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.