Lavish in All the Right Ways: A Return to the Glory Days of Costume Drama, Courtesy of Elizabeth Gaskell

Article excerpt

Cranford

BBC1

In the days when I used to whip through Victorian novels as if they were meringues, Cranford was never one of my favourites. I liked my Gaskell to taste of soot and sweat, for the action to take place in Manchester basements with dirt floors, a minimum of 12 coughing inhabitants to every room.

Now, though, I'm in the middle of a thorough rethink. Two decades later, and along comes the BBC with a "lavish" adaptation of Cranford (Sundays, 9pm) which, in spite of all my misgivings, I end up watching and ... it's wonderful. Like every other thirty something woman I know, I now refuse to leave the house on Sunday nights, and will not do so until this balm to my soul comes to an end. More to the point, I'm wondering: was I wrong? Is Elizabeth Gaskell's most popular novel also her best, or is it just that this version is so good that it makes you think it must be so? It's one of the two, I'm sure--though there is a third possibility, which is that I'm simply getting old. And with age comes not only (ha!) wisdom, but a flinching away from unrelenting grimness.

Whatever. The series is great. People are comparing it to the BBC's 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, but this is unfair; Cranford is better than that. It's up there with the BBC's stunning Middlemarch, which was made the year before a soggy Colin Firth got everyone so excited, and was the series that revived costume drama after a long spell in the doldrums. It's beautifully written, which is a surprise, given that the script is by Heidi Thomas, who penned Lilies, the cheesiest drama I've ever had the misfortune to see ("Liverpool, 1920. Three girls on the edge of womanhood, a world on the brink of change"; it was axed by the BBC after one series). So I'm guessing that she nicked quite a lot of her best lines--"My father was a man; I think I understand the sex"--from Mrs G. But it also looks perfect. It's not just the cobbles and carriages; the designers have used colour to mirror character. Look at the powdered face of Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis), and you think of the cold mist rising forbiddingly off her enclosed land.

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Is Cranford, an everyday story of Knutsford life circa 1830, still "relevant"? …