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24 September 2014
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Dame Judi Dench plays Miss Matty Jenkyns


Dame Judi Dench plays Miss Matty Jenkyns

Dame Judi Dench first encountered Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford as a schoolgirl in Yorkshire some, by her own reckoning, "60-odd years ago".


"Recently, a neighbour lent me a copy of it, just like the little red copy that I read at school with a raised oval featuring a portrait of Mrs Gaskell in the corner," says the Oscar-winning actress.


"I remember I used to lick my finger and press it against that raised oval and have the outline of her on my thumb. I remember that so terribly well, and I've loved coming back to the novel again."


Judi plays Miss Matty Jenkyns, the younger sister of Cranford's moral guardian, Miss Deborah (Dame Eileen Atkins), and is much-loved for her kindness, while her elder sibling and fellow spinster enforces a rigid social code and dominates the town's women.


"Matty has a bit of a past in the shape of Mr Holbrook (Michael Gambon) who, we hear, was a farmer who once wooed her but wasn't deemed suitable by the father, who was the Rector, and Deborah," Judi explains.


"She's a person who longed for marriage and children but never achieved either. I don't think she's bitter at all, but I do think she regrets what happened all those years ago – having to turn down someone she loved very much."


"During the piece, Mr Holbrook turns up again, but I'm not going to tell you what happens – you're just going to have to wait and see!"


Just as Miss Matty's kind-hearted nature enhances the lives of everyone in her circle of friends and acquaintances, Judi's influence worked its magic on the large cast of Cranford in a similar way.


When her casting was announced, she said she was "looking forward to a summer of fun" and that is exactly what it turned out to be.


"I think the reason why I was looking forward to it so much was there are nearly 50 people in Cranford and a great number of them are friends," says Judi, whose Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress came in 1999 for her performance in Shakespeare In Love.


"Eileen Atkins and I actually played sisters on the radio in the late Fifties, I've worked with Julia McKenzie (Mrs Forrester) and Michael Gambon, so it was lovely to all be on location, even when it was pouring with rain.


"That was actually a big help in terms of getting to know the actors I'd never worked with before – there's nothing like sitting under a tent in the rain for bringing a company together! It was hugely good fun."


Having fun while doing her very best has been one of the keys to a long and distinguished career which resulted in Judi being made a Dame of the British Empire.


That was way back in 1988, and since then she has gone on to win more awards and plaudits for roles as diverse as James Bond's boss M, Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown and an embittered teacher in Notes On A Scandal.


But even at the age of 72, Judi says roles such as Miss Matty are still teaching her a thing or two.


"Classic roles are usually terrific parts anyway, but each part I play usually throws up something else I can't do, some difficulty or other, something else I have to learn."


Of course, it helps to be inspired by the quality of the script you are working with.


"I think Gaskell's novels have been adapted phenomenally well by Heidi Thomas in Cranford," Judi adds.


"She's done an extraordinary job because there's such a lot in it, it's very informative about the period in which it is set, and the characters' stories and relationships are all interwoven beautifully.


"It's those stories and relationships which I hope will capture the imagination because, even though so much has changed since then, how we react and deal with other people is still similar in many ways."







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