Amazons and Old Lace: Cranford Televisited

Well, this was one to watch out for. Not that I could have missed the announcements, given that the new five-part television adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford stories is the cover story of this week’s Radio Times. A grand production it is shaping up to be, judging from the first installment, which aired tonight on BBC 1. The television series borrows from several of Gaskell’s works; aside from the Cranford papers (published in serial form between 1851 and 1853), writer Heidi Thomas also draws on incidents from “Mr. Harrison’s Confessions,” the story of a young physician (serialized in 1851) and the novella My Lady Ludlow (serialized in 1858) to create what the Radio Times refers to, using that most horrid and hackneyed of adjectives, a “unique universe.”

Quaint or daring, Gaskell’s world is certainly uncommon in its Cukorian selection of characters. “In the first place,” we are told, “Cranford is in possession of the Amazons.” As is often the case, the version-maker of the current series chose to forgo the contrivance of voice-over narration, at a considerable loss of clever prose. That said (and however much there is left unsaid), the opening line is soon rendered visible to the televisitors of this fabled community, which, albeit, not entirely devoid of male bodies, is dominated by formidable females. Foremost among them are Judy Dench and Eileen Atkins as the sisters Jenkyns (pictured), ably supported by Imelda Staunton, Julia Sawalha, and the ever compelling Francesca Annis (last seen on UK television in the latest Marple mystery).

I was anxious to learn how my favorite moment would be dealt with, whether it would be told or dramatized. Surely it is too hilarious a scene to be omitted. I am referring, of course, to the aforementioned “pussy” incident. The treatment was, shall we say, rather graphic and indecorous, which is not to say that it was not wildly amusing.

Miss Deborah Jenkyns, that advocate of “[e]legant economy” who much preferred Dr. Johnson to the young author of the Pickwick Papers (then newly published), would no doubt have objected to the sound effects employed to dramatize pussy’s response to the “tartar emetic,” not to mention the shot of the piece of lace thus extracted. In the hands of the producer, this “anecdote” known only to a circle of “intimate friends” so civilized and reserved as to be “afraid of being caught in the vulgarity of making any noise in a place of public amusement,” becomes an attack on the Victorian fabric of Cranford that the worthy Amazons might have been spared.

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