Francesca Annis plays Lady Ludlow
Perhaps more than any character in Cranford, Lady Ludlow embodies the desire to maintain the old order, but progress is threatening the status quo.
"She represents old conservative paternalism," says Francesca Annis.
"Lady Ludlow is almost feudal but, at the same time, she's very aware of her responsibilities towards the huge number of people she employs.
"She has 64 indoor servants alone and takes great care of them all, refusing to countenance cutting back because she doesn't want to see any of them end up in the workhouse.
"She's determined to keep her estate intact but times are changing and she can no longer afford to. She is offered the possibility of raising money by selling land for the coming railway, but is determined not to."
Lady Ludlow's sense of duty towards her staff is given an added poignancy because, in some ways, they are the family she never had.
"She's a rather tragic figure, really," explains Francesca.
"She had seven children, but only has one surviving son who lives in Italy for his health, so he is also sickly, and we don't learn what happened to her husband.
"I read Gaskell's My Lady Ludlow, and (Cranford writer) Heidi Thomas's characterisation is quite faithful to her but she obviously had to leave out a huge amount of detail that I found completely fascinating.
"But then this serial isn't called Lady Ludlow... unfortunately!"
Cranford joins a long list of classic period dramas on Francesca's CV, most recently Wives And Daughters (another Gaskell adaptation) and going all the way back to a 1967 TV version of Great Expectations.
"It's not so much the dressing up, but I love the idea of moving and existing in a different time," she says.
"The wonderful thing of being in a location like this, in costume, is that after a day or two I begin to feel like I own the place. I start to think 'This is really pleasant, this is mine'.
"It was quite fun putting myself together as Lady Ludlow because she is completely different visually to me. I had this big high wig, all grey, which I called 'Marge' as in Marge's hair in The Simpsons.
"When I put Marge on, grey Marge, I started to feel like Lady Ludlow and, equally, when I took her off I'd have a shriek and become myself."
In fact, Francesca's only regret about her role and Lady Ludlow's aristocratic isolation in Cranford is that it meant she never got to act with most of its almost unrivalled ensemble cast.
"It was different, being in such a huge classic series and yet actually having virtually nothing to do with the majority of the other actors and actresses in the show," she says.
Most of her scenes are shared with Philip Glenister, who plays Lady Ludlow's loyal but reformist estate manager Mr Carter.
They clash when he takes a young boy (Alex Etel) from a local poor family under his wing and seeks to educate him.
"Lady Ludlow has her own charity school but only wants the lower classes to be taught their prayers and how to serve," Francesca explains.
"She thinks that's all they need in life, and that teaching them to read is a definite no-no, but Mr Carter believes they should be educated."
It could be said their clash encapsulates the collision of the old and the new in Cranford, modernity confronting a world that cannot be sustained.
"It's hugely interesting," Francesca adds. "Yes, Cranford is very political but it's also about the minutiae of life, everyday life. Its characters, language and storytelling are all very rich."