Cadfael: The Complete Series 2 Review
Brother Cadfael is a detective series set in the 12th Century, and taking place around Shrewsbury, in the border county of Shropshire, where Wales meets Scotland – allowing for the political struggles of the time to make an appearance in the stories. Cadfael himself is a Welshman, now in his 60s, who has become a monk after a colourful life as a Crusader. He was at the fall of Antioch but now spends his time as a herbalist and gardener at the Monastery of Saints Peter and Paul, a member of the Benedictine order. His knowledge of the world, and of herbs and their medicinal uses, often leads Cadfael to investigate mysterious deaths and other crimes alongside his friend, the Sheriff Hugh Beringar. For those who don't know, Brother Cadfael is also the main character in a series of around 20 books written by Ellis Peters (a pseudonym of the late Edith Pargeter).
TV audiences love a good detective story, so perhaps it was inevitable that Cadfael became adapted for the small screen, with 13 episodes made overall... each adapted from one of the novels. It's a fairly daunting task to condense an entire novel into one hour of television, but Cadfael does this quite competently. The books will always be more full of intricate detail about politics, history and society, but the television episodes present a different twist to the whole detective genre – albeit one that has a touch of The Name of the Rose (well, whenever you have monks solving crimes, it's bound to warrant a touch of comparison after all). However Cadfael lacks some of the convoluted religious politicking of its more famous relation – but it also only has an hour to resolve each crime to the audience's satisfaction.
Cadfael is not only graced with decent storylines and an interesting setting – it also has a strong cast and good production. Derek Jacobi (I, Claudius amongst so many others) is an incredibly accomplished actor, and taking the main role he really becomes the heart of the show in more ways than one. The rest of the cast are also strong, especially the various monks, including Julian Firth as Brother Jerome and Mark Charnock as Brother Oswin. The first series starred Sean Pertwee as Hugh Beringar, and he's missed in this series by many fans, though I have to admit I like his replacement Eoin McCarthy a lot. Featuring guest stars like Julian Glover and Ian McNeice, the acting is generally of a high standard which really helps the show. The fact that there are only 3-4 episodes per series is a little unusual in terms of television series, as far as I'm aware, but it probably helped to keep the productions tight and focused. This DVD covers the second TV series of Cadfael, spanning 3 episodes only... the last of which is actually the first Cadfael story from the series of books. So yes, the order of the episodes bears no relation to the order the novels were published in, an interesting decision but one that doesn't have too much bearing on the series.
The Virgin in the Ice
When Brother Oswin (Cadfael's novice) is found wandering close to death and muttering something about a woman, questions are raised. When a nun's body is later discovered frozen within an iced over stream, Oswin is accused of her murder. It is up to Cadfael to work out the convolutions of this case and attempt to clear the name of his companion and friend.
The Devil's Novice
Guest starring: Julian Glover, Ian McNeice, Ian Reddington, Chloe Annett
There's a new monk at Shrewsbury Abbey, but his devotion to the order is called into question – especially when a rich priest he's connected to by family is found murdered. Through a web of intrigue that covers both political and familial pressures, Cadfael must find out the truth of the matter.
A Morbid Taste for Bones
Guest starring: Anna Friel, John Hallam, Stephen Moyer
After one of their order has a vision, some of the Shrewsbury monks travel to Wales to retrieve the bones of St Winifred. However, their lack of diplomacy goes over poorly with the locals, and when the local landowner is found murdered, even the monks cannot escape suspicion. Luckily Cadfael has come along on this little road trip, so he can apply his wisdom and learning in order to find out what actually transpired.
Cadfael was never cutting-edge TV, and yet the 4:3 transfer given here is slightly better than I expected, especially as it's not a current television show and there's some age to the master copies. Background colours can be a little soft at times, and there's definitely some grain present at times, but overall I found the foreground colours rich and well contrasted, with shadows and dark tones standing up particularly well considering how much of the show takes place indoors. Skin tones are pleasantly lifelike and where the colour palette diverts from its usual browns and greys (usually for female clothing, which is a little more colourful) the tones are warm and realistic.
The sound is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo with English as the only language option. As with the video there's nothing too exciting about the sound quality; it does what it says on the packet... voices are distinct from the background music and sound effects. There's occasional use of directionality, but the show is really heavily dialogue-driven, so it's not that surprising that most of the audio action occurs in the centre channel.
Menus & Extras
The show is a good solid watch with a strong cast and decent writing to support it. So it's a shame that the menus on this DVD are a little bit confusing and, frankly, plain and uninteresting. The main menu page simply lists each episode, with 'Special Features' listed under each. So here's where it gets confusing. Each 'Special Features' menu is precisely the same, which might lead you to the opinion that they share the same set of special features, right? Well, that is only true in part... they share three special features, and then they diverge on the two others.
Each episode's special features include the same Ellis Peters' biography (text-only, 5 pages) in addition to a listing of the Brother Cadfael Chronicles (not in chronological order) and career highlights of Sir Derek Jacobi (text-only, 4 pages – 3 of which are his filmography). Then they have individual audio interviews and production stills - not that you can tell this until you've tried these headings under each of the episodes. In fact, the first inkling I had was that the production stills for 'The Virgin in the Ice' were all of that episode, so I decided to test the others and discovered this strange piece of menu-ing.
So, onto the production stills. They range from 8 ('Morbid Taste for Bones') to 15 ('The Devil's Novice'), all shown within a rather bland brown border. But the pictures themselves are of a decent standard, with some fairly amusing shots of monks and flowers, Cadfael and his donkey, etc. They don't add a lot, but they're nice to peek at.
The audio interview with Derek Jacobi is split in 3 brief segments, so each episode's special features section has 3 minutes of the actor speaking about various aspects of the role and the show. I think it would have been better to collate them together and instead have a special features section that covered the entire disc, but as that's not an option I'll give a quick listing of what's under each episode. 'The Virgin in the Ice' interview has Jacobi talking about 'Taking the Role' and 'The Appeal of Cadfael', the 'Devil's Novice' interview covers 'The Monastic Lifestyle' and 'Cadfael's Multiple Roles' and the final interview takes in 'Cadfael's Moral Dilemma' and 'Ellis Peters'. Derek Jacobi is always pleasant to listen to and these interviews are no exception; his dulcet tones give a short but interesting insight into how he got the role (though the production company thought he was 'too posh' for it) and what the author thought about the television adaptation. It's good stuff... I just wish there were more of it (and I suspect there is, no doubt doled out on other Cadfael DVDs).
I always thought it was a shame that there weren't more episodes of Cadfael made, as for me it's always been a highly entertaining programme set in a period I certainly don't know much about. The cast is strong and the storylines bear up well to repeat viewings (though I've seen each two or three times, I'm not sure how many more times I'd want to watch them in the near future). In some respects Cadfael therefore shares the same re-watchability issues as any crime drama, once you know the outcome, are the mechanics of the detection as interesting? In the end that can only be answered by the individual though – if you're a fan of Cadfael this DVD will make a good addition to your collection, and if you haven't seen it and enjoy crime or historical dramas – well it might just be worth a shot for you. I'm also happy to report that it really doesn't matter much which order you watch the series in, so long as you're prepared for a bit of actor-hopping in the role of Hugh Beringar. Overall, this is a neat package for a short series of a decent show, the transfer stands up well and the extras, while hardly maxed out, are at least an interesting addition to the main action.