Griff Rhys Jones – “Rivers”

I’ve been watching Griff’s TV series Rivers, so I was thrilled to read on the Mostly Books blog that he was giving a talk in Abingdon. Of course, by the time I read about it all the tickets were sold out, but I had a phone call yesterday morning – some tickets had been returned and did I still want to go!

griff1My thanks go to the person who returned the tickets – it was a great evening. Griff was up and running as soon as he was on stage – entertaining, funny and oh, so knowledgeable. So many facts spilled out of him with boundless enthusiasm and all without any notes. Griff explained how he came to do the TV series and how the producers like him to be “in jeopardy” – if you’ve seen any of his TV programmes, you’ll know what he means, from dangling on a cradle whilst cleaning windows of a New York skyscraper (his hairiest moment) to swimming the River Mersey, in danger of getting Weil’s disease when he fell straight in the sewage going underground with the team maintaining Manchester’s waterways, and kayaking in a canoe slalom on the River Derwent.

Griff is passionate about rivers and opening them up for people to use. He wanted to make a series about the landscape and how it is used – the waterways of Britain are the ancient transport routes only superceded by road and rail relatively recently. The rivers are there to be used, navigation rights that have been extinguished should be reinstated so that we can all use them. He also wanted it to be about the history of rivers – telling how the monks were the first people to use the rivers, creating the water meadows to irrigate the land, how people settled near rivers, how the towns grew up, how they were above all working rivers, and how we have lost our ancient connection with rivers.

griff21I bought his book – Rivers: a Voyage into the Heart of Britain, which he explained is not just about the TV series but is full of stories. I  joined the long queue waiting for him to sign it. I was almost the last person in the queue, but he was still cheerfully smiling and signing! I asked him how long it had taken him to write the book. He paused and screwed his eyes up whilst he thought back, “Well I started it in November … and had to have it finished by … February”, he said. “And then it was edited down, it was much longer than it is now.”

Well, that wasn’t very long to write such a detailed, hefty book, which looks  fascinating, complete with line drawings, maps and colour illustrations. I’ve only dipped into it so far, but here is an extract conveying the beauty of our rivers:

Down beyond Sudbury the River Stour closes in. It slinks through a perfect English landscape: Essex to the south, the much more mythically rural Suffolk to the north. “Suffolk” sounds eggy, buccolic, lost and lazy. Essex is equally as good, just not so equally named. I glimpsed wool merchants’ ochre or pink half-timbered hall houses. I slid into great mill ponds. There were plenty of startling grand churches, some paid for out of the profits of the local weaving industry, some like Stoke-by-Nayland, by rich medieval aristocrats. But mostly, despite the hard-won navigation rights, I was alone, hemmed in by tall banks of reeds, picking my way through over-hanging willows, negotiating passage rights with arrogant swans.

Frequently a stretch would open out with bullrushes standing up on either side, below whispering aspens. The way was clogged with waterlilies in full bloom: buttercup-coloured buds the size of small fists, and open petals like dishes, lying on flat floating leaves. The water itself was clear and waving with green cabbage-like undergrowth that ceaselessly, yearningly, writhed in the current. I could see right down to a river bottom reflecting sunlight off mother-of-pearl freshwater mussel shells. (page 277-8)

As well as meeting Griff I also met Annabel from Gaskella, who was on the stall selling books – she has the good fortune of having Mostly Books as her local bookshop. She’s also written about the event – see here.

Goodbye Cranford – Hello Oliver

Sunday saw the last episode of ‘Cranford’. The final episode was very dramatic and there was a happy ending but overall I still felt disgruntled by the combination of three of Elizabeth Gaskell’s books. I suppose that if I hadn’t read ‘Cranford‘ I’d never have known that the difference. I wouldn’t have missed the parts that had been left out and I wouldn’t have known that the order of events had been changed. I enjoyed the non-Cranford scenes much more – the railway explosion and injuries, the Sophie/Dr Harrison love story and above all the Lady Ludlow scenes and the interaction between Lady Ludlow, Mr Carter and Harry. I thought that Alex Etel who played Harry Gregson was excellent.

Tonight the first part of ‘Oliver Twist’ is being broadcast at 8pm (not 9pm as I thought) on BBC1. I don’t have enough time to read the book before 9pm, so I shan’t be disappointed if the 5 part series (being shown in four nightly episodes this week and the fifth and final episode next weekend) is not faithful to the book. I haven’t read it before, but of course the story is so familiar from other films, musicals and TV productions. I don’t expect it to disappoint as ‘Cranford’ did, as I don’t suppose it will be a combination of three of Dickens’ books! Can you imagine combining ‘Oliver Twist’‘David Copperfield‘ and ‘Nicholas Nickleby’?

I’m also looking forward to watching The Old Curiosity Shop on ITV1 on Boxing Day. I haven’t read that either so I can watch it without any pre-conceived ideas.

Cranford – a “Multi-Threaded Production”

The third episode of “Cranford” is being shown on BBC1 this evening. Over the course of last week I have puzzled over my reaction to the production. If I hadn’™t only recently read Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford I might not have been so bemused. I was quite prepared to find that the actors and the locations didn’™t match the pictures in my mind ‘“ how could they? I also didn’™t expect the dramatisation to follow every word in the book ‘“ after all it is a dramatic representation, not a book.

Still, after seeing two episodes and looking at the preview of the third, I think that by amalgamating Cranford with two other books the end result is not Cranford. One difference that really has jarred is concerning Mary Smith. In the novel Mary is the narrator. She lives in Drumble (Manchester) with her father and writes about her visits to Cranford at different intervals over a number of years. Her father is an old friend of the Jenkyns family, maybe even a distant relative, who helps with Miss Matty’™s business affairs. Nowhere in Cranford is there any indication that Mary Smith has a stepmother and stepbrothers and sisters, but they appear in the TV series ‘“ I can’™t see how they add anything to the story. And why was it necessary to make Miss Brown’™s death take place before her father’™s? I could go on.

The BBC’™s Press Office page has some interesting information that explains how the script was written. The creators did not think that there was enough material in the novel suitable for a straightforward adaptation. So, as they wanted to keep ‘œtrue to the spirit of Gaskell’ they took several of her books and interwove them together. This quote from the Production Notes explains the process:

“We took a lot of liberties with Elizabeth Gaskell,” Sue continues. “We lost some of her characters, we amalgamated some and we invented. We shuffled story beats around and we added extras to some of the stories from the other books.

“And we lifted out two comic incidents from her essays about her childhood which weren’t in the novels. In the end, we had interwoven parts of all the three novels so closely that it took on a life of its own, and essentially became a new drama.’

Cranford is thus a multi-threaded production, combining three of Elizabeth Gaskell’™s books and essays as well as introducing new material. They have indeed produced a new drama. My question is ‘“ do I want to watch it? I’™m not so sure that I do.

Francesca Annis is quoted in the Press Pack:

“I read Gaskell’s My Lady Ludlow, and (Cranford writer) Heidi Thomas’s characterisation is quite faithful to her but she obviously had to leave out a huge amount of detail that I found completely fascinating.

“But then this serial isn’t called Lady Ludlow… unfortunately!”

Maybe it shouldn’™t be called ‘œCranford’, either.

One thing I do know is that thanks to this production, I shall read Mr Harrison’™s Confessions and My Lady Ludlow.

Cranford TV Drama or the Book?

Last night I watched the first episode of the BBC’s dramatisation of Cranford. I liked it. Last week I read Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford. I loved it. They are two different things. If you haven’t read the book Cranford, don’t think that the BBC’s version is the same – it isn’t. Someone once said to me ‘Do you have to be so precise?’ Well, yes I do. It’s important to me to be accurate, to get the facts right; opinions and interpretations are different. I should have known better than to expect the drama and the book to be the same. After all, I’ve been disappointed by most televised or film versions of books when I’ve read the book first. In this case the cast with so many well known actors is a very strong point in favour of the programme. I enjoyed all their performances, although at one point it did feel a bit like spot the stars.

As I watched Cranford I kept thinking that’s not in the book, but that is in the book. The dramatisation is not pure, unadulterated Cranford – it’s an amalgamation of three books – Cranford, Mr Harrison’s Confessions and My Lady Ludlow. I haven’t read either of the other two books, but from a quick look on Amazon I see that Mr Harrison’s Confessions, is indeed about a young doctor who is invited by his father’s cousin to join his country practice but it is in Duncombe, not Cranford. My Lady Ludlow appears not to be connected to Cranford either. So my picky mind says this is not Cranford, but I can see that to enjoy the dramatisation on its own merits I need to stop myself from thinking, ‘yes that’s in the book’ or ‘no I don’t know that, it must be in one of the other books’.

Cranford (the book) is a beautifully written and amusing story, centred on the lives of Miss Deborah Jenkyns and her sister Matilda, known affectionately to everyone except her sister, as Miss Matty. I was interested to read in the introduction to my copy that:

‘Most of Cranford is founded on fact – the hairless cow that went to pasture in a grey flannel jacket, the fashion displays in the little draper’s shop – all the rules of etiquette of the Cranford ladies were part of her [Elizabeth Gaskell’s] early life, and the skill and delicacy with which she draws upon her memories to build up her story proves how deeply rooted was her love for the old town and for its inhabitants who believed in the old order of things and hated change.’

Elizabeth Gaskell portrays life in Cranford and its inhabitants sympathetically and whimsically, without making fun of the characters. It made me chuckle as I read it and this came over in the TV drama – D said to me he hadn’t realised it was a meant to be a comedy. The sight of the ladies trotting along side the sedan chair was very funny.

Elizabeth Gaskell was a friend of Charles Dickens, so I found the episode where Captain Brown and Miss Jenkyns have a ‘literary dispute‘ over the relative merits of Dr Johnson and Mr Boz to be amusing. Captain Brown sings the praises of The Pickwick Papers, whereas Miss Jenkyns asserts that she does not think ‘they are by any means equal to Dr Johnson. Still perhaps the author is young. Let him persevere, and who knows what he may become if he will take the great doctor for his model.’

Cranford is a quiet tale of everyday events. Some of the characters have to overcome disappointments – bankruptcy looms and matrimonial hopes fail to materialise for some, but overall it’s a story of friendship, peace and kindliness. The last sentence in the book sums it up for me: ‘We all love Miss Matty, and I somehow think we are all of us better when she is near us.’ Dame Judi Dench is an absolute joy as Miss Matty.

TV dramatisation of Cranford by Mrs Gaskell

Coming up on the BBC this autumn is Cranford by Mrs Gaskell, starring Dame Judi Dench and a whole host of stars, including Dame Eileen Atkins, Julia McKenzie, Barbara Flynn, Julia Sawalha and Imelda Staunton. Set in the fictional town of Cranford, a small Cheshire town based on Knutsford (where Mrs Gaskell grew up), the 5 part drama was filmed on location in various places including Lacock Village in Wiltshire (as the setting for Cranford), the Ashridge Estate, Hertfordshire in the Chilterns (also used in the Harry Potter films)and the Buckinghamshire village of West Wycombe owned by the National Trust.

Cranford is based on three of Elizabeth Gaskell’s works, Cranford, My Lady Ludlow and Mr Harrison’s Confessions and I see from Amazon that The Cranford Chronicles is to be published on 4 October to tie-in with the TV series.

The National Trust Autumn Magazine has an article “The Dame Game” about the filming at the NT locations, with some great photos of the actors and the settings. At the moment the Summer Magazine is available to look at on-line, so I expect that eventually the Autumn Magazine will be too.

The Gaskell Web has lots of information on Elizabeth Gaskell plus photographs of present day Knutsford as well as prints of Knutsford Past, with connections to her life and works. These photos are of St John’s Parish Church, where Elizabeth married Rev William Gaskell in 1832 and of the Old Vicarage.

I read Cranford at school and haven’t looked at it since, so I’ll be able to watch the series without many preconceived ideas about the characters and the story, although as I used to live near Knutsford, no doubt I’ll be comparing Lacock to my memories of Knutsford. It’s to be broadcast on BBC1 this autumn – I can’t find a precise date on the television listings yet. One to look out for.