Sue Birtwistle has produced a variety of high-profile literary adaptations including Pride and Prejudice, Wives and Daughters, King Lear, Emma, Cranford and Return to Cranford. She co-authored the book The Making of Pride and Prejudice, and is currently at work on a Cranford companion book. Birtwistle is married to theater director Richard Eyre.
Beyond her work co-creating the enchanting world of Cranford in Cranford and Return to Cranford, Sue Birtwistle has had her distinctive imprint on other beloved period dramas — Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle) and Emma (with Kate Beckinsale). In December, 2009, Birtwistle spoke to Masterpiece's Richard Maurer.
Select a topic from the list below to see Birtwistle's thoughts, or choose Show All to see the entire interview.
How did you first discover Gaskell's work?
It was just a conversation with somebody who said, "You should read Gaskell." That was after I did Pride and Prejudice. So I read Wives and Daughters and loved it. Then having dramatized that, one of the actresses who was in it told me that her character was in Cranford as well. The background is that Gaskell's mother died when she was a baby and she was sent to Knutsford — the model for Cranford — to be brought up by two aunts. These two women are in Wives and Daughters as the Miss Brownings. In Cranford they become Matty and Deborah.
As soon as I read Cranford I knew I wanted to do a film of it. But it's a small book and I didn't think it could bear a huge television adaptation. That's when I read masses and masses of her novels and short stories and discovered that she uses all the Cranford characters again. They might be under different names and different guises, but there's always the brother who disappears to sea at sixteen, like her own brother. There's always a child dying, like her own child. And there are many other characters that she goes back to again and again. So we got the idea to interweave some of her books together, based on the same town and the same people, to make an original drama.
What is it about Elizabeth Gaskell's writing that stimulates such affection?
What I like about her is that she's non-Victorian. I find her very modern. She's non-judgmental about her characters, who range from the top to the bottom of society, which is refreshing. She's also quite funny. One of the things that is wonderful to dramatize is the way tragedy and comedy are so closely intertwined in her work. Important things and trivial things are side by side. That's so like real life, and that's one of the things that our cast can do very well. You can be watching a scene and listening to, say, Imelda Staunton or Judi Dench, and you can laugh at them; but you're incredibly moved as well, because there's real feeling there.
Why do think Gaskell is not better known?
I'm not sure, because she was well known when she was writing. She was a friend of Charles Dickens, and Cranford was written for Dickens' magazine Household Words, initially as short stories. Things do come in and out of fashion, but she certainly has been ignored in recent times. I grew up seven miles from where she grew up, but I didn't know anything about her until long after I finished my education. I went to a girl's school, so you would have imagined they would have said there's this fantastic woman writer who lived seven miles from where you all are. But I didn't know her work. She's back on the map again since the adaptations of Wives and Daughters and Cranford, and her books are selling well in England. In fact, this year she's being memorialized in Westminster Abbey in Poets' Corner, so she's getting that sort of recognition as well.
Connecting to the World of Cranford
When you were growing up in a town like Cranford, were there similarities to the situations and attitudes depicted in Gaskell's stories?
There were. I came from a market town like Cranford. My neighborhood was the church, the school, four streets, some fields, and the railway line going through. What was strange, well, similar, was that it was a neighborhood dominated by women just like in Gaskell's stories. There were a lot of old ladies, some of whom had been teenagers in the First World War and had lost their fiancˇs in the war. There were widows as well. Of course, spinsters and widows feature very heavily in Cranford, which is a town dominated by the Amazons, as Gaskell calls them. So when I read Cranford, I just recognized all those ladies; I grew up with them.
Why do you think there were so many widows and unmarried women in Gaskell's village?
Rural work was dangerous, so a lot of men would have died prematurely. Also, a lot had died in the wars with France earlier in the century, because we're in the 1840s, so some of the widows would have had husbands who were fighting at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and in earlier engagements. Quite a few men went to be colonists in India. And if you were a professional, you might have moved to a larger town where there were better job opportunities. There are two doctors in Cranford in the first series, but no doctors left in the second series. Gaskell has one of her characters say, "What does happen to all the men in Cranford? Where do they go?" And the answer given is that they suddenly find they have to be elsewhere, because it's a town dominated by women.
Creating the Cranford Sequel
Was a Cranford sequel something you had in mind all along?
It was. When Susie Conklin [co-creator of Cranford] and I took a year and looked at all the material we could use in our adaptation, we realized that we had more than enough for a single series. So we did a brief for a second series. As it happened, the first Cranford got a huge audience and Jane Tranter [BBC's controller of fiction] said, "Will you do some more?" At the time I thought, "Yikes, no!" because we had been editing right up until the last minute and I was exhausted. About three weeks later, I realized that I loved it so much that it would be silly not to do a sequel.
Can you give us some examples of your attention to detail in the series and why it is so important?
Detail would be the watchword for any production, but particularly for Cranford. What's important is the accumulation of the details of people's lives that go towards telling their stories. All the different production departments — design, costume, makeup, camera work — jumped on board for that.
As an example, in the first series, Judi Dench has a group of letters from her brother that he sent from school as a young boy. Such letters would be very old and well read. The details of getting the right paper, the right ink, the right writing not only makes it come alive for the viewer; it helps the actor. Judi said that once she's handed a prop like that, it's so much easier for her to do the scene.
When we started the second series, Judi found that she was given the same old knitted mittens with no fingers that she'd worn the first time around. She asked the costume designer, "Am I getting a new pair of mittens?" The costume designer said, "Absolutely not! Elegant economy!" So Judi pulled these mittens around quite a lot during shooting. And when we got to the final scene in the assembly room, she said, "I'm more dressed up. Do you think I can have a new pair of mittens, because it's Christmas?" And the costume designer said, "Absolutely not! You've got to make do with those!" We did that with all the costumes. Where the dresses were worn, they were trimmed with a bit of new ribbon, which is exactly what those women would have done.
Animals play an amusing role in Cranford and its sequel. Can you tell us more about the dressed-up cow and the parrot?
The cow incident actually happened. It's from Gaskell's essay The Last Generation of England, which is about her life growing up in Knutsford. She said the cow carried on being dressed up in pajamas till it died, and nobody batted an eyelid because such behavior was normal in Knutsford. It was only when a visitor to town seemed surprised that people realized it was odd.
There's a wonderful story about the parrot. When we were doing post-production, I mentioned to Judi that we had to get the parrot back in the studio because we needed more parrot sounds in the scene where Miss Matty decides the parrot has to go. Judi said, "Oh, please let me be the parrot! I can do it! I'll audition for you now!" So she auditioned for the parrot. She was wonderful, and she became the parrot. She also told me, "I'll be cheaper than the parrot."
The Actors and Cranford
You are known for having a strong relationship with actors. Why is that important to you and did it help in casting Cranford and the sequel?
I started as an actress, even though I wanted to direct at the time. The only way to direct theater then was you either went up through the technical side or you went up through the acting side. I did a bit of both as an apprentice. I drove the van, put up the set, did the sound, made the coffee, ironed the costumes — and acted. That was my growing up. I learned how you could be very serious about your work and have a lot of fun at the same time, which hasn't stopped. So I think I understand the process of acting, even though I no longer do it. Actors feel like my family. There is no other group that are more entertaining to spend an evening with, who are generous, and larky, and fun. You can always rely on actors to jazz up an evening.
Judi Dench is a close friend. And once you've got her on board, then it's much easier to get others on board. In fact, when we said we were doing the sequel, all the actors who we hadn't killed off in the first series said yes, they wanted to do it, and kept their time free. Actually, Imelda Staunton said, "Can we do this every year for ten weeks, please?"
It's such a shame that Eileen Atkins' character couldn't be revived for the sequel.
I know! This is just like Gaskell, because when she was commissioned by Dickens to do a story for Household Words, it was so popular he commissioned another. And she said, "Oh, I wish I hadn't killed off one of those characters so quickly!" As soon as we started the sequel, we felt the same way about Eileen.
But I've heard that you were able to bring her back — after a fashion.
Unbeknownst to anybody, Judi had a photograph of Eileen playing Deborah blown up to life size and mounted on polystyrene with a stand so it could go anywhere. On the first day we were at the railway station filming, and the Amazons were all at the other end ready for a take. And I suddenly thought, "Eileen's there! How can Eileen be there?" Of course, what they'd done is stood her in the middle of them and put their skirts around the edge so it blurred her a bit. It absolutely looked as if she was there. It was really funny. So we toured her around with us and in every location had photographs of Deborah taken with different members of the cast. Then we sent the photographs to Eileen.
What was wonderful was on the very first day of rehearsal, we were all gathered and there was a knock at the door. It was somebody with a huge crate of oranges from Eileen. The note said, "Please, all sucking of oranges to be done in private." [Editor's note: In Cranford, Eileen's character, Deborah, objects to the vulgarity of eating oranges in public.] Barbara Flynn, who plays Mrs. Jamieson, took the crate home to make marmalade, invoking "elegant economy," which was the guiding principle of the ladies of Cranford. "We must not waste these," Barbara said. The last day of shooting, we all were given a pot of "Miss Deborah's Memorial Marmalade," including Eileen.
I'd like to ask about one of the intrepid bachelors in Return to Cranford, played by Tom Hiddleston. He has also appeared in the Wallander series on Masterpiece. How did you bring him into the project?
I met Tom last year at a big dinner in Los Angeles. I sat next to him, and he actually trod all over my feet throughout the whole evening. It was so painful I had to say to him, "These are my feet, not the table." He was terribly apologetic, but it didn't quite stop him. So later when we offered him the part, I reminded him that it was under sufferance I was going to cast him because he had trampled all over my feet! But we've become good friends.
The Future of Cranford
What do you think happened in Cranford after the railroad arrived?
Are you asking me to speculate what comes next? I suspect more people do come into the town, and so the nature of it changes. In the second series Miss Matty makes the decision to go against what she thinks Deborah would have wanted, because she sees that the town is withering rather than growing, and that young people can't see a future for themselves there. One hopes that the young people would stay around and have children. I suppose I'm thinking now of Series Three.
Will there be a Series Three?
[Laughs] I haven't got any plans. But we are writing a book. We did books on Pride and Prejudice and Emma. This will be a companion book that will come out in September. It will be large format with lots of pages and photographs. Part of it will be written as fictional reality, as if Cranford and its characters exist. Readers can go into the world of Cranford and explore its houses and see what's in the cupboards. So, again, the focus is on detail.