To its credit, almost the entire cast (at least of the surviving characters) returns for this two-part sequel. Still fluttering about gossiping like a cluster of chickens are Miss Matty Jenkyns (Judi Dench), Mrs. Forrester (Julia McKenzie), Miss Pole (Imelda Staunton), Miss Tomkinson (Deborah Findlay), and the slightly more hoity-toity Mrs. Jamieson (Barbara Flynn). This time they are all atwitter about the railroad, which threatens to cut estate owners' land in half and encroach upon the steadfastly unchanging village of Cranford. To the young people, the railroad represents progress and potential for new life for the town. But the old folks thing everything is just fine, despite the fact that many of the young people leave, making Cranford a town of little old ladies. And how long can that last?
The first series of Cranford was lovely, funny, and often sad (I swear, just as someone found love, another character dropped dead). There is still a fair amount of swooning, this time in the form of William Buxton (Tom Hiddleston), son of uppity landowner Mr. Buxton (Jonathan Pryce), falling for the below-his-class Peggy Bell (Jodie Whittaker). Mr. Buxton wants his golden-locked son to be a politician, which would be a fine role for a gentleman, but William wants to follow his true love in the form of Peggy as a wife, and engineering as an occupation. This does not sit well with Dad.
There are also side plots featuring Captain Brown (Jim Carter) finding gainful employment with the railroad, as well as finding his own surprise romance. Plus there is the return of young Harry Gregson (again played by Alex Etel, who has literally grown a foot) and his schooling, which was paid for by the late Mr. Carter from the first series. Even the adorable Miss Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon) shows up with her own new stories.
I enjoyed this sequel very much, but found it slow to catch fire. Part of the problem was that the first series circled very much around the cute and misunderstanding-plagued courtship of young Dr. Harrison and Sophy Hutton. Now that they've ridden off into the sunset, they are replaced by young lovers William and Peggy. The problem is that Peggy is about as dull as her plain dresses, and it is hard to see why he falls for her (though to her credit, she becomes more interesting by the series end). And it seems repetitive that every time that Miss Matty makes a decision that ends up having a ripple effect with bad consequences, she batters herself with guilt. Again and again.
Fans of the original series will certainly want to watch Return to Cranford, if only to return to the wonderful characters. This sequel may not quite have the spark of freshness of the first, but it is still a nice visit to the curious and stubborn little Victorian village.
The Return to Cranford set includes and extra called "Cranford in Detail," which is actually quite entertaining, explaining the details going into production, from props to accents to transforming the real village of Lacock, England into the fictional town of Cranford. Return to Cranford is available separately, but also comes in a nice boxed set called The Cranford Collection, which includes the original 5-part series as well.