Watching Cranford, something will occur to you. Something that makes you realise that, hang on, there's literally no other period drama in recent memory that's anything like this. It's not the starry cast, the meticulous costumes, or the charming evocation of a long-ago era (though it does boast all of that too).
No - the thing that makes Cranford really stand apart is that it's a period drama where all the major players, the characters that make the big decisions and take up almost all the limelight, are women. Most of them are mature women at that. And the fact this seems so unique - even quietly revolutionary! - to us in the 21st Century, would probably have made its writer Elizabeth Gaskell smile wryly to herself.
After all, Elizabeth Gaskell had blazed a trail way back in the Victorian era, when she wrote the stories on which Cranford is based. Putting the emphasis squarely on strong females, she boldly broke from the usual literary conventions. She didn't just write about women, she wrote about "Amazons", to use her wonderful word. While plenty of books were being written featuring women, they were often frivolous romances, or had an equally hefty array of male characters to balance things out.
But in Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, women rule the roost. Men play second fiddle, and are often cast in hapless and befuddled roles compared to the imperious ladies. How incredible this must have seemed at the time. How incredible it seems even now, when you watch this loving TV adaptation, and enter this fascinating little town which is practically a miniature matriarchal state. With bonnets.
Why did Mrs Gaskell craft such a world? It's tempting to say her childhood had something to do with it. Her mother died when Elizabeth was very young, and her father was unable to take proper care of her, so she was sent to live with her Auntie Lumb, whom Elizabeth called her "more than mother", as well as her passionately opinionated Auntie Abigail. Two strong women helped shape Elizabeth's growing awareness of the world, perhaps sowing the seeds of Cranford.
But what makes Cranford really interesting is how different the various women are. They aren't a group of boringly indistinguishable matriarchs, forever frowning at lesser mortals. In fact, some of them - like Matty, played so beautifully by Dame Judi Dench - are downright dotty at times. They have vulnerabilities, they have lost loves and concealed passions.
But you know what they aren't? Beholden to men. Even when some of the younger lasses develop crushes on comely local lads - like the dashing Dr Harrison - they ultimately depend only on themselves, and the friendships of other women.
Two of the most striking characters, Deborah and Matty, are spinster sisters in their twilight years. In a Jane Austen story, a pair like this would be background characters, providing comic relief, Mrs Bennet-style. In Cranford they're right at the forefront, making their presence felt. Deborah, particularly, is a queen of local society, helping to set the strict rules of etiquette that define Cranford, with robust views on everything from the correct time limits on visiting friends, to the precise way to consume oranges. As Mrs Gaskell describes her, "she would have despised the modern idea of women being equal to men. Equal, indeed! she knew they were superior."
Then there's the grand and aristocratic Lady Ludlow, who lives on the cusp of Cranford in a stately home, and whose annual garden party is legendary among the residents. And let's not forget Miss Pole, who is more than just the town gossip and busy-body: she's a force of nature, impossible to resist. We also have to admire the sheer eccentricity of Mrs Forrester, whose love for her cow Bessie knows no bounds. Without wishing to give too much away, the beloved bovine pet is even decked out in her very own flannel pyjamas in one surreal scene. (Milking isn't an issue - there's a flap that can be undone.)
There are gutsy younger women in Cranford too, including Mary Smith, who is proudly "indiscreet and incautious." The whole saga is a celebration of womanhood in its many forms, embodied in women of many different ages, with each character as strong and memorable as the next. All of this, in the apparently oppressive Victorian era. Who'd have thought it?