Set in the early 1840s in the fictional village of Cranford in the county of Cheshire in North West England, the story focuses primarily on the town's single and widowed middle class female inhabitants who are comfortable with their traditional way of life and place great store on propriety and maintaining an appearance of gentility. Among them are the spinster Jenkyns sisters, Matty and Deborah; their houseguest from Manchester, Mary Smith; Octavia Pole, the town's leading gossip; the Tomkinson sisters, Augusta and Caroline; Mrs Forrester, who treats her beloved cow Bessie as she would a daughter; Mrs Rose, the housekeeper for Doctor Harrison; Jessie Brown, who rejects Major Gordon's marriage proposal twice despite her feelings for him; Laurentia Galindo, a milliner who strongly believes men and women are on equal footing; the Honourable Mrs Jamieson, a snob who dresses her dog in ensembles to match her own; Sophy Hutton, the vicar's eldest daughter and surrogate mother to her three younger siblings, who is courted by Doctor Harrison; and the aristocratic Lady Ludlow, who lives in splendour at Hanbury Court and perceives change as a peril to the natural order of things.
The principal male characters are new arrival Doctor Frank Harrison, who is smitten with Sophy but unwittingly becomes the romantic target of both Mrs Rose and Caroline Tomkinson, who frequently feigns illness to hold his attention; Dr Morgan, an old-fashioned practitioner who finds himself challenged by the modern ideas of his young partner; Captain Brown, a military man whose common sense earns him a place of authority among the women; Edmund Carter, Lady Ludlow's land agent, a reformer who strongly advocates free education for the working class; Harry Gregson, the ambitious ten-year-old son of an impoverished poacher, who as Mr Carter's protégé learns to read and write; farmer Thomas Holbrook, Matty Jenkyn's one-time suitor, who was considered unsuitable by her family but is anxious to renew his relationship with her; Reverend Hutton, a widower with four children whose religious conviction is sometimes at odds with his instincts as a father; and Sir Charles Maulver, the local magistrate and director of the railway company.
The original mini-series was followed two years later by a sequel, Return to Cranford. Wealthy widower Mr Buxton returns to live in Cranford with his son William and ward Erminia. Peggy Bell finds friends outside the circle of her unappreciative family. Mrs Jamieson is highly gratified when her sister-in-law, Lady Glenmire, comes to visit, but finds that nothing goes as she expected. Harry Gregson struggles with unforeseen difficulties along the path on which he was set by Mr Carter. The railway approaches Cranford, and with it many signs of change; Matty Jenkyns comes to belive that change must be embraced for the sake of Cranford's future, and persuades her friends to share the belief, with seemingly disastrous consequences.
- All-Star Cast
- Audience Surrogate - Mary Smith acts as one.
- Anyone Can Die
- Character Development - Everyone, really.
- Cool Old Lady - A cast full of them, particularly Matilda Jenkyns.
"My age? My age? How old do you think I am that you talk about my age?"
- Disappearing Box
- Mr. Fanservice: Doctor Harrison, in-universe and among the viewership.
- Gorgeous Period Dress
- Gossipy Hens
- Grande Dame - The Honourable Mrs. Jamieson, who is carted about in a sedan chair and is terribly condescending to the ladies of Cranford who are not as well-endowed as she. Lady Ludlow counts as well.
- Hidden Heart of Gold - Lady Ludlow cares deeply for the welfare of her employees, and is reluctant to sell even a small portion of her estate to the railway.
- The Ingenue - Sophy Hutton
- Loads and Loads of Characters
- Mentor Occupational Hazard - Mr. Carter, Harry's mentor, is killed by an explosion at the railway works.
- Mood Whiplash - Each episode is often so full of reversals, twists, and emotional upheaval that it can be quite exhausting to watch. Fortunately, it does these well, without ever devolving into a melodramatic mess.
- Oblivious to Love - The extent to which Doctor Harrison can't seem to take the hint from poor Caroline Tomkinson is almost amusing.
- The Other Darrin - A character who appears only briefly at the end of the original miniseries but more extensively in the sequel is played by a different (easier to obtain) actor in the latter.
- Period Drama
- Promotion to Parent - Upon her mother's death, Sophy was left to raise her three younger siblings while still a child herself.
- Rousseau Was Right - While no character in the cast is free from flaws, all are trying to do what they honestly believe is right and best. The sole exceptions are Lady Ludlow's wastrel son Septimus and Peggy Bell's no-good gambling brother. Both are only concerned with their own selfish ends...and know it.
- Too Important to Walk - Mrs Jamieson
- Unwanted Harem - Poor, poor Doctor Harrison.