Along with around 8 million others, I regularly watched the 5 part Cranford series on the BBC when it first aired in 2007. I must admit I had thought that the average viewing age was slightly older than the box I generally fall into on survey forms, but from the mix of ages at The Cranford Companion event it appears that I’m not in such a minority. Everyone likes a good period drama, perhaps especially when produced by Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin; the pair who have previously worked their magic on the mother of the genre, Pride and Prejudice.
It was Birtwistle and Conklin who were giving the talk at the Whitworth Art Gallery on Friday night. The set up was simple – just two speakers sat on a raised platform – but the effortless one-two between them was impressive. The talk flowed very well, and even a minor technical hitch with the projector couldn’t overshadow what was a slick, interesting and very funny event, with all the best scenes from the show interjected at the right moments.
The passion and commitment to the series from the producers was one of the most interesting and inspiring aspects to come out from the talk. Sue and Susie didn’t hold back in revealing insider information about the problems of securing finance for such a large project. One audience member expressed surprise that they had experienced such difficulties when much seemed to be stacked in their favour: enviable professional reputations; popular author, tried and tested formula. It was through gritted teeth that the producers explained that these factors were generally meaningless when it comes to pitching other ideas. Drama is the most expensive of all the content that the BBC commission, and period drama the most costly of that. I was amazed to discover that it took 7 years from initial concept to appearance on screen, although useful fact number 2 perhaps goes some way to explaining the lengthy process. The television adaption of Cranford as it finally appeared was actually a dramatisation and reworking of three of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels, including Cranford, Mr Harrison’s Confessions and My Lady Ludlow. A significant section was also used from an essay, “The Last Generation in England”, which documented real life incidents in the town where Gaskell grew up, Knutsford in Cheshire. The cat and lace episode was apparently a true story. If you haven’t already, watch the series to fully appreciate that little gem.
Out of interest, Sue Birtwistle conducted a quick straw poll towards the end of the event as to who present had actually seen the Cranford series. She seemed genuinely surprised when the vast majority of the audience raised their hands. I was a little less taken aback; I probably would have found it slightly odd if a good 100 or so people decided to attend a talk on a topic they knew nothing about, but I agreed with Birtwistle that the mood had been one of old friends having a good chat and catch-up.
Both Conklin and Birtwistle were skilled in describing the feeling on set in a way which made the audience feel right at the heart of the action. The standard homage to “Dame Judi“ was paid, and although their admiration bordered on fawning at times, in all fairness, she does sound quite fun to have around. Sue commented on how much she had enjoyed the conversation that evening, and I would take a good guess that all present did too.
Catherine is currently working in arts marketing and regularly contributes reviews and features to the what’s on listings website for Manchester at www.goseethis.com