Directed by Simon Curtis and Steve Hudson, Cranford is a portrait of the inhabitants of a fictional English village during the mid-19th century, and it stars Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench. The village of Cranford, located in the county of Cheshire, is presided over by a legion of strong, upstanding, traditional English matrons. At the center of this group are Deborah (Atkins) and Matty (Dench). Deborah and Matty live alone, employing a single housemaid. They are both kindly spinsters living somewhat in the shadow of their long-lost brother, Peter, whose disappearance after a scandal long ago smashed both sisters' marriage prospects. Deborah is deeply religious, while Matty is quietly authoritative, though deferential to her older sister.
Deborah and Matty's most frequent callers include Mrs. Pole (Imelda Staunton); a house guest, Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon); Augusta and Caroline Tomkinson (Deborah Findlay and Selina Griffiths respectively); Mrs. Forrester (Julia McKenzie); and the Honourable Mrs. Jamieson (Barbara Flynn). A local doctor, a vicar, and new residents Captain Brown and his daughters, and a young doctor, Dr. Harrison, comprise Cranford's other inhabitants.
The series opens in 1840, upon the very eve of the Industrial Revolution. Captain Brown moves into Cranford and, after initially offending Deborah with his transparency and commonness, is soon welcomed into the community. While away, Captain Brown's youngest daughter perishes, and his elder daughter, Jessie, must abandon tradition and walk behind the coffin. Deborah and Matty accompany her. Meanwhile, Dr. Harrison also arrives in Cranford. Dashing and handsome, he sets the hearts of the Cranford women aflame. The doctor soon develops eyes for the vicar's daughter, who cares for her younger siblings in their dead mother's absence.
Captain Brown oversees the coming of a railway to Cranford, and the news rather overwhelms Deborah. Elsewhere, Lady Ludlow ponders whether to safeguard her son's inheritance, or cede land to the railway. Ever hopeful, the Cranford women cling proudly to the past, but must contend with modernity.
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A surprise wedding between Captain Brown and Lady Glenmire causes a fracture of old friendships.. Harry, who has run away from school and stowed away in a freight wagon, is found on the brink of death by Miss Galindo who fights to save him. Matty feels she has unwittingly opened Pandora's box and fears that Cranford will never recover. But she resolves to take positive action and organises an event for Christmas Eve that will draw the town together. The Assembly Rooms are returned to their former glory and a sun-kissed performer, Signor Brunoni, stuns the captivated townspeople.
Railway construction is thwarted when Mr. Buxton refuses to sell land that the railway must cross. Matty finally urges Mr. Buxton to test the railway's influence and leads the way in drastically changing the future of Cranford. Miss Matty and the ladies of Cranford are in a frenzy of excitement about the imminent visit of Lady Glenmire. Until, that is, Mrs. Jamieson announces that none of them is of high-enough social standing to meet her.
Miss Matty's house is full of life and bustle with the addition of baby Tilly, daughter of her maid Martha. The new railway looms, five miles outside Cranford, to Captain Brown's great displeasure. Meanwhile, Harry Gregson is sent away to school, and set on a course that will test him severely. Tragedy strikes Cranford when two prominent local figures pass away.
Jem and Martha marry, and live as lodgers in Matty's house - a source of joy for Matty. Meanwhile, Miss Pole invites the ladies of the town to a secret meeting to discuss Matty's crisis. United in their love for Matty, they decide to secretly share part of their own incomes with her. Dr. Harrison, on the other hand, is shunned by the town - no patients will come to him now that the true about him is exposed. Mr. Carter is horrified to discover that Lady Ludlow has secretly mortgaged her estate to raise money for her son's villa in Italy. Sophy returns to Cranford ill, but is diagnosed by Dr. Morgan as simply being heart-broken. Sophy's condition has worsened and is recognized as typhoid fever. Mr. Carter visits Captain Brown at the railway works in a desperate attempt to see if he can raise capital for Lady Ludlow's mortgage by selling timber or tools.
As winter approaches, Cranford is overwhelmed by sorrows and struggles to re-gain its confidence.When Dr. Harrison's housekeeper, Mr.s Rose, discovers a leg of mutton has been stolen from by the kitchen window on the very same night that Mr. Johnson, the owner of the town's most important store, is mugged, the ladies decide that a crime wave has hit Cranford. Mr. Johnson, meanwhile, becomes convinced that Job Gregson, must be his attacker and Job is arrested. Job's son Harry decides to make a confession to Mr. Carter of his own part in the poaching to save his father from transportation and has to bear the acute disappointment in him that Mr. Carter feels. Mr. Carter pleads Job's case with Lady Ludlow, saying that without her interference Job will be found guilty and the Gregson family will starve.Christmas arrives and Cranford huddles together to celebrate, though the town has been so affected by events that it feels strangely unsure of itself. Meanwhile, Dr. Harrison confides in his medical school friend Jack Marshland about his love for Sophy. Jack encourages him to send her some Valentine flowers. But Jack, a perpetual prankster, has set up some mischief by sending a Valentine card to Caroline Tomkinson as if from Dr. Harrison, hinting at marriage. Caroline is ecstatic and eagerly awaits Dr. Harrison's proposal.
Cranford's ladies are focused on preparing for Lady Ludlow's Garden Party, the social event of the year. New bonnets are made by the town's long-suffering milliner Miss Galindo, and there's a new gown for Caroline Tomkinson, who has fallen for Dr Harrison but he has set his sights on Sophy Hutton, the eldest daughter of Cranford's rector, Reverend Hutton. Forced to assume responsibility for feeding his family, 10-year-old Harry Gregson instructs his little brother Malachi how to steal milk from Mrs Forrester's beloved cow, Bessie. Unfortunately, six-year-old Malachi forgets to close the gate and Bessie escapes. Matty, meanwhile, is clearly shaken when, at the party, she meets a mysterious acquaintance from her past, Thomas Holbrook. Things start to go badly wrong at the party when Miss Pole and Mrs Forrester overhear Sir Charles's startling news that a railway line will be built to come right into Cranford.
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