HERE'S TO A CRANFORD CHRISTMAS; the Cast of the Award-Winning Drama Reads like a Who's Who of British Acting, So Donning a Bonnet for the First Time for the Christmas Special Is, Says Jodie Whittaker, a Leading Light of the Next Generation, Just a Little Daunting

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Byline: Nick Curtis

JODIE Whittaker's favourite word is "lucky". The 27-year-old actress was "lucky" that her first major job was as the teenage object of Peter O'Toole's autumnal lusts in Hanif Kureishi's intriguing cross-generational romance, Venus, in 2006. She was "lucky" that "no one put me in a box after that and said, right, that's all you can do". Now Whittaker says she is "lucky" to have landed one of the lead roles in the BBC's two-part Cranford Christmas special beginning next Sunday.

Those of us who have watched her over the packed four years of her career might argue that talent has something to do with it, too. But being inducted into the Cranford phenomenon could, it's true, be considered fortunate.

It was a masterstroke by producer Sue Birtwistle to take Elizabeth Gaskell's neglected novel of 1840s village life in Cheshire and, with added material from other works by the writer (My Lady Ludlow, Mr Harrison's Confessions and The Last Generation in England), turn it into televisual balm for the soul, the thinking person's must-see of 2007.

Cranford had drama, humour, passion and pain but always left one feeling warmed. Of course, it helped that, as Whittaker puts it, "everyone is in it, the cream of British acting royalty". The first series, starring Judi Dench, Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins, attracted impressive audience figures of more than eight million and won countless awards.

For this year's Christmas special, screenwriter Heidi Thomas has combined some remaining unused Cranford stories with yet more of Gaskell's writings, and introduced new characters to replace those who died in the original series.

Prime among these is Whittaker's Peggy Bell, downtrodden daughter of a poor widow, who falls for William (Tom Hiddleston), the son of wealthy widower Mr Buxton (Jonathan Pryce), and whose case is taken up by Judi Dench's redoubtable Miss Matty. On screen, Whittaker is luminous in her quiet strength: like Dench, she can suggest a lot by doing very little. It was, she says, a challenge.

"She's so soft, Peggy," says Whittaker.

"Although she's also proactive and strong, it's in a delicate way. Whenever I go up for a part like that, the feedback my poor agent gets is that I'm too aggressive. My natural personality is to run in, shout, then run out again and think about what I've said."

Clearly, her attempts to throttle back paid off. "Simon Curtis, the director, generates such a great, fun atmosphere on set, which I think you could see in the first Cranford, with its giggliness and of gossip," she says. Birtwistle won Whittaker's admiration by standing up on the first day and introducing every member of the 60-strong cast and crew, and by her determination to preserve Cranford's authenticity.

Whittaker says it was a pleasure for "us lot" (youngsters like Hiddleston, Matthew McNulty and Michelle Dockery) to work with "those lot" (the likes of Dench, Pryce, Imelda Staunton and Deborah Findlay). …


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