THE story of how Oscar nominee Dame Judi Dench is to star in an £8m costume drama set in Cheshire could probably make a series all of its own.
It was confirmed around this time yesterday that Dame Judi is to play the lead role of Miss Matty Jenkyns in five part BBC1 serial Cranford Chronicles.
Based on three novels by Manchester Victorian author Elizabeth Gaskell, the project was originally postponed in 2005 amid claims of BBC budget cuts.
The “witty and poignant landmark drama”, to be made by the BBC and American TV company WGBH, is based on Mrs Gaskell’s childhood memories of growing up in Knutsford.
One of the main driving forces behind Cranford Chronicles is the producer, Knutsford-born Sue Birtwistle, who also worked on the 1999 adaptation of Mrs Gaskell’s novel Wives and Daughters, and global BBC1 hit Pride and Prejudice.
Sue explains: “Five years ago, I made a wish: to be allowed to conjure an entirely new drama out of three Elizabeth Gaskell novels and to persuade Judi Dench to play Miss Matty. Dream come true.”
Filming begins in April in the Cotswolds and London, with the story based on Mrs Gaskell’s (pictured below right) 1853 novel Cranford – her most popular book – and two of her other works.
Dame Judi, who plays M in the James Bond films, is nominated as best actress at the Oscars on Feb 25 for her role in the film Notes on a Scandal.
She said: “I am so excited to be doing Cranford Chronicles. A summer of fun to look forward to.”
Matty is a character whose spirit was crushed when she was forced to give up the man she loved as a young woman and to live afterwards in the shadow of her elder sister.
BBC Fiction Controller Jane Tranter said it was an “honour” to have Dame Judi starring in the production. Judi’s previous roles for the BBC include the long-running sitcom As Time Goes By.
“The logistics of mounting such a production have inevitably taken a while to pull together, but the best things are well worth waiting for,” added Ms Tranter.
“We are all very excited at the prospect of such a piece, and of welcoming Dame Judi Dench back to the BBC. Cranford Chronicles is a beautifully big and ambitious period drama – just the way we like them.”
The BBC say Cranford Chronicles “captures the small absurdities and major tragedies in the lives of the people of Cranford, as they are besieged by forces they cannot hope to withstand.
“In 1842, Cranford is a small rural Cheshire town on the cusp of great changes. Some people find romance and opportunities, while others fear the breakdown of social order.
“Three Elizabeth Gaskell novels have been woven together to create this uniquely rich and comic drama about ordinary human lives during the course of one extraordinary year in this small town.”
In 2004 the BBC adapted another of her novels – North and South (above left) – which was set in Manchester.
That production starred former EastEnder Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage, who has since gone on to roles in Robin Hood and the farewell episodes of The Vicar of Dibley.
Born in London and raised in Knutsford, Mrs Gaskell married the Rev William Gaskell, of Cross Street Unitarian Church in Manchester, and they lived at No 84 Plymouth Grove in Longsight.
A friend of both Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte, she died in 1865 at the age of 55.
Great North South Divide
How Richard Became North And South Star
The Gaskell Web
As Time Goes By