I have ambivalent feelings towards the BBC's acclaimed Cranford adaptation. As I remember, it was made at roughly the same time as the magnificent Little Dorrit adaptation by Andrew Davies. Little Dorrit was a disappointment to the BBC ratings-wise: Cranford, on the other hand, was a big hit. The powers at be at the Beeb supposedly thought "Aha, so this is what the costume-drama lovers want now", and started churning out similar stuff: From Lark Rise to Candleford - a poor man's Cranford - and of course Return to Cranford. At the same time, other kinds of costume drama seemed to go into a decline. Such adaptations of other 19th-century classics than Cranford as there were were only of the most well-known books, which had been adapted a zillion times before, and the new versions weren't that remarkable. There was a conscious move away from "bonnet dramas". With the exception of a woeful Oliver Twist, Dickens was avoided like box-office poison up until the bicentenary, when he couldn't be ignored any longer. Adaptations of Dickens and Trollope that Andrew Davies had been working on were axed (yes, we're back to the old Dombey trauma). But hey, we costume-drama lovers were served a lot of small-town shenanigans with quirky characters, so that should keep us happy, right? Wrong.
Somewhere, I've been carrying a grudge towards Cranford ever since it did better than Little Dorrit. I partly blame it for the direction BBC costume drama took during the years that followed. Now, I'm starting to realise I've been unfair. Judging by the "bonnet drama"-hostile comments at the time, the Beeb would probably have moved away from 19th-century epics in any case, and without Cranford we wouldn't even have had the consolation prize of gentle (bonnet-filled) comedy set in rural England.
Because it is quite watchable. I've been rewatching Cranford the past weeks and was at first disgusted by its tameness. Right now, UK viewers are enjoying new Downton episodes, and what do I get? Cats swallowing lace. Old biddies helping the doctor out with candles for a surgery. And all this in a hole somewhere where the railway is seen as a great threat! Really. Then the quiet drama started to grow on me. It is, after all, very comfortable autumn viewing, and not entirely devoid of dramatic incident - there are even a few more deaths than I care for (seriously, the kid - was that necessary?). The acting is universally superb. Judi Dench is great, of course, but well matched in the acting stakes by the likes of Eileen Atkins, Imelda Staunton (clearly having a ball as Miss Pole) and Julia MacKenzie. There is some romance, even if there's a decided lack of menfolk. The new doctor and the local carpenter seem to be the only bachelors around the place (no wonder the gossips manage to come up with three prospective fiancées for the doctor): otherwise, widowers provide the best hope for some suitably autumnal love scenarios. As for villains, though, there are absolutely none. I remember judging Return to Cranford more favourably than I otherwise would have done (I've not had time to rewatch it yet) because it included the at least marginally beastly Lord Septimus. In the original, though, everyone is pally in a close-knit, rural way. Wicked intrigues are for Londoners, and quite beneath the residents of Cranford.
But I'm not so shallow that I can't enjoy a drama without a villain in it. Am I? Roll along Return to Cranford. But don't think it will stop me longing for the second of November (when, at last, Downton season four starts here in Sweden) with, as the Earl would say, every fibre of my being.