IN MANY WAYS, Stamford is Middlemarch. Approach from the south and the town rises up from the Welland meadows like a flawless film set - six medieval spires and a grid of honeyed streets, split by secret passageways and cobbled lanes.
Scouts from the British Broadcasting Corp., scouring central England for a suitable location to film the television adaption of George Eliot's novel, couldn't believe their luck. Nor could Stamford.
The first episode was watched by more than five million people in Britain - BBC2's highest-ever audience for a drama series. (Made in conjuction with WGBH-TV in Boston, the program is airing on PBS's "Masterpiece Theater," seen in St. Louis at 9 p.m. Sundays through May 15 on KETC, Channel 9.)
"When we were chosen," says Derek Gladman, president of the Stamford Tourist Association, "everyone was thrilled to think Stamford was the nearest thing they got to George Eliot's town."
Stamford even resembles prints of 1830s Coventry, Eliot's model for the town of Middlemarch. Like its fictional counterpart, Stamford is grappling with growth and change.
But ironically, where the residents of Middlemarch were concerned with the coming of the railways, increasing industrialization and the building of their new hospital, Stamford is stirred by the loss of its train service, the decline in industry and the reduction of hospital services.
"Local doctors and people have been fighting for a long time to prevent things running down," says Dr. Stephen Reiss of the Sheepmarket surgery in the town center. Like Tertius Lydgate, Middlemarch's devoted surgeon, Reiss is a young newcomer to the town. "Both the children's ward and maternity unit have closed in the past five years," says Reiss.
John Smith, curator of the Stamford Museum, points out that Stamford's hospital was built in 1828, around the same time as the New Fever Hospital in Middlemarch.
Smith's knowledge of the town makes him Stamford's nearest equivalent to the Rev. Edward Casaubon, Middlemarch's most famous scholar. But Casaubon's congregation was loath to attend his sermons, while Smith's two forthcoming lectures on Stamford and Middlemarch are a sellout.
The interest is everywhere. The town's local bookshop reports sales of the novel - now with Stamford gracing its cover - have risen from one or two a year to 220 since filming last summer. The library has had to bus in copies from Skegness and …