THOSE who have ever turned heads by arriving late for a service in a small village church will empathise with the embarrassed incomer, Dr Frank Harrison, one of the principal characters in Cranford, a five-part period drama for BBC1 beginning in mid-November. He provokes shock and indignation by doing just that.
The production, an amalgam of three of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels, and starring Judi Dench, is eagerly awaited by the parishioners of St Mary’s, Radnage, in Buckinghamshire, whose 13th-century building with its 20th-century accoutrements became the fictional Cranford Parish Church for three days of filming earlier this year.
This is not the first time that the church, in a quintessentially English setting, has attracted film-makers. Fans of A Month in the Country, set in 1919 and starring Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh as two returning soldiers, still occasionally turn up looking for the iconic box-tomb that featured in the 1986 film set in and around the church.
It isn’t there, of course, because it never was — just like the Victorian pews, which, in a reversal of the usual fate, were whisked in to replace the modern chairs for this current production.
FOR Donal Woods, production designer for Cranford, the church “ticked all the boxes”. It was already of interest because Cranford’s co-producer, Rupert Ryle-Hodges, had worked on A Month in the Country. Most of the exterior filming has been done in Lacock, in Wiltshire, where the architecture most closely resembles Victorian Knutsford, and so the scenes around the church had to marry with that landscape.
“We needed a beautiful church with the least modern life around it as possible, and one that had kept a lot of its character. It had to be in the same rolling countryside as Wiltshire, and we needed to feel it fitted into our world and was part of our Cranford,” said Mr Woods.
“Dairy and sheep land is in the spirit of the book. But it was a tall order, as it also had to be London-ish, because we’d spent such a lot of time away in Lacock.”
A cottage just down the road, with a field to keep a cow in, was used for Mrs Forrester’s house: it helped that they could find something else to cement the feeling of the world of Cranford, he said, sounding pleased. Into the church came late Georgian pews, and mock stone walls to disguise radiators: out went the large altar, to be replaced by a smaller, less ornate one.
One wall plaque had to be covered with an older shield. Modern gravestones had to be covered up, and all the “usual suspects” disguised or removed: plastic guttering and downpipes; light switches and fittings, pulpit microphones, bell ropes, and fire alarms.
“We try our best to put it all back exactly as it was, and we’re respectful of people’s wish to worship. For instance, we didn’t cover up the graves until almost the last minute, because people might want to come and see their relatives — it’s these little things you have to bear in mind when you’re working in something as sensitive as a church,” said Mr Woods. “It’s always quite fiddly, and people can’t understand why you’re there so long doing things.”
Back in 1986, the church presented the film-makers with much bigger headaches — not least the need to create a large “medieval” mural, which the soldiers uncover, and on which they work from a scaffolding platform. Even the Victorian stone flags were not considered period enough, and the entire nave to the rear of the pews was laid with old brick pavers for the duration.
Parishioners still retain some bad memories of that much longer period of disruption. “We have these very valuable wall paintings, some of which date back to the 14th century — there was a slightly bad experience with these, and we had to have restoration work done on them. They were a total no-go area this time,” said Ian Peacock, a PCC member. In the light of that, members took turns to keep an eye on things during filming. “But we had absolutely no problems with this crew. They were fantastic, very good and helpful,” he said.
THE Revd Nigel Lacey, Priest-in-Charge of West Wycombe with Bledlow Ridge, Bradenham and Radnage, cheerfully confessed that he was not a fan of A Month in the Country, which he described as “the most dull and boring film ever. . . But some people love it.” He was, however, greatly looking forward to Cranford.
St Mary’s is on the South Bucks Way, a well-used walking path, and the church attracts many visitors. They find the church open, and a prayer corner set aside for quiet contemplation. “It’s a great thing to be able to do, and we’re always delighted to use the church for things like this,” said Mr Lacey, who is grateful also for a location fee that will help with the upkeep.
“It looked stunning, because it just transformed the church back to looking as it may have been before people messed it around a bit. It was bizarre seeing the pews, because we hadn’t had pews in there for years and years.”
BBC Drama Productions describe Cranford, written by Heidi Thomas and produced by Sue Birtwistle, as “a big, ambitious period drama, just the way we like them . . . a uniquely rich and comic drama about ordinary human lives during the course of one extraordinary year in Cranford.”
In 1842, the small Cheshire market town is on the cusp of change as the railway pushes relentlessly from Manchester, bringing fears of migrant workers and the breakdown of law and order.
Starring alongside Judi Dench, who plays Miss Matty Jenkyns, are Francesca Annis, Eileen Atkins, Michael Gambon, Philip Glenister, Lesley Manville, Julia McKenzie, Imelda Staunton, and Greg Wise. Simon Woods plays Dr Harrison, whose revolutionary medical methods and good looks set female hearts a-flutter.