9-10 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 18
BBC1 (U.K.)

LONDON -- As pretty as an English village green in summer and as bracing as a winter's meadow brook, the BBC's new five-part period drama "Cranford" is an instant classic.

Starring some of the cream of British acting talent -- Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon -- the show is adapted from three novels by Elizabeth Gaskell. Her tales of the village of Cranford, not far from Manchester, in the mid-1800s have been rendered with loving precision by a cast and crew in top form.

Produced by the BBC and WGBH Boston in association with Chestermead, the series has been given a magical touch by creators Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin. Plaudits and thanks to everyone involved. Heidi Thomas' dialogue is a constant delight, and director Simon Curtis draws performances from his cast to match the best they have ever done.

Dench and Atkins set the tone immediately as two proper spinster sisters, Matty and Deborah Jenkyns, respectively, who welcome into their village home young Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon), whose family in Manchester is having a crisis.

The actresses are like jewelers finding the most brilliant lights in the gems handed to them in lines like when Miss Deborah cautions Mary: "No woman is equal to a man. She is his superior in every single case."

The village has newcomers in the form of Capt. Brown (Jim Carter) and his two daughters, Jessie (Julia Sawalha) and her unseen older sister who is seriously ill. Her fate will involve the Jenkins sisters more than they would prefer, but that duty obliges.

Young Dr. Harrison (Simon Woods) also is a fresh face in the village, bringing with him some new medical procedures that will help shake up old habits when carpenter Jem Hearne (Andrew Buchan) fractures his arm badly and faces amputation.

Meanwhile at the big house, Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis) is planning her annual garden party with the help of estate manager Mr. Carter (Philip Glenister) and being very selective about the girls she hires to help. Staggered to discover that one applicant can read and write, Lady Ludlow declares: "She is equipped beyond her station; the proper order of the world will be undone."

Hovering everywhere is the village gossip, Miss Pole (Staunton), who keeps all informed in timely fashion. In the second episode, Gambon's Mr. Holbrook will arrive to upset Miss Matty's world, and there is the threat of a new railway line coming to change the village. Viewers will hardly be able to wait.

A BBC and WGBH Boston co-production
Creators: Sue Birtwistle, Susie Conklin
Based on three novels by Elizabeth Gaskell
Executive producers: Kate Harwood, Rebecca Eaton
Teleplay: Heidi Thomas
Director: Simon Curtis
Director of photography: Ben Smithard
Production designer: Donal Woods
Music: Carl Davis
Co-producer: Rupert Ryle-Hodges
Costume designer: Jenny Beavan
Editor: Frances Parker
Miss Matty Jenkyns: Judi Dench
Miss Deborah Jenkins: Eileen Atkins
Miss Pole: Imelda Staunton
Mr. Holbrook: Michael Gambon
Lady Ludlow: Francesca Annis
Frank Harrison: Simon Woods
Martha: Claudie Blakley
Dr. Morgan: John Bowe
Jem Hearne: Andrew Buchan
Capt. Brown: Jim Carter
Mary Smith: Lisa Dillon
Miss Galindo: Emma Fielding
Miss Tomkinson: Deborah Findley
Mrs. Jamieson: Barbara Flynn
Mr. Carter: Philip Glenister
Carole Tomkinson: Selina Griffiths
Rev. Hutton: Alex Jennings
Job Gregson: Dean Lennox Kelly
Mrs. Rose: Lesley Manville
Dr. Jack Mashland: Joe McFadden
Mrs. Forrester: Julie McKenzie
Maj. Gordon: Alistair Petrie
Jessie Brown: Julia Sawalha
Clara Smith: Finty Williams
Lord Charles Maulver: Greg Wise
Sophy Hutton: Kimberley Nixon
Harry Gregson: Alex Etel