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24 September 2014
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Dame Eileen Atkins plays Miss Deborah Jenkyns


Dame Eileen Atkins plays Miss Deborah Jenkyns

When Cranford producer Sue Birtwistle was casting the actress to play the absolute moral centre of Elizabeth Gaskell's fictitious 1840s northern town, she turned naturally to Dame Eileen Atkins.


"Whenever I get asked to play a part like this, people say it's because 'we need someone with authority'," admits the veteran star whose stage, TV and film credits add up to a truly awe-inspiring career.


"I always think I don't have any more authority than anybody else, but a weird thing happens to me (in character), and I am, like Miss Deborah, quite frightening, although I hate the fact that people think I'm like that.


"I was told that when I went for my wig on Cranford, the girl who was fitting it said afterwards 'look at my hands, I'm absolutely sweating'. Now, I've never thrown a wig across a room, so I don't know what it is about me."


Now 73, Eileen has seen and done it all, including co–creating the TV classic Upstairs Downstairs, but Cranford was, she says, very special.


"I think this is the best atmosphere on set of anything I've ever been in. There are various reasons why, and right at the top you've got Judi Dench as Miss Deborah's younger sister Matty.


"She's a brilliant actress but also thinks life is to be enjoyed as well, so that filtered down through the cast and you felt everyone loosen up."


Eileen and Judi go way back – all the way to playing sisters in a radio drama in the late Fifties. "To have worked together all those years ago and then, at this age, to play sisters again was heavenly," says Eileen.


"The public want to know who is in something, and the first person they are going to want to look at in this is Judi, and then there are all these other wonderful people, brilliant actors in their own right."


Both spinsters, Matty is steadfastly loyal to Deborah who is, says Eileen, the guardian of correctness in Cranford. "People in the town reckon what's to be done, or not to be done, by what Miss Jenkyns says or thinks – they turn to her, come to her with questions.


"Some of her morality seems weird by modern standards, but she tries very hard to do what she feels is right, and I think you still can recognise people as they were then in today's society.


"I don't think it's that different, and that's what makes the works of authors such as Gaskell and Jane Austen classics – the things that make us human remain the same.


"But the thing about Mrs Gaskell's novels is she had a broader spectrum of life than Austen. She did actually go and work among the poor."


Eileen also sees some of the concerns highlighted in Cranford reflected in 21st-century Britain – for the coming of the railways in 1842, read airport expansion.


"I live near Heathrow where they want to build another runway, and I keep saying I'm going to be down there with the protestors. I don't want it to get any bigger, so I can understand Miss Deborah not wanting the railway to reach Cranford.


"But she dreads its arrival as a threat to her community, bringing an influx of outsiders – I mean, how modern is that!"







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