Saturday, May 14, 2011

Lark Rise to Candleford

We've become addicted to BBC literary adaptations, and are currently halfway through the excellent first season of Lark Rise to Candleford (2008). The series is based on three semi-autobiographical novels by Flora Thompson: Lark Rise (1939), Over to Candleford (1941), and Candleford Green (1943). Thompson's life closely parallels that of her fictional heroine Laura Timmins (Thompson's maiden name was Timms): like Flora, Laura is born in a rural hamlet, has a stonemason father, a mother named Emma, and at age 15 goes to work at the post office in a nearby town.

Laura Timmins

Olivia Hallinan as Laura

I haven't read the books on which it's based, but the Lark Rise television series at first feels like a cross between Anne of Green Gables (by which I mean the delightful 1985/87 CBC Television adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne Shirley novels) and Cranford (the excellent 2005 BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford novellas). Like Anne, at its center is the story of a young rural woman learning to make her way in the wider world; like Cranford, its setting offers a microcosm of the social, political, economic and technological changes occurring in England in the late 19th century.

There's another reason Lark Rise resembles Elizabeth Gaskell: key members of its superb cast are drawn from the adaptions Cranford (the magnificent Julia Sawalha—Jessie Brown in Cranford—as Candleford's postmistress Dorcas Lane, and Claudie Blakley—Martha in Cranford—as Laura's mother Emma) and 2004's North and South (Brendan Coyle—working-class hero Nicholas Higgins in North and South—as Laura's father Robert). You might also recognize a familiar face or two from various Charles Dickens and Jane Austen adaptations.


Julia Sawalha as Dorcas

For its first five episodes Lark Rise is a warm, humanistic portrait of hamlet and town. Through Laura's eyes we come to know the the colorful characters who inhabit Lark Rise, the class tensions between hamlet and town, and the wisdom and kindness of Dorcas Lane. Each episode features a minor crisis which is resolved through Dorcas' quiet good sense. We gradually learn more about the characters, including what seems to be the warmth of a lingering but unacknowledged affection between Dorcas and the handsome squire Sir Timothy Midwinter (to the dismay of his wife, Lady Adelaide). At the end of each episode, a voice-over from the adult Laura frames everything we've just seen in the retrospective glow of nostalgia.

Claudie Blakley as Emma and Brendan Coyle as Robert

Had Lark Rise continued in this way we would have been perfectly content to keep watching, especially since the series' writing, acting, and visuals are so fine. But then came Episode 6.

In Episode 6 a mute young girl, abandoned by her impoverished family, inadvertently exposes the unspoken fears and longings of any number of characters, including Emma...


Lady Adelaide...

Lady Adelaide

Ruby Douglas as Polly and Olivia Grant as Lady Adelaide

Sir Timothy...

Sir Timothy

Ben Miles as Sir Timothy

and Dorcas herself.


Everything comes to a head on one sleepless night where half of Candleford winds up at the post office, while Dorcas and her staff desperately try to conceal Polly's presence. It is on this night, as well, that Lady Adelaide and Dorcas finally meet for a heart-to-heart talk—an exchange of confidences that is emotionally perilous for both of them.

Meanwhile, there is a misdelivered love poem wreaking havoc, awakened memories of lost loved ones, and the ever-watchful presence of the meddling Pratt sisters:

The Pratts

Matilda Ziegler as Pearl and Victoria Hamilton as Ruby

The episode is brilliantly written and structured, and takes the series into different and more deeply affecting territory. We can't wait to see where it goes from here.

Update 14 May 2011: For readers in the SF Bay Area, KTEH, the PBS station for the South Bay and San Francisco peninsula, is showing the first season of Lark Rise on Saturdays at 9 pm. The first episode will be broadcast tonight.