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Judi Dench, Living Quietly in 'Cranford'

Judi Dench's stage performances have spanned works from Shakespeare to Sondheim, but American audiences probably know her best for her movie roles.

Since 1995, she's played 007's boss in the James Bond franchise; she earned critical acclaim and multiple award nominations for her portrayal as a frighteningly manipulative school teacher in Notes from a Scandal. And famously she won an Oscar for her performance as Elizabeth I — who's on screen for a mere eight minutes — in Shakespeare in Love.

On Sunday, May 4, American audiences will be able to see her on the small screen, in the new Masterpiece series Cranford.

The series is set in an English village in the 1840s, just before the Industrial Revolution, and is based on a novel by Elizabeth Gaskell. Dench plays Miss Matty Jenkyns, an elderly spinster who lives with her domineering older sister, played by Eileen Atkins.

Cranford has been described as a mix of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Dench agrees, except that unlike those writers, Gaskell writes plots full of unpredictable turns.

And despite the orderly appearance of the gossipy, close-knit village, Cranford and its inhabitants are grappling with threats to tradition and the social order.

Dench says part of the story's appeal is that "We have lost that feeling of a community all being together, and of course, irritatingly, wanting to know what everyone else's business is."

Dench plays a very different kind of character in the Bond movies. She's M, the steely director of Britain's intelligence service. It's a part she's played in the last six Bond films, and she says it's great fun — especially when she gets to deliver withering put-downs to the world's most famous secret agent.

She's also played the voice of Miss Lily, the Russian dance instructor in Angelina Ballerina, although she says her Russian accent was a bit dubious.

Now 72, Dench has hardly seen her career lose steam over the years. In addition to filming more episodes of Cranford, Dench's next project is the film Nine, with director Rob Marshall. It's based on the Broadway-musical adaptation of Federico Fellini's 1963 film 8 1/2.

Despite her success, she admits that she approaches each new role with great trepidation.

"Oh, I live in fear, leaping from fear to fear, because ... everything I've ever done throws up some difficulty."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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John Ydstie has covered the economy, Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve at NPR for nearly three decades. Over the years, NPR has also employed Ydstie's reporting skills to cover major stories like the aftermath of Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. He was a lead reporter in NPR's coverage of the global financial crisis and the Great Recession, as well as the network's coverage of President Trump's economic policies. Ydstie has also been a guest host on the NPR news programs Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. Ydstie stepped back from full-time reporting in late 2018, but plans to continue to contribute to NPR through part-time assignments and work on special projects.