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The third episode of Upstairs Downstairs will be shown this Sunday. Will you tune in?  (Watch all three episodes from April 25 through May 24 at this link.) Better yet, the BBC will make the DVD available for sale Tuesday, April 26th.

BBC’s Upstairs Downstairs DVD is available for purchase!

Upstairs Downstairs has been brought back with a fresh new cast. It is 1936 and six years since parlormaid Rose (Jean Marsh) left 165 Eaton Place. Fate brings her back to the house and its new owners, Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard), his wife Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes), and his mother, Lady Maud Holland (Eileen Atkins). Rose recruits a new “downstairs” family to help run the elegance and finery of the “upstairs” world. Set against the historical backdrop of a pre-World War II Britain with a new King on the throne, with Fascism on the rise on the continent, and with sexual, social and political tensions at 165 Eaton Place, this new series provides an evocative take on the master-servant relationship.

In honor of the U.S Premiere on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic, the BBC is giving away a free DVD just two days following the conclusion of the third episode. This DVD includes the making-of featurette Upstairs Downstairs – Behind Closed Doors. (SRP: $34.98 ($43.98 in Canada)

CONTEST is CLOSED. The winner is Felicia!!: For an opportunity to win the DVD, all you need to do is leave a comment stating what you liked best about this 2010 series! The drawing (by random number) will be held on Tuesday, April 26th at 11:59 PM, EST.

Read this blog’s reviews of UpDown in these posts:

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Oh, my, Upstairs Downstairs turned down a darker road in the second episode, which can be seen online this week until May 24th.

The arrival of parlor maid, Rachel Perlmutter, changes the mood of the show from light-hearted to somber. She is a Jewish refugee from Germany who is forced to work as a maid, a career that is dangerous to her asthmatic condition.

Rachel (Helen Bradbury) suffers from asthma, which strikes her at the most unexpected moments.

Race and prejudice are the very obvious subtexts of this episode, in which Mr. Amanjit, who at first lived apart from the staff, is slowly accepted downstairs.

This scene, in which Mr. Amanjit was invited to listen to music on the radio, was most gratifying

Harry Spargo, the chauffeur, has developed a political interest that is typical of many people in the 1930′s, but his leanings are towards the far right and with the black shirts of Oswald Mosley’s fascist party.

Harrys social politics will place him at odds with the family and lead to tragedy belowstairs

A bored Ladie Percie flirts with danger as she pursues the chauffeur and his interests.

Bored and rebellious are not a good combination in the mind of a none too bright woman. Lady Percie races up the stairs to join an unsuspecting Harry at a far right rally.

And Agnes, the mistress, is pregnant.

A montage shows the stages of Agness pregnancy in swift succession

While I liked that Upstairs Downstairs embraced the many social upheavals of pre-war Britain, the one hour format is too rushed for these complex plot developments. I know the original series was based on one-hour shows, but back then each episode centered on one plot line that was often developed over several episodes. There were too many holes in the various plots that have been introduced and this series seems rushed, giving almost no time to character development. I hope that the pace slows down in Season 2 next year. Meanwhile, I can’t wait to see what develops in Episode 3, for at this point the twists and turns have intrigued me.

I must admit to being disappointed with the costumes, which did not appeal to me at all.

Other Upstairs Downstairs posts on this blog:

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Created by Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), “Downton Abbey” depicts the lives of the noble Crawley family and the staff who serve them at their Edwardian country house. It is April and the Titanic has just sunk.The world will never be the same for the Crawleys, for both the heirs to Downton Abbey went down with the ship.

Hugh Bonneville as the Earl of Grantham. This image speaks of power and privilege.

The earl and countess of Grantham’s three daughters cannot inherit the estate, which is entailed to the male next in succession. He is Matthew Crawley, a third cousin, son of a doctor and a nurse, and a lawyer by trade. Matthew knows nothing about running such a vast estate, and cares little about the niceties of protocol.

Dan Stevens plays Matthew Crawley. He also played Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility.

The answer to the earl’s predicament is simple really – Lady Mary, his eldest daughter, should marry Matthew. But nothing is simple in Downton Abbey, for Lady Mary is stubborn and has a mind of her own.

The Crawley sisters: Lady Edith, Lady Mary, and Lady Sybil

The series is lushly produced and the story lines are riveting. In its depiction of the intertwined lives of servants and aristocrats, Downton Abbey recalls one of television’s most beloved programs, Upstairs Downstairs, which aired on MASTERPIECE (then MASTERPIECE THEATRE ) in the 1970s. One of the thrills of MASTER PIECE’s 40th season is a new three-part Upstairs Downstairs with a new cast of characters set in the same house at 165 Eaton Place, taking the story from 1936 to the outbreak of World War II .

The Earl and Countess of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern)

Episode 1
Sunday, January 9, 2011, 9 to 10:30pm
When the Titanic goes down, Lord Grantham loses his immediate heirs, and his daughter Mary loses her fiancé, throwing Downton Abbey and its servants into turmoil. The new heir turns out to be Matthew, a handsome lawyer with novel ideas about country life.

Matthew and his mother are formally received by the servants and family during their first visit to the Abbey

Episode 2
Sunday, January 16, 2011, 9 to 10:30pm
Mary entertains three suitors, including a Turkish diplomat whose boldness leads to a surprising event. Downstairs, the shocking former life of Carson, the butler, is unmasked, and Bates risks his health to remain valet.

Jim Carter (Cranford) as Mr. Carson, the butler

Episode 3
Sunday, January 23, 2011, 9 to 10:30pm
Growing into his role as heir, Matthew brings out the bitter rivalry between sisters Mary and Edith. Servants Thomas and O’Brien scheme against Bates, while head housemaid Anna is increasingly attracted to him. Lady Violet’s winning streak in the flower show is threatened.

The Countess (Elzabeth McGovern) and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) at the flower show.

Episode 4
Sunday, January 30, 2011, 9 to 10:30pm
The heir crisis at Downton Abbey takes an unexpected turn. Meanwhile, rumors fly about Mary’s virtue. Her sister Sybil takes a risk in her secret political life. Anna unearths Bates’ mysterious past. And O’Brien and Thomas plot their exit strategy.

The Countess of Grantham with her daughter Lady Edith

My posts about Downton Abbey

Cast

Hugh Bonneville (Daniel Deronda, Filth)…Robert, Earl of Grantham
Jessica Brown-Findlay…Lady Sybil Crawley
Laura Carmichael…Lady Edith Crawley
Jim Carter (Cranford)…Mr. Carson
Brendan Coyle (Prime Suspect 7: The Final Act)…John Bates
Michelle Dockery (Return to Cranford)…Lady Mary Crawley
Siobhan Finneran (The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard)… O’Brien
Joanne Froggatt (Robin Hood)…Anna
Thomas Howes…William
Rob James-Collier…Thomas
Rose Leslie…Gwen
Phyllis Logan (Wallander)…Mrs. Hughes
Elizabeth McGovern (A Room with a View)…Cora, Countess of Grantham
Sophie McShera…Daisy
Lesley Nicol (Miss Marple)…Mrs. Patmore
Maggie Smith (Harry Potter)…Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham
Dan Stevens (Sense & Sensibility)…Matthew Crawley
Penelope Wilton (Wives and Daughters)…Isobel Crawley
Charlie Cox (Stardust)…Duke of Crowborough
Kevin Doyle (The Tudors)…Molesley
Robert Bathurst (Emma)…Sir Anthony Strallan
Bernard Gallagher…Bill Molesley
Samantha Bond (Miss Marple)…Lady Rosamund Painswick
Allen Leech (The Tudors)…Tom Branson
Brendan Patrick…Evelyn Napier
David Robb…Dr. Clarkson
Helen Sheals…Postmaster’s Wife

More on the Topic

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Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) examines microscopic evidence

Copyright (c) Jane Austen’s World. The ending of the final episode of Sherlock!, which represented the final Mystery! for PBS’s 2010 Masterpiece season left me sitting on the edge of my seat, and … I won’t spoil your enjoyment if you haven’t watched it yet. Click here to view The Great Game online if you missed it. Two of the three episodes will be available until December 7.

The countdown clock is ticking: 12 hours

Sherlock’s ingenuity is put to the test in The Great Game, which a darker and more complex tale than the previous two episodes. Holmes races against time to solve a mystery that began when he was a boy. Clues arrive from an adversary worthy of Sherlock, whose detective skills are put through their paces. Dr. Watson is also on top of his game, and more critical as Holmes’s partner than ever.

Watson accuses Sherlock of enjoying himself, even as another victim's deadline has dropped to 3 hours

The cat-and-mouse games become more and more intricate as clues arrive from Sherlock’s dangerous adversary. His presence has been hinted at in previous episodes, but, again, I won’t give the game away.

Watson (Martin Freeman) puzzles through the clues, which are elementary for Holmes

The script is fiercely funny and its wit sharper than the edge of a freshly honed knife. The ending is shocking. I won’t give it away except to say that PBS MUST air the second season of this series. That’s all.

The ending is a game changer that makes this series a must-see

Reade other Sherlock! reviews :

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I had never heard of the book Small Island or author Andrea Levy until PBS scheduled the film as the last presentation for Masterpiece Classic this season. The story follows two couples, one from London, England and the other from Jamaica, whose lives intersect at crucial moments. Against the backdrop of World War II and post war England, we learn about the dreams and ambitions of Queenie, Bernard, Hortense, and Gilbert.

David Oyelowo as Gilbert Joseph

The story is about the reaction of the British to the 492 men from the British Colonies who bought passage on the Empire Windrush in 1948 and emigrated to England. Prior to that event, 6,000 West Indian men had volunteered for the RAF during World War II. After the war, they wanted a better life and sought it in the motherland.

Queenie (Ruth Wilson) and Bernard (Benedict Cumberbatch)

As the story unfolded I was struck by the Jamaican islander’s view of their mother country. Their attitude towards England was  loving, deferential, and loyal. While the Jamaicans learned everything they could about English customs and history, the British knew or cared very little about the people they had exploited. Reality sunk in for the young Jamaican men who had signed up to fight alongside the British in WWII. They dreamed of fighting as pilots, but were assigned menial jobs, some not even at the front. Worse, they encountered racism designed to squash their pride and put them in their place.

Hortense (Naomi Harris) goes out shopping properly dressed

David Oyelowo plays Gilbert Joseph, a wonderfully optimistic and cheerful man, who aims to find a better life in the motherland. His dream was to become a lawyer, but in reality he became a postman for the Royal Mail. His scene on the park bench after being humiliated by other postal workers broke my heart. I think I fell a little in love with Mr. Oyelowo then.

Hortense and Gilbert

Hortense (Naomi Harris) dreams of becoming a school teacher in London. An orphan, she pursues her teaching degree in a Jamaican school and learns how to conduct herself properly. Her ambition prompts her to betray a friend and finagle her way into a marriage of convenience with Gilbert, whose passage on the Empire Windrush she finances. Their deal is that he will send for her as soon as he finds a nice place for them to live in London.

Ruth Wilson as Queenie

Queenie (Ruth Wilson)dreams of a more exciting life than on the pig farm that her parents own. We first meet her with her aunt in London, practicing elocution lessons – “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain”. Queenie’s dreams are squashed when she makes a compromise after her aunt’s death and marries the dull colorless young man who has fallen in love with her. Her existence becomes lackluster and uneventful, and she chafes under her boring routine. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Bernard in the unsympathetic part of Queenie’s husband. Sadly, Bernard has already realized his dream, which was to marry Queenie, who does not love him. He must confront his disillusionment and resistance to change if he is to hold on to his marriage to Queenie.

Bernard (Benedict Cumberbatch)

Then the war begins and suddenly life changes for Queenie, whose path crosses with Gilbert and Hortense, and a mysterious man named Michael, who (coincidentally) Hortense has loved all her life. Rather than spoil the plot, I encourage you to read a lovely synopsis at this PBS link along with an interview with the author, which I recommend highly.

Ashley Walters as Michael

These days we do not often encounter black ladies of the old school. Do you remember them? Their postures were ramrod straight. Their neat clothes did not allow for a single crease. Their hats were proper and decorous, and their purses were held just so in their gloved hands. Their language was grammatically correct, old-fashioned and Victorian, as if they had been taught from a 19th-century grammar book. I volunteered with such a lady, Miss Edna, who had been a school teacher since the 1930′s and who volunteered as a tutor well into her 90′s. Hortense reminded me of Miss Edna. I thought that Naomi Harris captured every aspect of Miss Edna, including her unassailable dignity.

Queenie and Michael

To my mind, Queenie, is the tragic character of this tale. As Andrea Levy said “She is a warmhearted person, a kind person, an open person.” Yet she is not perfect. None of the characters are. The author explains, “With all my characters, I never want them to be perfect, they have faults, just like us all.” Despite her imperfections, Queenie is the heroine who, when faced with a King Solomon decision, does not flinch from choosing the right course.

The acting is superb. There were scenes that caused me to hold my breath, they were that good, and there were times when I literally ached for the characters. When I cried, it was from sympathy, not from a contrived plot. Like real life, this drama is sprinkled with humor, which cuts the tension. At the end of the film, I wanted to see more. Rarely does this happen. PBS will air the first part of Small Island tonight, April 18th at 9 p.m., and the second part on April 25th. I highly recommend that you see it.

Hortense, Michael, and Queenie

If you have missed the first part, you can watch it online at this link starting April 19th through the 25th.

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Rupert Penry-Jones in The 39 Steps

John Buchan wrote The 39 Steps in 1915, creating the genre of the espionage thriller, particularly that subset involving the upper-class gentleman spy. In the book, Richard Hannay, had recently returned to London after years of living in Africa, serving in the Boer War and then working as a mining engineer. It is late spring of 1914; he is bored blind by his present life, and ready for some action. He gets his wish when his neighbor, Scudder, entrusts a mysterious notebook and story of spies about to destroy the British Navy to Hannay and gets killed by German spies in his flat. Naturally, Hannay is assumed guilty of the murder, and, with both spies and police searching for him, he goes to Scotland to unravel the story and thus be found innocent. Like all stories of intricate and slightly implausible plot, the tale unfolds at breakneck speed. Buchan’s book is filled with chance encounters, plot twists, double crosses, chases across the Scottish moors, once with an airplane tracing his movements, and ends with Hannay back in England, uncovering the traitor and foiling the German plot. The book was a huge success.

In 1935, Alfred Hitchcock undertook the challenge of making The 39 Steps into a movie. It was a challenge because of the intricate details and large cast in the book, so Hitchcock developed a very different version: he kept Hannay’s name, the murder of the agent in Hannay’s apartment, and the trip to Scotland to discover whatever he could. But Hitchcock updated the time of the action to the mid-30s, made Hannay Canadian and the spies vaguer in nationality, incorporated a music hall performer named Mr. Memory, and changed the 39 steps from a physical location to a conjuring trick. He also brought in a woman to provide the requisite cinema love interest; they meet cute and dash across the moors of Scotland, handcuffed together for some of the time. Robert Donat played the hapless Canadian Hannay; he was the best part of the movie.

The 39 Steps, as broadcast by PBS Sunday night, is much truer to the original. Rupert Penry-Jones, who has the jaded upper class part down cold, plays Hannay, once again the bored Brit. He is aloof when Scudder barrels into his apartment, disbelieving of the story, until the milkman breaks in and Scudder is murdered. Penry-Jones, who previously appeared as Captain Wentworth in Masterpiece’s broadcast of Persuasion, plays a somewhat understated hero. He is quick off the mark, and, in the manner of such heroes, good looking in face and form. Lizzie Mickery, who adapted the novel for this screenplay, also added female interest: Victoria Sinclair, played with spirit by Lydia Leonard, is a suffragist and also a British agent. Again, there are a number of runs across the moors displaying some really splendid scenery. And once again, Hannay is chased by an airplane; although in a clear homage to Hitchcock, the folks in the plane don’t simply spot him, they shoot at him a la North by Northwest – another great Hitchcock spy caper.

Rupert Penry-Jones (Richard Hannay), Lydia Leonard (Victoria Sinclair)

Captain Maynard, my trustee co-viewer, was delighted to note that the cars and guns were all authentic to the 1914 date. He loves the wonderful Masterpiece productions for this reason. And in my fashion, I liked the accuracy of the costumes, both men and women. The story starts very quickly and tautly, and unwinds without a moment wasted; we were both drawn into it immediately.

We enjoyed the Hitchcock version of the movie, although I thought the addition of the music hall unnecessary, even while recognizing that this was a favorite Hitchcock device. (See also, The Man Who Knew Too Much.) And I could see no purpose to have Donat be Canadian; things were already difficult enough. Hitchcock also likes his hero to be pretty clueless, bumbling from one near-disaster to the next, until he finally adds up the pieces and solves the riddle. Over all, I like my hero to have a little more on the ball, and in this 2008 update, Penry-Jones is quick-witted and in charge; he solves the cipher, recognizes his foes, and works through the puzzle ahead of the Secret Service. He is a nice combination of James Bond and Lord Peter Wimsey: not so over the top or predatory as Bond, a little more physical than Wimsey. The love story is believable, not the comic relief of the Hitchcock version. Victoria is also sharp, has a photographic memory, runs without falling down in a swoon, and altogether plays an effective sidekick. One thing did strike a false note: Victoria calls herself a suffragette rather than suffragist, the less derisive term used always by those indomitable women. The story plays out against the beginning of World War I, building both tension and reality for the spy plot. The last scene shows Hannay, now an officer in the British Army, at St. Pancras station setting off for France. The tantalizing hope is that he and Victoria will have a future after the war. And at this point, Co-viewer and I have changed our allegiance: truer to the book, while building in a female character, this remake is by far the better 39 Steps.

Gentle Readers: My good friend, Lady Anne, an avid fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, wrote this review for my blog. I am, as always, ever so grateful for her learned insights. Watch The 39 Steps online at PBS until March 30. 2010.

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Two years ago PBS offered Northanger Abbey during Jane Austen Season. Tonight we are having an encore presentation. Such fun! For information about this series, click on this PBS link.

John Thorpe, Catherine Morland, Isabella Thorpe, and James Morland

For my original review and others, click on the links below!

Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland

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Jane Austen had a few ideas about what would happen to some of her characters in the future. Emma’s Mr. Woodhouse would live for two more years after his daughter’s marriage to Mr. Knightley, and the letters from Frank Churchill that Jane Fairfax placed before her contained the word “pardon.” These little tidbits of information help to make the books and movie adaptations so much more enjoyable to read and watch.

In my previous observations of the film adaptation of Emma 2009, I mentioned several times that I disliked Romola Garai’s interpretation of the role, but I have now seen the film four times AND rewatched other Emma films, including Clueless, which remains my favorite. I have also been listening to the full book version of Emma on my iPod. My mama sagely told me, “you CAN teach an old dog new tricks”, and after the second episode of Emma aired on PBS last week and after viewing the Kate Beckinsale version of Emma (1996) with a friend, this crotchety old dog has come to the rather astonishing realization that she likes Romola as Emma after all.

Romola’s quick moving, restless Emma captures her immaturity and boredom. Highbury is a town that is much too confining for such a talented, rich and lively young lady, and with so little to do, this self-indulgent and coddled girl can’t help but create mischief. If only Emma could apply herself long enough to become proficient at something, she might have been able to keep her nose out of other peoples’ lives. But she keeps making lists, with every intention of reading the books. As Mr. Knightley observed to Mrs Weston:

Emma reads two pages of Milton

Emma has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old. I have seen a great many lists of her drawing up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly through—and very good lists they were—very well chosen, and very neatly arranged—sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule. The list she drew up when only fourteen—I remember thinking it did her judgment so much credit, that I preserved it some time; and I dare say she may have made out a very good list now. But I have done with expecting any course of steady reading from Emma. She will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding.

Emma also paints, but, as her portfolio (and pale painting of Harriet Smith) demonstrates, she is hard pressed to finish these projects.

Emma's very pale painting of Harriet Smith

Emma wished to go to work directly, and therefore produced the portfolio containing her various attempts at portraits, for not one of them had ever been finished, that they might decide together on the best size for Harriet. Her many beginnings were displayed. Miniatures, half-lengths, whole-lengths, pencil, crayon, and water-colours had been all tried in turn. She had always wanted to do everything, and had made more progress both in drawing and music than many might have done with so little labour as she would ever submit to.”

Emma can play the pianoforte prettily enough, but not as well as Jane Fairfax, which bothers her:

Emma is invited to play first at the Coles' party

She did unfeignedly and unequivocally regret the inferiority of her own playing and singing. She did most heartily grieve over the idleness of her childhood–and sat down and practised vigorously an hour and a half.

She was then interrupted by Harriet’s coming in; and if Harriet’s praise could have satisfied her, she might soon have been comforted.

“Oh! if I could but play as well as you and Miss Fairfax!”

“Don’t class us together, Harriet. My playing is no more like her’s, than a lamp is like sunshine.” – Emma, Volume 2, Chapter 9

Sandy Welch, scriptwriter of this Emma adaptation, observed that Cher, the Emma character in Clueless, was bossy but sweet and well-meaning. In her script, Ms. Welch wanted to show that the coddled young Emma had an attitude of “well-meaning snobbishness” and that in all her meddling, she sincerely thought:  “doesn’t everyone think like this?”


And so in my fourth viewing of Romola’s performance as Jane Austen’s wealthiest and most entitled heroine, I have finally come to admire this heroine. My change of heart was especially helped when I reviewed previous Emma adaptations during the last snow storm, and realized just how thoroughly this new production fit in with our modern sensibilities.  I (and a few of my Janeite friends) still think that Romola’s  facial grimaces and wide eyed interpretation of a very young Emma in the first half of the series were overly exaggerated, but she toned down her performance as Emma matured and grew in understanding.

Her scenes with Jonny Lee Miller during his proposal were tender and touching and gave a fitting ending to the series. I shall miss these Sunday evenings watching Emma. Thankfully, PBS will be showing reruns of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, which were originally shown during Jane Austen Season two years ago. Jane Austen fans can take heart that our time with the bonnet series is not yet over.

Now that you have seen all the episodes of Emma, what did you think?

More Links:

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Romola Garai as Emma

Once again PBS will host a Twitter Party during the second installment of Emma 2009. Come join me and Laurel Ann from Austenprose for a chat from 9-11 PM EST. PBS has also arranged for a Twitter Fest for those who live on the west coast. That Twitter Chat will begin at 9 PM PT and last until 11 PM. Click here for the details. Don’t forget to use the hash tag #emma_pbs! See you there.

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IMDb has become an indispensable site for those of us who love movies. I especially love the trivia the site features about each film. Take Emma 2009, for example. Costumes that were recycled from other films are listed there. Let’s look at a few:

Johdi May's purple coat

The purple coat Jodhi May (Mrs. Weston) wears on market day in Highbury is the same costume Hattie Morahan (Elinor Dashwood) wears when she arrives at Barton Cottage in “Sense & Sensibility” (2008).

Elinor in purple pelisse

The dark Spencer worn by Louise Dylan (Harriet Smith) to visit the poor is the same costume Lucy Scott wears in “Pride and Prejudice”(1995).

Harriet Smith (Louise Dylan) in dark spencer

The off-white dress with floral embroidery on the bodice worn by Christina Cole (Mrs. Elton) for her big entrance in church is the same costume worn by Cesca Martin in “The Regency House Party” (2004) during her “engagement,” and by Natasha Little (Becky Sharp) at Park Lane in “Vanity Fair” (1998).

Christina Cole as Mrs. Elton, Her Entrance in Church

The gray gown with gold bow print worn by Tamsin Greig (Miss Bates) to Miss Taylor’s wedding is the same costume worn by Anna Massey (Aunt Norris) in “Mansfield Park” (1983), Phyllida Law (Mrs. Bates) in Emma (1996), Lindsay Duncan (Mrs. Price) when Fanny leaves home in Mansfield Park (1999), Janine Duvitski (Mrs. Meagles) in “Little Dorrit” (2008), and Linda Bassett (Mrs. Jennings) in London in “Sense & Sensibility” (2008).

Miss Bates in gray pelisse and Emma in a floral gown

The floral print dress worn by Romola Garai (Emma) to Miss Taylor’s wedding is the same costume worn by Dagmara Dominczyk (Mercedès Iguanada) for Edmond’s homecoming at the beginning of The Count of Monte Cristo (2002).

Johdi May in lilac floral colored wrap dress

The lilac colored floral wrap dress Jodhi May (Anne Taylor/Weston) wears at Hartfield is the same costume worn by Denise Black (Mrs.Brocklebank) in “To the Ends of the Earth” (2005), and Alex Kingston (Mrs.Bennet) in “Lost in Austen” (2008).

Wearing a floral waistcoat at the Cole's party, Jonny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley

The blue floral waistcoat Jonny Lee Miller (Mr.Knightley) wears at the Coles’ party is the same costume worn by Joseph Beattie (Henry Crawford) in Mansfield Park (2007) (TV).

Henry and Mary Crawford

For more recycled fashion comparisons, go to this link.

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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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Ah, our old friends from Cranford have returned, with a few new faces among them. The first episode of Return to Cranford provided some humor, much pathos and sadness, and new beginnings. (My review sits here.) What did you think of this episode? Leave a comment or vote on Jane Austen Today. Missed the episode? Watch the series online at this link.

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