Set in the early 1840s in the fictional village of Cranford in the county of Cheshire in North West England, the story focuses primarily on the town's single and widowed middle class female inhabitants who are comfortable with their traditional way of life and place great store in propriety and maintaining an appearance of gentility. Among them are the spinster Jenkyns sisters, Matty and Deborah; their houseguest from Manchester, Mary Smith; Octavia Pole, the town's leading gossip; the Tomkinson sisters, Augusta and Caroline; Mrs Forrester, who treats her beloved cow Bessie as she would a daughter; Mrs Rose, the housekeeper for Dr Harrison; Jessie Brown, who rejects Major Gordon's marriage proposal twice despite her feelings for him; Laurentia Galindo, a milliner who strongly believes men and women are on equal footing; the Honourable Mrs Jamieson, a snob who dresses her dog in ensembles to match her own; Sophy Hutton, the vicar's eldest daughter and surrogate mother to her three younger siblings, who is courted by Dr Harrison; and the aristocratic Lady Ludlow, who lives in splendour at Hanbury Court and perceives change as a peril to the natural order of things.
The principal male characters are new arrival Dr Frank Harrison, who is smitten with Sophy but unwittingly becomes the romantic target of both Mrs Rose and Caroline Tomkinson, who frequently feigns illness to hold his attention; Dr Morgan, an old-fashioned practitioner who finds himself challenged by the modern ideas of his young partner; Captain Brown, a military man whose common sense earns him a place of authority among the women; Edmund Carter, Lady Ludlow's land agent, a reformer who strongly advocates free education for the working class; Harry Gregson, the ambitious ten-year-old son of an impoverished poacher, who as Mr. Carter's protégé learns to read and write; farmer Thomas Holbrook, Matty Jenkyns' one-time suitor, who was considered unsuitable by her family but is anxious to renew his relationship with her; Reverend Hutton, a widower with four children whose religious conviction is sometimes at odds with his instincts as a father; and Sir Charles Maulver, the local magistrate and director of the railway company.
Listed in alphabetical order:
Episode One: June 1842
The handsome and eligible young doctor Frank Harrison arrives to assist Dr Morgan with his practice. His first patient is carpenter Jem Hearne, who has fallen from a tree and suffered a compound fracture. Instead of following the usual custom of amputating the injured limb, Dr Harrison performs a relatively new and risky surgery to save the arm. His successful effort wins the admiration of the townspeople.
Also new to Cranford are Captain Brown and his two daughters, the elder of whom is ill and dies shortly after their arrival. With her father away, the surviving sibling Jessie breaks with tradition and walks behind the coffin accompanied by her neighbour Deborah Jenkyns, who with her sister Matty, is playing host to Mary Smith, the daughter of a friend.
Edmund Carter, estate manager for Lady Ludlow, takes an interest in young Harry Gregson, the bright son of a poor local family, and offers him both work and an education.
When a valuable piece of historic lace belonging to Mrs Forrester is swallowed by a cat, she and Octavia Pole discover a novel new use for a Wellington boot.
Episode Two: August 1842
Major Gordon proposes to Jessie Brown a second time before leaving for India, but she refuses him with the excuse she cannot leave her father alone. However, when it is revealed at Lady Ludlow's annual garden party that the railway will be passing close to Cranford, and that Captain Brown will be away on railway business for long periods of time, his daughter regrets her decision.
Also dismayed at the news of the railway's arrival is Deborah Jenkyns, who accuses Captain Brown of deceiving them. She complains of a terrible headache and, moments later, collapses in her bedroom and dies later that night.
Dr Harrison's romance with Sophy Hutton blossoms, only to be stopped in its tracks when he cannot save her brother from the croup. Here, this adaptation depicts the vicar's daughter as having a crisis of faith that is absent in the original text.
Episode Three: November 1842
Dr Harrison's friend Dr Marshland comes to visit for Christmas and returns just prior to Valentine's Day, when he causes mischief by sending a card suggesting marriage to Caroline Tomkinson, who believes it came from Dr Harrison, whose romance with Sophy Hutton reignites. Dr Marshland also seems to take a liking to Mary Smith.
Guilty of poaching on Lady Ludlow's estate but mistakenly accused of assault and robbery instead, Harry Gregson's father Job finds himself in gaol until Lady Ludlow is persuaded by both Mr. Carter's pleas and seeing for herself the abject poverty in which the Gregson family lives, uses her influence to have the charges dropped.
Thomas Holbrook is reunited with Matty Jenkyns. In their younger years, their marriage plans were disrupted by her family's disapproval and a scandal involving her brother Peter. When Mr. Holbrook contracts pneumonia on a journey back from Paris and dies, Miss Matty indicates she now considers herself a widow.
Episode Four: April 1843
Miss Matty learns the bank in which she has invested has failed, but she is determined to keep the news about her financial distress from her friends.
The railway construction approaches nearer to Lady Ludlow's land but, instead of selling acreage to the railway, she mortgages her property to support her ne'er-do-well son Septimus, who is living in Italy.
Dr Harrison asks Reverend Hutton for permission to court Sophy. However, both Caroline Tomkinson and Mrs Rose mistakenly believe the doctor is interested in them. During the May Day celebration, Caroline's sister reveals to Reverend Hutton that Caroline is marrying the young man, an announcement that shocks Mrs Rose, who thought she was his intended bride. Confronting Dr Harrison (who is nonplussed as to how he gave either woman such an impression), the vicar brings Dr Harrison's courtship of his daughter to an abrupt halt.
Episode Five: May 1843
The ladies of Cranford learn about Miss Matty's financial distress and secretly contribute to her welfare, with the sudden influx of cash explained as being due to the discovery of an error in the bank's bookkeeping. Miss Matty opens a shop selling tea in her parlour. Her maid, Martha, marries Jem Hearne, and the newlyweds lodge with Miss Matty.
Mr. Carter discovers that Lady Ludlow mortgaged the Hanbury estate to meet her son's financial demands, even though she may not have the resources to keep up the repayments.
Despite Dr Harrison's protestations of innocence, Dr Morgan advises him to leave Cranford, since patients no longer will see him. Mary Smith helps by confronting Dr Marshland about his mischief with the valentines, and they begin to sort out the misunderstandings that have led to Dr Harrison's predicament. The doctor and Sophy are reconciled when he saves her from a potentially fatal attack of typhoid.
An accident at the site of the railway injures both Captain Brown and Mr. Carter, the latter fatally. In his will he leaves his estate of £20,000 to Harry Gregson, £1,000 is to be used for his formal education at Shrewsbury School, and the remainder to be used to redeem the mortgage on Lady Ludlow's estate, but eventually to revert to Harry with interest. Major Gordon returns from India to propose yet again to Jessie Brown, who accepts at last, and brings with him Matty's long-missing brother Peter. The series concludes with the wedding of Sophy and Dr Harrison.
Episodes Six and Seven: August 1844
Two-part Christmas special, called Return to Cranford. The railway comes to Cranford.
The series, set to begin filming in 2005, originally was scheduled for six episodes, but budget cutbacks resulted in it being trimmed to five, with filming postponed until early 2007.
Although Cranford is supposedly located in Cheshire, none of the exteriors was filmed there. Locations used included Surrey, Hambleden, Windsor, Radnage, Leighton Buzzard, Berkhamsted, Wycombe, Syon House in Brentford, London, and Isleworth in Middlesex, and Oxford. Interiors were filmed in Pinewood Studios. A large portion of filming was done at Lacock in Wiltshire (a location used for many films, including Pride and Prejudice and Emma for the BBC in 1995 and 1996, respectively, The Other Boleyn Girl, The Wolfman and also for the Harry Potter films in 2000, 2001 and 2008).
Steve Hudson, the original director, was replaced after six weeks because, according to Eileen Atkins, "He didn't really understand why it was funny."
Nancy Banks-Smith of The Guardian said the series "will see you through beautifully until Christmas. Elizabeth Gaskell's perfect little classic, beautifully and minutely observed, has been beefed up with two more stories . . . However, as the extra stories are also by Mrs Gaskell, they transplant pretty naturally ... It has a simply stunning performance from Eileen Atkins . . . The power of her performance is all the more remarkable considering the company she keeps."
Andrew Billen of The Times stated, "The cast was so strong it was almost distracting. But, as in any great ensemble, when the individuals came together nothing jarred ... This adaptation added up to even more than the sum of its considerable parts."
James Walton of The Daily Telegraph observed, "Heidi Thomas’s script subtly brought out a more hidden element of Cranford life: that these people are simultaneously proud and ashamed of their provincial status. She also manages the Mrs Gaskell trick of making the town itself the main character ... [T]he result (and of course I mean this as a compliment) sharply recalls another TV portrait of life in a town near Manchester. Admittedly, Cranford features more Annie Walkers and fewer Elsie Tanners than early Coronation Street. Otherwise, the power of the matriarchs, the centrality of gossip and – when the chips are down – the touching sense of community, are all winningly similar. So too is the ability to subject the characters to clear-eyed scrutiny, while still retaining an obvious affection for them."
In the UK, the first episode was watched by 8.43 million viewers and ranked #6 for the week, outperforming ITV1's usually dominant I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here!. By the final episode viewership had dropped to 7.26 million, although the programme remained in the top ten.British Academy Television Awards
Won Best Actress - Eileen Atkins
Won Best Production Design
Won Best Sound Fiction/Entertainment
Nominated Audience Award for Television
Nominated Best Actress - Judi Dench
Nominated Best Costume Design
Nominated Best Drama Serial
Nominated Best Editing (Fiction/Entertainment)
Nominated Best Make Up & Hair Design
Nominated Best Original Television Music
Nominated Best Writer - Heidi Thomas
Broadcasting Press Guild Awards
Won Best Drama Series
Won Best Actor - Philip Glenister
Won Best Actress - Eileen Atkins
Won Writer's Award - Heidi Thomas
Nominated Best Actor - Michael Gambon
Nominated Best Actress - Judi Dench
Golden Globe Awards
Nominated Best Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television
Nominated Best Performance by an Actress in a Miniseries or a Motion Picture Made for Television - Judi Dench
Nominated Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series, Miniseries, or Motion Picture Made for Television - Eileen Atkins
Primetime Emmy Awards
Won Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie - Eileen Atkins
Won Outstanding Hairstyling for a Miniseries or Movie
Nominated Outstanding Miniseries
Nominated Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie - Judi Dench
Nominated Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie, or Dramatic Special - Heidi Thomas
Nominated Outstanding Art Direction for a Miniseries or Movie
Nominated Outstanding Casting for a Miniseries, Movie, or Special
Nominated Outstanding Costumes for a Miniseries, Movie, or Special
Television Critics Association Award
Nominated Outstanding Achievement in Movies, Miniseries, and Specials
The complete series was released in a two-disc set by BBC Video on 11 February 2008. It includes a bonus feature, The Making of Cranford, with interviews with members of both the cast and production team.
A two-part sequel, Return to Cranford was broadcast by BBC as a Christmas special in December 2009. Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton, Julia McKenzie, Deborah Findlay, and Barbara Flynn reprised their roles, with Jonathan Pryce, Celia Imrie, Lesley Sharp, Nicholas Le Prevost, Jodie Whittaker, Tom Hiddleston, Michelle Dockery, Matthew McNulty and Rory Kinnear joining the cast. The program aired on 10 & 17 January 2010 on PBS in the United States.
The new stories, which were written by Heidi Thomas and directed by Simon Curtis, took place in August 1844; a year after the wedding of Sophy Hutton and Dr Harrison. Filming of the railway sequences took place at the Foxfield Railway in Staffordshire.Cranford at Project Gutenberg
My Lady Ludlow at Project Gutenberg
Mr. Harrison's Confessions free eBook edition
"The Last Generation in England"