Judi Dench back for 'Cranford'

Judi Dench reprises her Emmy-nominated role as the kind-hearted Miss Matty Jenkyns in "Return to Cranford," which premieres tonight on PBS's "Masterpiece Classic." But she did double duty on the sequel to 2008's "Cranford" — the Oscar-winning actress also supplied the squawks of a parrot.

Dench recalls the bird wasn't available to dub in some chirps the microphone didn't pick up during the production on the two-part drama.

"I said I was in the scene and I knew exactly what he said that day," she says, laughing. "I mean I said it half-jokingly. But I did get to play him. I don't know he feels about it, but I liked it!"

Two years ago, "Masterpiece Classic" scored a critical and audience hit with "Cranford," which was based on the novellas, short stories and essays of Elizabeth Gaskell, a contemporary of Charlotte and Emily Bronte.

The British series examined the everyday lives of the inhabitants of a small Cheshire town in England in the early 1840s.

The sequel picks up in 1844, a year after the original ended. Miss Matty is still mourning the loss two years earlier of her beloved, but taciturn, older sister Deborah (Eileen Atkins).

The railroad has reared its ugly head, though the tracks stopped about five miles from the town. The wealthy widower Mr. Buxton (Jonathan Pryce) has returned to town with his handsome son William (Tom Hiddleston) and his niece (Michelle Dockery).

Wearing her heart on her sleeve, Matty takes Peggy (Jodie Wittaker), who lives in the country with her domineering mother and sleazy older brother, under her wing and plays matchmaker between the young woman and William.

Dench says it was lovely to step into Miss Matty's shoes and bonnet again.

"It was also sad to leave some people behind," she explains. "Eileen Atkins was killed off in the first one. But I had a life size cutout of her made so she was there, metaphorically speaking."

"Masterpiece Classic" executive producer Rebecca Eaton believes there are several reasons why the "Cranford" stories have struck a chord with audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

"I think it's the impeccable production values and impeccable performers," she says. "You just want to watch these actors working their magic."