Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Gaskell’

I await each January with joy, knowing that PBS Masterpiece Classic will return. Two years ago PBS concentrated on Jane Austen; last year, two Jane Austen film adaptations were featured; and this year we get to see not only the new adaptation of Emma, but reruns of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey as well. Viewers are also treated to Return to Cranford, the sequel to Cranford, last year’s runaway BBC and PBS hit. Reprising their recurring roles are the stellar actors who represent Cranford’s spinsters and widows and other denizens of this quaint Victorian town. And then we are treated to new characters, each with stories of their own.

Even as I reveled in watching the first new installment of this sequel, I found some of the new stories a tad too familiar and I could not help but shake off a vague sense of disappointment. This feeling was similar to having visited a new vacation spot for the first time. You and your family love the experience so much, you eagerly plan a return. But during the second trip , you feel a slight let down. The wonder and discovery are gone, replaced with  a sense of déjà vu and sameness. You find yourself going over old ground and repeating excursions that somehow don’t seem quite as satisfying as last time.

And so it is with Return of Cranford. All the elements of the original Cranford are still there – the Victorian town ruled by the rigid principles that are followed by a group of widows and spinsters who are set in their old-fashioned ways. The railroad still threatens the town’s placid existence, and the only person barring the line’s completion is Lady Ludlow, whose stubborn resistance is misplaced.

Francesca Annis, pale, gray and achingly beautiful, makes a short but memorable entrance and exit, as does handsome Greg Wise as Sir Charles Maulver, and Claudie Blakley as Martha, Miss Matty’s maid of all work.

New characters replace the old ones who have (sadly) moved on. The viewer is still treated to a story about star-crossed lovers (Tom Hiddleston as William Buxton and Jody Whittaker as Peggy Bell),  and an implacable father (Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Buxton) who stands in the way of their happiness. They must somehow overcome all obstacles to remain together. Part of the mystery of Return to Cranford is how they will achieve this.

Return to Cranford relies heavily on Judi Dench’s Miss Matty to keep the story threads together. While she was a pivotal character in Cranford, it was her sister Miss Deborah Jenkyns (Eileen Atkins), who was the backbone of Cranford’s widow and spinster society. Miss Deborah inspired steadfast loyalty to her unwavering convictions; Miss Matty, on the other hand, is much softer in character and a person that others want to protect. She has had to grow a strong backbone after her sister’s death, but she is still too easy a touch and has difficulty holding the small band of ‘The Amazons’ together. When hoity toity Mrs. Jamieson’s (Barbara Flynn’s) sister-in-law Lady Glenmire (Celia Imrie) comes to visit, Miss Matty and her cohort are given the sort of social snubbing that Miss Deborah would not have brooked for an instant.

Don’t get me wrong. I am still mad about Miss Matty, who is portrayed by the incomparable Judi Dench. And though her character is too weak to rule the town with the iron fist that her sister Deborah used, she’s become the town’s morally upright compass.

One of the main problems I found with episode one of Return to Cranford is the lack of real tension in the plot. This might be due to the fact that this adaptation was written largely by Heidi Thomas, not by master story teller Elizabeth Gaskell.  A dastardly character is introduced by way of Lady Ludlow’s wastrel son, Septimus (Rory Kinnear), but he is merely an unfeeling cad and shows up only long enough in the film to prove to us that Lady Ludlow had wasted her motherly affection (and money) on an unworthy son. His actions do not produce the tight-as-a-drum-tension that compels a viewer to keep watching a show or a reader to keep turning the pages. The train trip, in which Miss Matty convinces her friends to give the railroad a chance, does not provide much tension either, and the central love story between Peggy Bell and William Buxton seems like something that we have seen before.

Much of the quirky humor I delighted in with the first film is gone, although it was fun to see the ladies get tipsy as they warmed towards Lady Glenmire, and to see Miss Pole get her comeuppance as she makes a bird cage out of a French petticoat hoop frame for her parrot.

Episode Two gets much better. There’s real tension between Mr. Buxton and his son after William declares his love for Peggy Bell. Rather than honor his father’s wishes to find a more suitable wife, William decides to remain true to Peggy, make his own way in the world and work for the railroad until he has enough money to marry her.  The ladies of Cranford provide a funny backdrop to Lady Glenmire’s romance with Captain Brown. And we follow the fortunes of young Harry, who is torn between two worlds. He does not belong at boarding school and has good reasons for running away. A train accident, which kills poor Mrs Forrester’s cow and puts Harry’s life in danger, provides some true heart-wrenching moments. But all’s well that ends well. Miss Matty finds a satisfying way to unify the town, and the magic act of Senor Brunoni (Tim Curry in a funny role) was a fine (and wonderful) way to end the show and tie up loose story ends.

A friend who watched the show with me (and who did not see Cranford last year), found Return to Cranford delightful. So, I shall attribute my churlishness to a jaded palate and concede that Return is a delightful show, one worthy of viewing and certainly better than anything the competition on commercial television and cable tv have to offer. While my ranking of Cranford was five out of five stars, I rate this sequel a tad lower: four out of five stars.

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Cranford producers realized that Knutsford, the Chesire market town in which Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel is set, has become too modern to serve as a realistic background for a movie based upon the novel. Lacock to the rescue!

Pride and Prejudice 1995 required a picturesque village. The crew went to Lacock and renamed it Meryton! (Third image below)

Emma 1996 required a piano to be hoisted to the second floor of an old and narrow apartment. A house in Lacock fit the bill!

With streets that have remained essentially unchanged for centuries and with the absence of arial wires and satellite dishes, Lacock in Wiltshire has become a hot location for period films. Movies that have been filmed there and that you may recognize are: Pride and Prejudice 1995, Emma 1996, Moll Flanders, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Harry Potter, The Other Boleyn Girl, The Wolf Man, Lark Rise to Candleford, and Cranford. The pictures in this Lacock link were taken in April 2007, prior to a Cranford shoot. The jail in the middle of the road which held young Harry’s father is made of fiberglass.

One can imagine how disruptive these frequent location shoots can be for Lacock’s residents, even though they are compensated. Locals were given £100 if their houses were affected during filming, and they could make extra cash by serving as extras. Aceshowbiz (See photos above and below.)

Town residents stand to make more off Harry Potter 6, but the inconveniences will be greater. High Street and Church Street will close during filming, and the bus stop outside the George Inn will be relocated. Businesses that break closure rules will risk a fine of £1,000. (Swindon Advertiser). For the “privilege” of hosting the Harry Potter crew again, Warner Brothers will pay the village £30,000, which will be split between the Abbey owners National Trust and Lacock Parish Council. The movie-making teams will be allowed to return for four days in October to shoot scenes between 5 PM and 5 AM with Daniel Radcliffe.

When town resident Mary Little, 55, learned that part two of Cranford would be filmed in Lacock, she said: “It would be lovely to work with the cast and crew again – it was brilliant the first time around.

“Hopefully Dame Judi will come back, especially after she pledged her support to help save the post office.

“Everyone in the village quite enjoys the buzz of having stars coming here and us appearing in films and the TV.”

The Talbot family is the main reason why this picturesque village, which dates back to Saxon times, stayed so quaint and old-fashioned. Laycock’s landlords since the mid-19th century, the family refused to let the railway in! Their most famous son is Fox Talbot, a pioneer in photography.

Lacock’s history is a long and proud one. The medieval abbey dates back to 1232, and during the Middle Ages the small village became a prosperous and thriving community through its wool industry. Situated on the ‘cloth road’ from London and the River Avon, it had access to the sea at Avonmouth near Bristol. The village was also located on a direct route between London and Bath, and it became a popular stop for travelers. To this day, Lacock remains a small village:

Gaining residence in one of the 89 houses, which date back to the 16th century, is no mean feat. The National Trust has a written letting policy, favouring people with family connections in the village. Having children is also an advantage. Graham Heard, National Trust property manager for Lacock, said: “We have to be selective. People who apply to live here should contribute to community life, so commuters are far from ideal.

Despite having a population of only about 350, Lacock still boasts five pubs, a village hall, a church, a primary school and a local store complete with post office.” (This is Wiltshire)

For Cranford, the village’s Red Lion pub in the High Street was turned into Johnson’s Store. Its ground floor frontage was given a face-lift with a coat of dark gray paint and dry goods were placed in the windows. (Radio Times)

To read more information about Lacock, and to see more images, click on the links below:

It’s Lights Camera and Action in Lacock

Lacock: A Hive of Filming Activity

Picture tour of Lacock

Lacock: National Trust Village and Abbey

Lacock Images


Lacock Abbey

Breathtaking Wiltshire Images

DjD Chronology

Hay in Art: Fox Talbot’s photograph

Wiltshire on Film

Old photos of Lacock: Francis Firth

Walker’s Web Lacock to Bowden Hill, 5.5 miles

Filming in Lacock

Lacock Village: Popular Film Location, Ripple Effects

Lacock, Wiltshire: Britain Express

Quintessentially English: History of Lacock

Sophie Hoffman: European Destination

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As I noted in an earlier review of Cranford, the plot of this Elizabeth Gaskell adaptation revolves around change. Episode Three, to be aired on PBS this Sunday, carries this point further. The two physicians, one of the old school and one trained with new techniques, his head filled with knowledge of the latest medical advances, take center stage as they try to save their patients from the dreaded diseases that rarely afflict civilized society today: croup, whooping cough, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, cholera, dysentery and typhoid fever. Young Dr. Harrison redeems himself time and again by applying new solutions to old problems, thereby saving patients who would not have survived their ordeal with traditional remedies.

In Jane Austen’s time, or the early part of the 19th century, there was a clear distinction between a doctor, surgeon, and apothecary. Doctors were gentlemen of the old school and deemed socially acceptable. They were often invited to dine with the families they treated, or spend the night as guests.

Doctors and physicians occupied the highest rung on the social ladder. Such citizens were considered gentleman because 1) their training did not include apprenticeship and 2) the profession excluded, supposedly, manual labor. Doctors were permitted to dine with the family during home visits, while other practitioners took dinner with the servants. A physician’s fee was wrapped and placed nearby, for theoretically gentleman did not accept money for their work.

Illustration of Lecture Hall from the Glasgow Looking Glass, 1825-1826

A young man embarking on a medical career would attend a prestigious school at Cambridge and Oxford. There he would study Greek and Latin, and, rather than practice on patients, he would observe medical procedures in a lecture hall. Chances were that he received his license without ever having any clinical experience at all.

Cartoonists and satirists, such as Hogarth and Rowlandson, showed little mercy towards doctors and their poor attempts at treating patients. Even the life-saving vaccine for small pox was treated with some humor and derision by James Gilray, since the innoculant came from a cow.

The Cow Pock, James Gillray, 1802

Accepted practices of the day did not include washing hands or changing soiled clothes or bandages, so that doctors often spread illnesses or caused infections. Bleeding through cutting or leeches was an accepted form of treatment:

The most common way of treating a high fever, for example, was to cut open a vein and drain blood from the patient — and not in a small way: a good doctor was expected to cut deep enough that the patient’s blood would spurt into the air with every heartbeat! To make matters worse, the most commonly prescribed “drug” of the time was the toxic element mercury, usually in the form of mercuric chloride.

Surgery was extremely painful, and anesthesia in the form of ether did not appear until 1846. Until that time, doctors relied on mandrake, alcohol, opium, and cannabis for pain relief. (Cocaine was only available in the New World.) Non drug methods of pain relief included cooling the patient or affected area, hypnosis, nerve compression, and blood letting. Because surgeons actually treated the patient by performing physical labor – a trade, so to speak – they occupied a lower rung on the social ladder.

Apothecaries, who learned their profession through apprenticeship and who were definitely considered to be in “trade”, ranked even lower on the social scale. As a group they had “seceded from the Worshipful Company of Grocers, and were incorporated as a separate city livery company in 1617, were supposed to stay in their shops and dispense the prescriptions written by the physicians.” [Apothecaries, Physicians and Surgeons, Roger Jones]

In regions where doctors were scarce, apothecaries also made house calls and treated patients, but largely they mixed drugs and dispensed them, and trained apprentices. A drug’s efficaciousness was hit or miss. By sheer accident, some effective substances were discovered: digitalis, quinine, and calamine, to name several; and a number of proven herbal remedies helped to relieve symptoms. Generally, however,

The technology of making drugs was crude at best: Tinctures, poultices, soups, and teas were made with water- or alcohol-based extracts of freshly ground or dried herbs or animal products such as bone, fat, or even pearls, and sometimes from minerals best left in the ground—mercury among the favored. The difference between a poison and a medicine was a hazy differentiation at best: In the 16th century, Paracelsus declared that the only difference between a medicine and a poison was in the dose. All medicines were toxic. It was cure or kill.

The life of a country doctor was an itinerant one. The 1999 mini-series Wives and Daughters aptly depicted a doctor’s long day, in which he rose at dawn to make his rounds and see patients, often returning exhausted past sunset on his equally weary horse.

Illustration, George du Maurier, 1913

By the end of the 19th century, the medical field had become more professional and organized. Scientific breakthroughs, which included anesthesia, rabies vaccinations, techniques for immunization, sterilization of medical equipment, and an understanding of the origins of infections and of the bacterial world, helped to move the field forward.

Find more links below about medicine during this era:

Images: Photo stills from Cranford and Sense and Sensibility (bleeding Marianne Dashwood); James Gillray cartoons

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Update: Watch Return to Cranford online at this link through February 16, 2010.

The folks at PBS Masterpiece are giving away 20 Cranford novels by Elizabeth Gaskell. For an opportunity to win one of these books, all you need to do is click here and sign up for a free Masterpiece e-newsletter.

Update: In addition, the site is offering a behind the scenes video, as well as streaming videos of Parts One and Two. After Sunday you can view all of Cranford online until May 23rd.

After May 23 you will have to make do with YouTube clips of the movie with foreign subtitles.

Part 3 of Cranford will be shown this Sunday on your local PBS station at 9 pm.

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I love old-fashioned, sentimental movies filled with likable characters and well told stories. I like films that take me out of time and place and land me smack dab in another world. I adore ensemble casts made up of famous and not so famous British actors. Ergo, I am wild about Cranford, which will air at 9 pm tonight on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic

This early Victorian tale, based on the writings of Elizabeth Gaskell, is about change and resisting change. Cranford is a sleepy town that time passed by until the coming of the railroad. It is ruled by women – Amazons, as Elizabeth Gaskell described them.

Eileen Atkins as Miss Deborah Jenkyns and Francesca Annis as Lady Ludlow are at the pinnacle of Cranford society: the former rules over poor widows and spinsters, and the latter commands everyone’s respect as the lady of the manor. These two powerful women are suspicious of anything that upsets their well-ordered lives. Miss Jenkyns cannot abide Charles Dickens’s modern stories, or suck juice from an orange in front of others, since to her the very thought of the word ‘suck’ is abhorrent. News that a railroad is coming to ruin her perfect town is so distressful that it brings on an apoplectic fit.

Lady Ludlow firmly believes that people should remain in their station and behave accordingly. She will not hire servants who can read or write, declaring that too much education upsets the natural order of things and would foment a revolution, as it did in France. This subplot sets up the film’s dramatic ending.

Simon Woods as Dr. Harris, represents new ideas and innovation. A frisson goes through the community when he elects to save Jem Hearne’s injured arm rather than amputate it. After the young doctor’s successful but revolutionary treatment of setting the bone and stitching the wound, his partner Dr. Morgan (John Bowe) declares testily, “Cranford has been disturbed by you.” The old doctor, thinking to relieve his work load and to turn his practice over to a younger physician once he retires, is completely taken aback by his assistant’s newfangled ways. “Cranford is a town that knows itself, he admonishes the doctor. “It is a town at peace.”

Cranford is also a town that takes care of its own. The staid ladies of Cranford donate their expensive candles to allow the doctor to practice his modern surgical techniques on the young carpenter before it is too late. They are charmed by this single man, a rare commodity in a town filled with spinsters. Many of the plot’s developments and misunderstandings that ensue are caused by their wishful thinking.

The people of Cranford are adept at hoarding scarce goods, such as candles and coal for fire. The lace incident, which, next to the cow incident, is one of my favorite scenes in the film, is all about recycling. Hand made foreign lace was a precious commodity, especially for a widow living on a meager income of 100 pounds. Any article of clothing that still had value was laundered, mended, or reworked rather than thrown out. When the cat swallowed the lace, along with the buttermilk that was bleaching it, it led to a series of events that had me choking with laughter. The ladies’ expressions as they watched a cathartic mixture being forced down the poor cat’s throat and listened to the ignominious expulsion of milk and lace into a boot were priceless.

Careful attention to detail was paid in this production, from costumes, such as the frayed bonnet of the impoverished widow (played by Julia McKenzie with Imelda Staunton at left), to the setting (the British Heritage village of Laycock), to props (two footmen huffing and puffing as they run while carrying their mistress in a sedan chair), to the plaintive wails of the cat as it expels the sadly abused lace.

As a drama, Cranford has it all: young romance (Kimberley Nixon as Julia Hutton at right), old romance, sweet comedy, dreadful calamity, deep sorrow and profound happiness. The town is populated with individuals who do what is right for themselves, their families, and their fellow man, even if it means breaking the law. I’ve read the book and was struck by how well Heidi Thomas’s script holds up against Mrs. Gaskell’s novel, which was actually a series of vignettes written for Household Words, a magazine published by Charles Dickens. Oh, the story is melodramatic and there are a few too many coincidences to be believed, but the characters are so well defined and likable that one forgives the script’s treacly overtones and neatly tied up ending.

Jane Austen’s novels were never so sugary sweet, but this film production offers us an interesting glimpse of a world that Cassandra Austen, Jane’s beloved sister, must have known before she died. Changes caused by the industrial revolution had swept England, and new inventions in manufacturing, machines, science, and travel caused wholesale changes in how people lived and worked. Jane Austen only caught a glimpse of what was to come, but Cassandra lived long enough to see macademized roads replace dirt roads, gas lights put up on public streets, and steam engines overtake stage coaches as public transportation. Other aspects of society remained the same, such as the plight of widows and spinsters whose income was inadequate, and a high mortality rate among children.

Post Script: Winning her first BAFTA award at the age of 73, Eileen Atkins edged Judi Dench for best actress for her performance as Miss Jenkyns. Eileen wasn’t sure about the role at first, saying, “I didn’t think it was too good a part – I thought she was the only one who wasn’t funny.”

More about Cranford:

  • Penny for Your Dreams features a series of great Cranford reviews. Here is the link to Episode One if you don’t mind spoilers, along with the other four posts.

I would also like to direct you to Laurel Ann’s Cranford review on Austenprose, and Kay Daycus’s take on this movie adaptation. Mrs. Elton offers a unique perspective about this first episode on Jane Austen Today. Learn more about Elizabeth Gaskell in Jane Austen in Vermont. See you next week for the second installment!

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