Cranford comeback blends the old and new

By Michael Osborn
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Cranford cast members old and new
Cranford's formidable ladies are joined by new blood Peggy, William and Erminia

With its delightful view of a bygone age, stellar cast and moments of gentle comedy, it is fitting that costume hit Cranford is returning at Christmas.

The first series, spearheaded by its bonnet-clad sisterhood, was a ratings hit and collected a slew of awards.

Armed with material from Elizabeth Gaskell's novel, other short stories and brand new writing, the Cheshire town is coming to life once again in two feature-length instalments.

While the middle-aged female "Amazons" remain at its heart, a clutch of new characters and stories are ushering in a sense of transformation.

"We gave them hell!" jokes Dame Judi Dench about the fresh intake, back as gentle spinster Miss Matty Jenkyns.

Cranford ladies

"A lot of people were missing because their stories had finished, so it was an adjustment. But it was nice to get new blood in."

Imelda Staunton, who plays the town's moral compass and news gatherer Miss Pole, says it was "great to have absolutely fantastic young actors coming in and blowing you away".

"You'd think, 'Blimey, they're good'. Better up me game!" laughs the actress.

While new arrivals and the advent of the steam age bring challenges to the ladies, the core values that won Cranford a legion of fans the first time around remain.

'Quit while you're ahead'

The new outing touches on the joys and sorrows of the human cycle, the intricate details of 1840s life - and the wonder of the period's language.

"When you have lines as good as that you're not going to mess them up," says Staunton, who delivers some crackers as Miss Pole.

"I wish I had that amount of eloquence in my daily life. I feel bereft when I go home and just talk about putting on the washing. There must be a funnier way to say that."

Julia McKenzie, who plays simple Mrs Forrester, adds: "I had some lines and thought 'I can't wait to do this'. You don't often think that with a television script."

Elizabeth Gaskell
The Cranford creator spent her early life in Knutsford, Cheshire - the inspiration for the town
Her husband suggested she take up writing to ease the pain of their infant son's death
Her major literary benefactor was Charles Dickens
She loved to travel abroad, while her husband preferred to go on holiday by himself
She died in 1865, leaving her novel Wives and Daughters unfinished
Source: The Gaskell Society

Writer Heidi Thomas has come back to Cranford with the tricky task of recapturing the magic of the first series.

She sees the new episodes as the ladies stepping forward into the Victorian age and said it was "an emotional experience".

"I felt very conscious of the need to make it as good as last time for the cast and the audience," explains Thomas.

"I feel we've pulled it off this time around because we were able to get our cast together.

"The sequel is about handing over to a younger generation.

"It was all too tempting to have the characters we'd had before and carry on, but there would have been a soapy quality about it," she adds.

Thomas, who has signed up to write the revival of Upstairs Downstairs, signals this will be "the actual end" of Cranford.

"There is nothing left in the original book and I would never want it to become a soap," explains the screenwriter.

"There always comes a point when you should quit while you're ahead," she adds.

Cranford's cast thinks nothing of its possible end and dwell on the enjoyment they had returning to the fold.

"It's the best job you could have. We've all been friends for years, and when people get on well, I think an extra dimension goes into the work," says Julia McKenzie.

"You're working with your mates, it was a wonderful script and the fantastic team who worked on the first series," adds Jim Carter, who plays railway pioneer Captain Brown.

"We do have a laugh and Judi likes a joke. None of which is for public consumption as it's desperately vulgar!"

Captain Brown (Jim Carter) in Cranford
Captain Brown is keen to bring progress to Cranford

Actress Deborah Findlay, Cranford's Miss Tomkinson, says the cast made cakes one day - Julia McKenzie's meringues with elderflower cream were "to die for".

"Filming was a bit sporadic that day as everyone finished their scenes very quickly and edged off to the marquee where all the cakes were," adds Dame Judi.

The Oscar winner's only complaint was that in keeping with the Cranford ladies' frugal nature, she wasn't allowed any new mittens.

"I didn't get a single new thing!" she jokingly complains.

It is left to the renowned actress to explain why she thinks a tale of a small 1840s town captured the imagination first time around and is returning to the screen.

"It's a classic that hasn't been read so much and people don't know the end. It's not like watching something that we all know so well like Jane Austen."

Cranford will be shown on BBC One on 20 and 27 December at 2100 GMT.

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