18th December 2007
There have now been two superb television series this year – Rome Part 2 (and I have written extensively of Rome) and now Cranford. It is hard to imagine two more superficially different series -Rome is blood and thunder, exploitation, over-the-top drama; Cranford quiet, understated. David (as in the painter) against Vermeer (or any other similar comparison one cares to make!). The similarity is in the perfect matching of cinematic approach to the subject matter and themes of the series. And, indeed, in the quality of the two cinematic approaches in themselves.
I wrote some preliminary notes on Cranford for WWTTA which I reproduce here….
>>The final (5th of 5) episode of Cranford was shown last
night and was the best of the lot.
I have only viewed this adaptation once and have therefore
not given it any real critical attention, let alone the sort of close
scrutiny which Ellen brings to her reading of Austen adaptations
or the Palliser series. I am therefore a little wary – maybe
Cranford would not stand up to this kind of close
scrutiny. My reactions are immediate, diffuse and
uncritical. And, given these reservations, I would say that
this was a terrific television series. I do think that some
episodes were better than others, for whatever reason
(I cannot discover exact writing or directorial credits
at this point – imdb for instance gives 3 writers but does
not specify which episodes – and in any case it only
lists 4 episodes! – it is noteworthy that all the writers,
though not the directors, were women). And a critical
scrutiny would no doubt unearth many more flaws and
In terms of adaptation it is difficult on the basis of Ellen’s
essay on the subject to decide exactly what sort of
adaptation this was ….
>>Surely continual use of the literal language in the original book
>>throughout a film constitutes fidelity? A comparison of the 1986 NA and
>>the 2007 NA showed far more of the original book’s language was used in
>>the 1986 earlier adaptation (whose literal plot and character departures
>>made it much decried as not faithful) than the recent 2007 one (praised as
>>faithful). So what kind of fidelity counts? <<
In terms of plot this adaptation was not in the least faithful –
it merged three separate books and even in terms of
Cranford itself Captain Brown is alive and well at the end
of the series (to take just one example – my recall of
the book is already imperfect). But in terms of spirit I felt there
was much fidelity. But I think analogous would probably
suit best. The adaptors, quite rightly in my view, always
seemed to put the needs of (tele)visual drama above any
others. And above all Cranford was a treat for the eyes.
The makers were not in the least afraid to use tried and
trusted cinematic devices and I pick two from the final
episode which were stunning examples of this.
The first was what I call the old second voice trick
(:) my grasp of the technical and critical language
of cinema is not good), a favourite of mine and
one that is used no less than 3 times in The Sound
of Music (a favourite movie). This device consists
in someone singing something in a slightly faltering
performance, and a voice of an initially unseen character
joining the song; the character then appears to the joy of
the original singer/s. It is a device which never fails to
move me to tears and did so here where it was used
for the reintroduction of Major Gordon into the life of
Jessie Brown – she is sitting and playing ‘I’ll take
the high road’ and then his voice joins in (he is
unseen and outside the room) – the song is
of course very appropriate. Thus a device from
the language of musical cinema (one which could
never be achieved in a book, it is a fundamentally
theatrical or cinematic device) was appropriated.
When this re-appearance was capped by another –
that of Peter – it would take the stoniest of hearts not
to weep (and this second re-appearance was also
cinematically realised as the camera stayed on
Judi Dench’s face for what seemed like ages before
cutting to Martin Shaw as Peter).
The second was the truly extraordinary final shot.
The series ending with the wedding of Dr Harrison
and Sophy Hutton attended by the entire (surviving!)
cast. They drive away in a cart and the camera then swings
around to have the cast waving goodbye – and this
was a highly theatrical, posed shot, an ‘and so we
bid farewell’ moment. I say theatrical, but it would be
equally true to call it post-modern since this theatricality
(and the shot continues as the credits roll) emphasises
the sense of unrealism, the ending of a production.
The goodbyes were as much to audience as to
the departing couple. Brilliant.
It almost goes without saying that the acting was
superb (that is something of a given) – in this final
episode honours were carried off by Francesca Annis
as Lady Ludlow in a simply extraordinary performance.
There are a battery of adaptations coming up over Xmas
here (Oliver Twist, Sense and Sensibility, Old Curiosity
Shop) – it will be interesting to see how they measure up.<<
I will need to get hold of the DVD and re-watch the series carefully to give a more considered view. My hope is that it will prove as good on a second viewing as Rome has.
This is also an opportunity to catch up with a few theatrical events which we attended this autumn. A revival of 42nd Street which was a disappointment ; partly this was because we had lousy seats with an obscured view, but it is also a case of memory’s tricks. We saw the original production in London sometime in the 1980’s – and the words ‘it blew us away’ are for once no cliché. It remains one the best theatrical experience I can recall (up there with the RSC production of A Jovial Crew which we saw at Stratford in the early 90’s – we have been reading Brome’s original text on ECW and that too has proved a sad disappointment; the genius lay in Jeffries adaptation and additions. And Jane Lapotaire in Ibsen’s Ghosts – the best performance I have ever seen. I won’t go on to operas and concerts!). Anyway 42nd Street was at this level of experience in the memory – we came out of the theatre walking on air, utterly high. So this slimmed-down, smaller, less well-sung/acted/produced version was a let-down.
On the other hand Verdi’s Il Trovatore was terrific. The plot is a wonderful absurdity (separated brothers, now mortal enemies both in politics and love) but the music fantastic and this was a great production. Thrilling in the way that good opera can be.