In making the Victorian-era miniseries "Cranford," actress Judi Dench was reminded of her youth in wartime England. Though separated by nearly a century, the two time periods shared a common spirit.
"You did look after your neighbors," said the Oscar-winning Dench, who plays Miss Matty on the PBS program that premieres Sunday. "They certainly looked after their neighbors in 'Cranford' . . . there is something touching about knowing what people are like and knowing the situation that's going on."
Based on the acclaimed novel and two short stories by Elizabeth Gaskell, "Cranford" is set in a small village in the English countryside, circa 1842. The impending arrival of the railroad is threatening to radically alter the town.
Dench's Matty is a kind-hearted spinster who lives with her stern sister Miss Deborah (Eileen Atkins) and is a strong supporter of the town's traditional rules and customs.
The all-star cast also includes Michael Gambon as Mr. Holbrook, a country squire who had been forbidden by Miss Matty's minister father and Miss Deborah from marrying her years before; Francesca Annis as Lady Ludlow, the town's cash-poor aristocrat who believes the lower classes should never be educated; and Oscar nominee Imelda Staunton as Miss Pole, the town's gossip.
"Cranford," which continues Sundays through May 18, brings down the curtain on the first season of the newly revamped "Masterpiece Theatre."
After 36 years, one of America's longest running weekly prime-time dramatic series was reimagined and divided into three distinct parts -- "Masterpiece Classic," "Masterpiece Mystery" and "Masterpiece Contemporary."
"Masterpiece Classic" began the year with dramatizations of the Jane Austen canon. And, according to "Masterpiece" executive producer Rebecca Eaton, the rebranding has been a huge success. With the Austen dramas, "Masterpiece" saw an audience increase of 125% among women ages 18 to 49 and an 85% increase in women 50 and older.
"Cranford," also part of "Masterpiece Classic," began its latest journey to television about five years ago.
"I read an early draft of the script, and I just loved it," said Eaton, who previously teamed with the BBC on an adaptation of "Wives and Mothers." "I thought it was one of the most heartwarming and touching [stories]."
"Cranford" was a major hit when it aired last fall on BBC, attracting 29% of the TV audience.
"Perhaps why so many people in the U.K. responded to it is that it's about something that I think people fear is lost," Eaton said. "That is the community. People don't stay in the same place, and people are much more insular. I think we yearn for that. Plus just watching these ladies and gentlemen act their socks off. . . ."
Dench recalled reading "Cranford" in school.
"When I read the script, I thought it was adapted really well," said the 73-year-old, who won an Oscar for her turn as Queen Elizabeth in 1998's "Shakespeare in Love." "I think it's very nice to have a series like this. It's not 'Pride and Prejudice,' and it's not 'Sense and Sensibility.' It's a story you don't know."
She also loved that Miss Matty grows from being dominated by her sister to becoming an independent shopkeeper. "She's lived life according to her father and subsequently her sister," Dench said. "She's rather repressed, but she finds the spirit in her eventually."
Though the series is set in the Victorian era, Dench believes people today share the same fears of change as the residents of Cranford.
"They want to build an eco town just outside Stratford-upon-Avon," said Dench, who used to live just outside Stratford with her late husband, Michael Williams. "I put my name [on a petition] against it. Of course [the eco towns] must be built, but there is nothing to support it there. You already have unbelievable traffic jams in Stratford. It's very much like Cranford."