It is August, 1844. Mr Buxton (Jonathan Pryce) is a newcomer to the Cheshire town of Cranford, and he threatens to bring lots of alarming new-fangled ideas with him. He asks Miss Matty Jenkyns (Judi Dench), the pillar of the local community, about a trendy new dance: "have you heard of waltzing?" A look of horror, if not revulsion, passes across Miss Matty's face as she replies, "it is not a form of dancing we have experienced in Cranford."
This brief, yet delightful exchange reminds us what we have been missing in the two years since BBC1's Cranford was last on our screens. It is returning in a new two-part Christmas special. The original, five-part series became something of a ratings phenomenon and earned 35 award nominations.
In this return to Cranford, adapted by Heidi Thomas from the stories of Elizabeth Gaskell, two years have elapsed since the death of Miss Deborah (Eileen Atkins).
Miss Matty is still grieving for her sister, but is much consoled by the genteel lady folk of the town, also known as "The Amazons": Miss Pole (Imelda Staunton), Mrs Forrester (Julia McKenzie), Miss Tomkinson (Deborah Findlay) and Mrs Jamieson (Barbara Flynn).
"The first series struck such a chord because it was based on classic English novels that people weren't very familiar with," says Dench. "People enjoy that element of surprise which comes from not knowing what's going to happen. I have to admit that when I read Cranford at school, I was very bored by it. The oranges scene [in which Miss Deborah deems it indecorous to eat oranges in public] was the one bright spot on a dull Thursday morning. But perhaps I was just the age to be bored. Even Shakespeare was taught tediously. So maybe it was the method of teaching that bored me, or maybe I was just gazing out of the window."
Like the inhabitants of Cranford, the cast have grown close. They had a "bake-off" when everyone brought in a home-cooked pudding – McKenzie's meringues were reportedly sublime. And between takes, Dench sat around teaching other cast-members her favourite party trick – tearing animal shapes out of an old newspaper.
She jokes that there may be another series – if only to give the put-upon Miss Matty a glimpse of some happiness. "Poor old Miss Matty," she laughs. "She will start to have a nice time, though – wait until Cranford 3. Things haven't changed much since 1844. We still like to know everyone business and to see who's coming and going. "We still live in a world of twitching curtains."
The Cranford Christmas special begins on BBC1 on 20 DecemberReuse content