Mary Smith flees a crisis at home in Manchester to stay with two spinster sisters, Deborah and Matty Jenkyns, in the small, rural town of Cranford. Deborah is the dominating force in Cranford society, and the kind-hearted and eccentric Matty believes her to be the best judge in all matters.
A new young doctor, Frank Harrison, is brought to Cranford to join Dr. Morgan in his medical practice. Despite Dr. Morgan talking up his protégé, the mere fact that Dr. Harrison is a young bachelor and trained in London is enough to make him the talk of the town. When the town's carpenter, Jem Hearne, has a catastrophic fall from a tree, Dr. Morgan is horrified to learn that instead of amputating the injured arm, Dr. Harrison is determined to attempt new and risky surgery. Everyone gets involved in the case, and gossip and rumor spread, led by the unassailable Miss Pole.
Meanwhile, Cranford's reigning aristocrat, Lady Ludlow, who lives two miles outside Cranford at the splendid Hanbury Court, wants to turn her attention to the planning of her annual garden party with her trusted estate manager, Mr. Carter.
The Jenkyns are intrigued when the house across the street becomes occupied by a retired soldier, Captain Brown, his daughter Jessie, and Jessie's ailing older sister. Deborah and Matty are riveted to see that he seems acquainted with another local aristocrat, Sir Charles Maulver, who engages the Captain in an unknown business proposal.
Deborah surprises Matty by encouraging Jessie's romance with a visiting soldier named Major Gordon.
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 millner Miss Galindo, and there's a new gown for Caroline Tomkinson, who has fallen for Dr. Harrison and is eager to impress him. Dr. Harrison has set his sights on Sophy Hutton, the eldest daughter of Cranford's rector, Reverend Hutton. But Mary Smith's stepmother Clara is determined to play matchmaker between the doctor and Mary.
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.
Meanwhile, Harry sets off to poach, but becomes transfixed by Lady Ludlow's glasshouse and the exotic plants and fruits he sees there. Cold and exhausted, he falls asleep on the heated floor and is caught the following morning by Mr. Carter. However, Mr. Carter is so moved by Harry's dismal poverty that he offers to pay Harry to run messages for him during the preparations for the garden party. Harry proves to be reliable, good-natured and intelligent, and Mr. Carter offers to teach him to read and write. This is something to be done secretly, as he is fully aware that Lady Ludlow is passionately against educating the working classes.
Matty, meanwhile, is clearly shaken when, at the party, she meets a mysterious acquaintance from her past, Thomas Holbrook. No one witnesses this meeting and Matty tells no one about it.
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. They immediately report this to Deborah, who leads a deputation of the ladies to Captain Brown in hopes of having the rumor refuted. But Captain Brown shocks them further by telling them that not only is the rumor true, but that he will be the Head of Works. All the woman are scandalized by this news, but the most stricken is Deborah, who sees Captain Brown's secrecy as the ultimate betrayal of a friendship, and the railway as the absolute end of Cranford.
While I had not planned on watching the 2-hour episode initially, I found myself drawn to the comings and goings of the eclectic residents and of course the costumes. And I will watch anything with the amazing Judi Dench in it.
There are funny moments in the episode especially involving the gossipy Miss Pole's beloved cow Bessie, ice-cream at the garden party (imagine ice-cream being a novelty, what's with ice being virtually non-existent), desperate attempts of Miss Caroline Tomkinson to woo Dr. Harrison despite Dr. Harrison already in love with Sophy Hutton.
Cranford is an engaging, smart, charming, at the same time dark portrayal of life in a rural Victorian village struggling to preserve its identity in the face of change and modernity.
The cast includes Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Imelda Staunton, Julia Sawalha, Greg Wise, Michael Gambon, Simon Wood and Francesca Annis.
Also see LA Times review