Dame Judi Dench leads a magnificent ensemble cast in Cranford, a wonderful portrait of a real town on the cusp of great change. Based on three novels by Elizabeth Gaskell, this richly moving and funny five-part period drama of love, friendships, disappointments and tragedy broadcasts on BBC One in November.
Created by Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin (Pride And Prejudice, Wives And Daughters), directed by Simon Curtis (Five Days, Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky ) and written by Heidi Thomas (I Capture The Castle, Madame Bovary, Lilies), Cranford was filmed in a number of locations including Lacock, West Wycombe, Oxfordshire, Ashridge and Shepperton Studios.
The cast list also includes: Francesca Annis, Dame Eileen Atkins, Sir Michael Gambon, Philip Glenister, Lesley Manville, Julia McKenzie, Imelda Staunton and Greg Wise.
Head of Drama Series & Serials, Kate Harwood explains briefly the origins of the project: "Sue Birtwistle, came up with the idea of putting together three Elizabeth Gaskell novellas to create a drama about the life of a small town, and with writer Heidi Thomas and BBC Drama Production the delightful multi-stranded serial of Cranford was created.
"Cranford is light and funny and yet packs a real emotional punch. It is a complex portrait of a real town, death and unexpected reversal, both happy and sad come frequently, so sometimes you get to the end of an episode and can't believe how many emotions you've experienced. On top of that of course, are these delicious characters with this absolutely brilliant cast. A winning combination all round."
Co-creator Susie Conklin says: "We began with the idea for the serial in 2002.
"We started by reading Cranford itself, which is a delightful book of anecdotal stories about Knutsford in the 1840s. Wonderful as the book is, we felt there wasn't enough material in it to be suitable for a straight-forward adaptation.
"We read widely across Gaskell's tremendous output of novels and short stories and realised there was a different way to approach it. In many of her stories she wrote about the world she knew as a child, the world of Knutsford. So Sue and I began to think – if we kept true to the spirit of Gaskell, why not take several of her books and interweave them together?
"The three books we ultimately chose were Cranford, Mr Harrison's Confessions, a comic novella about a young single doctor who arrives in a small town full of unmarried women, and My Lady Ludlow, which explores the world of an aristocratic woman confronted with social challenges she finds hard to accept.
"An essay of Gaskell's called The Last Generation also provided story material and clarity on the themes we were keen to explore. Our hope in knitting these works together was to create a rich portrait of a society on the cusp of change."
Pulling together Gaskell's three novels plus an essay on her childhood proved to be an enormous challenge for co-creators Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin. Sue recalls: "We suddenly wondered: how can we weave these books together? It was overwhelming, but so exciting too.
"Susie and I had collaborated on Pride And Prejudice and Wives And Daughters, and she had recently spent a week observing ER in the States. They have this system where eight or ten script writers scribble bits of ideas down on different file cards, and they are pinned to boards round the room.
"Anyone can pick the cards out to see if they can form to make a story. So we went out and bought all these cards and decided to adopt the same system, but with an important addition – we had many different coloured cards, which helped us to keep track of the different characters.
"We went through the three books, giving each character and each story a different coloured card; by the end of it, we had piles and piles of cards which we shuffled around. We had so many cards that they soon spread off the table and on to the floor. So sometimes we were literally knee-deep in Cranford!
"We took a lot of liberties with Elizabeth Gaskell," Sue continues. "We lost some of her characters, we amalgamated some and we invented. We shuffled story beats around and we added extras to some of the stories from the other books.
"And we lifted out two comic incidents from her essays about her childhood which weren't in the novels. In the end, we had interwoven parts of all the three novels so closely that it took on a life of its own, and essentially became a new drama.
"We did often ask ourselves 'what would Elizabeth Gaskell think of this? Would she approve?' So we asked Jenny Uglow, who is the world's expert on Elizabeth Gaskell and has written a definitive biography of her. Jenny's approval would be the closest we could get to Elizabeth Gaskell's approval.
"Jenny did have suggestions to make which we incorporated in the scripts. She also came on board as our historical and Gaskell advisor."
Writer Heidi Thomas says: "I was first involved in Cranford at the invitation of Sue Birtwistle, in the very early stage in the proceedings.
"Cranford is a very well loved book and the challenge was to make sure that we preserved Gaskell's magic, her intimate understanding of this very small, very particular community and meld that with the other two new stories to create a new drama that was completely fresh.
"It was both exhilarating and terrifying. I had to create a lot of new material, but time and again I went back to the original novels because that's where the genius of this project lies – those beautifully told short stories that are based on real peoples' lives. That was a huge part of the appeal to me, Elizabeth Gaskell was writing stories that were based on actual events, actual people and an actual community."
Director Simon Curtis continues: "The joy of Cranford is that it's both based on the work of Elizabeth Gaskell and yet it's been treated in a completely new way, so it has all the benefits of a classic piece and all the benefits of a modern telling as well.
"Heidi Thomas has reinvented the material and welded it into this new and original piece. It's a very modern syndrome, what they call multi-threading in American, where they run two or three stories concurrently against each other.
"There are a lot of multi-threaded films and television events in modern culture, and in some ways that's what Heidi has done with this, is to take a very beautiful set of books and turn it into a very modern event."
Sue continues: "When I was thinking about casting Cranford, there were certain actors I thought would be good for this long before the script was written.
"Right from the start I wanted Judi Dench to play Miss Matty; I can't think of anyone more perfect to play that part, and she did commit to it some time ago and stayed with it. Of course, she is the golden centre of it. And because of a combination of Judi and the material, other actors wanted to be part of it.
"Cranford was a dream. It has taken five years to get to this stage. Most of the people who are in it are the ones I had thought of four or five years ago. To work with a cast and crew of such exceptional talents over this year has been, quite literally, a dream come true."
"'The humour in Cranford makes it very special," continues Simon Curtis. "I do think that comedy is at the heart of it in a very unique way. Cranford is about the story of a community, so the ensemble of characters – Britain's finest frankly – is a very exciting opportunity for a director to marry that wonderful collection of characters and the material with an extraordinary group of actors.
"Working with the cast of Cranford has been a complete pleasure. People often ask what it's like to direct someone as great as Judi Dench and the answer is – it's wonderful. Most great actors have a theatre background and they value the relationship with the director. They value the relationship with the other actors and with rehearsal. Working with this ensemble of actors has been a total delight."
"A story like Cranford is about looking back, but Gaskell isn't suggesting it was an idyllic world. It's punctuated with social unrest," continues Susie.
"The fear of what the railway will bring is a big theme. There are worries about the navvies, and what they might do. There is a crime theme that is quite comic, but the fears the characters have are real enough to them. There is darkness too – lives are cut short and one of the big overall themes is lost love.
"I think Gaskell was interested in exploring change – how individuals cope with it; how a community copes with it. What is it that gives a community its glue? Or, as Heidi wrote so wonderfully in the script, what gives a society the weave – this 'fine close weave'?"
"Elizabeth Gaskell writes in what I would describe as a non-Victorian way," says Sue.
"She is not melodramatic and doesn't caricature characters like Dickens. Gaskell writes very realistic characters, they are very straightforward, and what she doesn't do, which I really love, is she never judges her characters. I find that a really attractive quality in her writing. And what I think may surprise some people is that she is very, very funny."