As with all historical dramas, fashion is a major player in Cranford, a new Masterpiece miniseries that premieres May 4 on PBS. Set in an English village circa 1840, it features no shortage of frilly bonnets, balloon sleeves and bustles, but perhaps the most remarkable fashion moments involve a lace collar swallowed by a cat and salvaged post-digestion, and pajamas cut for an unfortunate cow left “naked” after a run-in with a lime pit.
Such sartorially underscored scenarios, both based on true stories, give the otherwise serious narrative a hefty dose of unexpected hilarity and are pricelessly played by Cranford’s cast of British heavyweights, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Imelda Staunton and Julia McKenzie among them. (Dench’s and Atkins’s performances garnered them each a BAFTA best actress nomination.) The combination of highbrow actors, accents, uptight ideals and comedy sets Cranford—an original production adapted from three Elizabeth Gaskell works titled Cranford, My Lady Ludlow and “Mr. Harrison’s Confessions”—apart from the lot of English-lit costume dramas.
Ladies of Cranford.
The three-part series was conceived and produced over the course of five years by Sue Birtwistle, who was turned on to Gaskell while producing a television version of the author’s Wives and Daughters in 1999. Cranford captures a year in the life of the residents of Cranford, a village based on Gaskell’s hometown of Knutsford in Cheshire, England. Despite the century-plus time difference, “I could see similarities [to] my childhood,” says Birtwistle, who grew up just a few miles from Knutsford. “I came up in a small town, and there were very old ladies there who were spinsters. They’d lost their fiancés in the First World War, and there were very strict rules about what they did and didn’t do, so it felt very like Cranford.” Much of the plotline is woven around the social system and its divides and punched up with plenty of love, lust, lies and deaths—at least five of them. It’s the stuff of a lofty soap opera, with considerable juice owed to a group of spinsters (Atkins and Dench, who play sisters Deborah and Matty Jenkyns, respectively, and Staunton, cast as the town gossip, Miss Pole) who thrive on their neighbors’ comings and goings, all of which are carried on in proper Victorian attire.
Dench as Miss Matty Jenkyns.
While Birtwistle and costume designer Jenny Beavan came to the project with some knowledge of Victorian fashion and etiquette gleaned from their vast repertoire of period work—Birtwistle has produced television versions of Pride and Prejudice and Emma, the latter of which Beavan, known for big-screen productions including Sense and Sensibility and Gosford Park, also worked on—both contend that Gaskell was a tremendous source for style specifics. “She obviously really enjoyed remarking on the clothing that people wore,” says Beavan of the details she found in the author’s writing. “And one of the things she says very early on is that the ladies of Cranford were very independent of fashion. Which I took to mean that they hadn’t kept up with the times. They rather preferred their old-fashioned ways and did what they liked.” It’s a conceit that plays into not only the characters’ dress, which Beavan describes as an 1830s-style “quality street look, with bouncy sleeves, like teapot cozies”—outdated compared to the more smooth and severe clothing of the 1840s—but also their approach to everyday life.
Most of the story’s drama is sparked by change and the town’s resistance to it. Take, for example, Lady Ludlow, played by Francesca Annis. As Cranford’s resident high-class rich bitch, her staid notions—for example, no education for the poor—are threatened by the Industrial Revolution, represented here in the form of a railway line through Cranford. Clotheswise, her conservatism translates to some seriously passé looks. “She’s really held back into the 18th century because she feels that’s when values and morals were correct,” says Beavan. “She even keeps to her wig because that was the fashion of her youth.” And while Lady Ludlow is well-off, at least superficially, the rest of the women are, as Beavan puts it, “poor as church mice.” With the exception of the spoiled Caroline Tomkinson (Selina Griffiths), who gets a new outfit for Lady Ludlow’s annual garden party with the hope of luring love, the townswomen appear in the same one or two dresses throughout the series. “Gaskell was very clear that these people didn’t have a lot of money,” says Birtwistle. “So those frocks would be well worn and well washed. In one incident, Miss Pole has had a frock for years and years, and it finally ends up as curtains because you never wasted anything.”
In fact, the most noticeable wardrobe changes come with funerals, of which there are a considerable number during the course of a year in Cranford. “There were terrific rules for mourning,” says Beavan, “depending on how close the relative was who died—how many months you stayed in full black and when you could slowly introduce gray or mauve.” Thus, she kept a detailed chart of all the characters clad in black to make sure they were following the proper schedule. But fade to gray or mauve too quickly and one ran the risk of raising a few eyebrows, as in the case of the widow Mrs. Rose (Lesley Manville), whose color transition is misinterpreted as a sign of romantic interest in her young charge, Dr. Frank Harrison, played by Simon Woods. The ensuing confusion is another clever use of Cranford’s strict notions of propriety, which apply not only to funeral attire but also to fruit—and how to eat it. This is the subject of one of the series’ most amusing scenes: When the Jenkyns’ houseguest Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon) suggests they poke holes in their oranges’ peels and suck out the pulp, she’s met with revulsion. As Matty explains, Deborah thinks the act “vulgar and altogether too redolent of a ritual undertaken by...little babies. My sister does not care for the expression ‘suck,’” to which an obviously disgusted Deborah replies, “We will repair to our rooms and consume our fruit in solitude.” In Cranford, even eating an orange can be juicy.
Photos: Nick Briggs/BBC 2007 for MASTERPIECE