Cranford, BBC1, 9pm

ZOUNDS! Such is the joy induced within my heaving bosom by Cranford that I fear the onset of a nervous eclipse requiring the medicinal administration of a compound. Fiddlesticks to dreary serialisations of Jane Eyre! A pox upon overwrought small-screen re-workings of Pride and Prejudice! Huzzah, huzzah and thrice huzzah for Cranford!

I'faith, the Beeb's deft and busy bustle-rustler - based on Elizabeth Gaskell's social satires - is rare among TV adaptations of early Eng Lit novels in that its lure is not solely conditional upon the on-screen deployment of young ladies in embonpoint-enhancing frocks and manly fellows in super-tight riding-breeches.

Cranford needs no such cheapskate telly devices, instead offering loads of credible and involving storylines that reflect the manifold complexity of everyday human interaction. In addition, it provides meaningful insights into the eternal verities - love, jealousy, envy, kindness and the like - along with memorably convincing characters.

Ah yes, the good ladies - and not-so-good ladies - of Cranford village. Their instinctive goodness is heart-warming and truly inspirational; their occasional badness is always understandable, attesting to their complexity.

Cranford's modern-day screenwriter, Heidi Thomas, allows Mrs Gaskell's creations to speak to us genuinely down the centuries - from April, 1843, in this week's instance - via apposite dialogue that is redolent of the long-ago era in which it was created, yet which lives in the here and now.

As has become the norm over the past four weeks, Cranford's wittiest exchanges of dialogue were largely monopolised by the diamond-bright comedy double act of Pole (Miss) and Forrester (Mrs). A lovely instance of the duo's cross-talk flared in Cranford's store when Miss Pole, portrayed with piggy-eyed self-regard by Imelda Staunton, held up a length of blue-grey check cloth and ventured the opinion that she had the complexion for plaid. Mrs Forrester, played with a kitten-like congruence of fluffiness and innate cruelty by Julia McKenzie, reckoned Miss Pole in a plaid dress would merely make people think she was Scotch (sic). "Stripes?" Miss Pole then wondered aloud, unwisely.

"Stripes very diminishing for the robust figure," Mrs F mewed. A look of pain flitted across Miss P's tiny eyes. Delicious.

Cranford's chief baddie is Lady Ludlow, a land-owning aristo who remains convinced the lower orders should not learn to read (it only leads to the fomenting of inappropriate ideas about equality in their oikish heads). Lady Ludlow may yet earn redemption, however. For her grasping son, Septimus, is issuing ever-greedier demands from his pension in Italy, and this may prompt an eye-opening fall into penury - beside those oiks - for his dutiful mother.

When it came to displaying goodness, Judi Dench's noble Miss Matty was in a league of her own. The poor soul was rendered instantly bankrupt by the fiscal collapse of the Northern Rock of its day, the Town and County Bank of Manchester. Sadly, only days before the fiscal meltdown, Miss Matty had felt it incumbent upon her, as a Town and County shareholder, to pay out five sovereigns to the bearer of a worthless £5 cheque. This act of generosity - and responsible capitalism (note it, Chancellor Darling) - was aimed at breenging lummox Jem, the hunky and carnal carpenter engaged to Miss Matty's maid, Martha.

The pair romped in broad daylight amid Cranford's bluebells. Such ungentlemanly directness is anathema to Cranford's romantic hero, the pallid and milky Dr Harrison. Maybe that's why the drama climaxed with the young medic in such a fearful pickle.

Spurned by his true sweetheart, Sophy, he's besieged by ruinous engagement claims from deluded old Mrs Rose and the terrifying Misses Tomkinson, predatory spinsters both. I fear another nervous eclipse. Swoon.