In this unique mystery series based on the bestselling books by Ellis Peters, Sir Derek Jacobi (I, Claudius) stars as Brother Cadfael, a compassionate seeker of truth and justice in chaotic world medieval England. DVD spe... more »cial features include exclusive audio comments by Derek Jacobi, Derek Jacobi essay, Ellis Peters materials, production scrapbooks, cast filmographies, and captions/subtitles for the hearing impaired.
"One evening I turned on my TV and found myself staring, enraptured, at the sight of a monk blundering his way through a snowstorm, accompanied by hauntingly beautiful choral music. Thus was I introduced to "The Virgin in the Ice" on the PBS show "Mystery!". Over the next few weeks I saw as many other Cadfael episodes as I could find, and periodically caught them again as they came and went. One nifty feature "Mystery!" included was Diana Riggs providing some historical background to 12th century England, which is when the Cadfael series is set.
I soon learned that the series is based on a set of twenty novels, plus one book of short stories, written by Ellis Peters. These span the years 1137 through 1145; they chronicle a Welshman named Cadfael, who fought in the Crusades and then retired to the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, in Shrewsbury, to become a monk. His vast trove of lore, built up during his travels in the Holy Land, serves him quite well as he is called upon to solve various murders throughout the years. His extensive knowledge of herbs puts him in good stead, as it allows him to leave the confines of the monastery frequently on errands as a healer. He comes to know the town folk quite well; this gives him plenty of willing helpers. He has the knack of prying information out of people who would never dream of divulging it to the sheriff, and more than once he courageously harbors fugitives wrongly hunted by the Law. His many years in the world give him great insight into the darkness which lurks in the souls of men, and, sometimes, even women.
Thus, as the episodes began to appear on DVD one by one, I eagerly bought them up. Finally I gained the ability to watch the entire 13-episode series back-to-back, at will. Now, there are two ways one could do this: either in the order of the books, or in the order the series originally aired. The two are not the same: while, for the most part, earlier novels tend to appear as earlier episodes, and later novels as later episodes, things are a bit out of order. In general this matters only to purists, as the threads tying the books together, such as Cadfael's growing relationship with Olivier de Bretagne, are downplayed on the videos or omitted altogether.
I decided on series order; it was quite illuminating to watch the series evolve, as the regular actors grew into their roles.
The acting is excellent. Abbots Heribert and Radulfus, the inept Brother Oswin and the ever-suspicious Sergeant Will Warden are all very much the way the books describe them. Prior Robert and his toady Jerome are both wonderfully obnoxious. Three different actors play Hugh Beringar throughout the series, but all do reasonably well. And then there is Sir Derek Jacobi as Cadfael. He does not much resemble the book Cadfael at all, but it hardly matters -- he's perfect for the part. When I read the novels, it is Jacobi's face I see and his voice I hear in my mind.
Seeing the videos in series order is illuminating for another reason as well. When the earlier episodes aired, Ellis Peters was still alive and, it appears, able to have some input into how they were developed. As a result, they are quite faithful to the novels, apart from the necessity of trimming unnecessary details to cram 200+ pages into a 75-minute production. My particular favorites are "The Virgin in the Ice", "Monk's Hood" and "The Devil's Novice".
It is noteworthy, however, that the final three or four episodes, produced after the death of Ellis Peters, are the ones which diverge the most from the books. One, "The Pilgrim of Hate", is almost completely different, other than the basic premise. The introduction of the "mos teutonicus" is downright macabre. Another, "The Raven in the Foregate", is much more melodramatic than the book, almost to the point of being overblown. It introduces characters which were not in the book, for no obvious reason that I could see; the novel's plot should have been good enough. And "The Holy Thief" turns a sympathetic character, one I happen to like, into a bad guy, which really bothers me.
Indeed, seen in the context of the entire series, my enthusiasm for these three episodes has cooled off considerably from when I first saw them, but I still consider them to be passably good.
Although "A Morbid Taste for Bones" is the first book, it actually makes sense to start the series with "One Corpse Too Many" instead. This one serves to introduce all of the major characters -- except for Radulfus, who appears later on. It also sets up the civil war between King Stephen and his cousin the Empress Maud, which serves as an important backdrop for the entire series. There's nothing like a little political tension to have the knives coming out in the dark to dispose of one hapless partisan or another.
Alas, since the DVDs come directly from the BBC productions, there is no Diana Riggs. Thus, the best way to get the background for these stories is to read the books, as I have twice over. It's a shame that the remaining seven novels were never produced, but I've heard that Cadfael was frightfully expensive to do. Thus, I'm thankful for what I have.
Had the "Complete Cadfael Collection" come out four years ago, I certainly would have pounced on it at once. It's an excellent buy for anyone who likes all or most of the episodes, or the books. For those who are more particular, there are also annual boxed sets as well as the individual episodes."
Sir Derek and the Chronicles of a Truly Rare Benedictine.
Themis-Athena | from somewhere between California and Germany | 10/27/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"When the decision was made to produce for TV several episodes from her mystery series about Brother Cadfael, that 12th century crusader turned monk turned detective who has been, ever since his creation, one of the most compassionate and unusual sleuths of literary history, novelist Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) was not entirely happy. In fact, as the series' star, Sir Derek Jacobi, explains in the extra footage provided on the now-released DVDs, Ms. Peters had very mixed feelings about giving up her brain child and entrusting it to other people who went about cutting and adjusting everything, from the storylines themselves to the way the protagonists speak and even the Chronicles' sequence, to the necessities and limitations set by the new medium. But she eventually acquiesced and at one point promised that "the next one I write, I'll make sure it's easier for you all to film."
While the thirteen episodes that were eventually produced are, thus, not entirely true to the individual Chronicles they are based on, they are closer than many other movie or TV versions of famous works of literature. Most importantly, they maintain not only the core story lines but also the historical authenticity, atmosphere and spirit set by Ms. Peters's books in a marvelous fashion. And Sir Derek Jacobi brings both the wealth of his experience and skill and all of his own shrewdness, intelligence, sense of humor and empathy to the role of the medieval Benedictine sleuth and thus truly becomes Cadfael - for the thousands of new fans who are discovering the series through its enactment for TV just as much as for us who loved the books before they were ever transposed to a visual medium. A tremendous cast of supporting actors rounds out an overall excellent production; to mention just a few, Julian Firth as the ambitious and narrow-minded Brother Jerome, Terrence Hardiman as Abbot Radolfus and Sean Pertwee (and later Eoin McCarthy) as Under-Sheriff Hugh Beringar, who joins Cadfael in his investigations whenever, as is so often the case, these transcend the world of monastic life and require the administration of secular justice as well as clerical insight. Several episodes also feature noted guest stars.
The episodes are not entirely in the same order as the books; however, as most of the cross-references between the books have been eliminated in the screen versions, this is no great harm (although the lacking cross-references are probably one of the things avid readers of the books will find missing). The DVDs also provide background information on Ellis Peters, Sir Derek Jacobi and a number of the individual episodes' other actors.
Summary of the individual episodes:
"One Corpse Too Many" (second Chronicle): King Stephen lays siege to Shrewsbury Castle and, finally victorious, orders the surviving defenders to be executed. But then there's an extra corpse, who clearly wasn't executed. Whodunnit - and why?
"Monk's Hood" (third Chronicle): Cadfael's and Shrewsbury Abbey's honor is at stake when a guest is found poisoned by Cadfael's own potions ... and the sheriff's sergeant over-eagerly jumps to the wrong conclusions.
"The Leper of St. Giles" (fifth Chronicle): A leper's grim fate is unexpectedly intertwined with the story of an orphaned heiress, due to be wedded for money's sake to a despicable old baron, and her lover; who is everybody's favorite suspect when the groom turns up dead.
"The Sanctuary Sparrow" (seventh Chronicle): A young singer is accused of robbery and murder and, hunted by a mob, seeks shelter in the Abbey.
"St. Peter's Fair" (fourth Chronicle): While traders arrive from near and far, townsfolk claim a share of the Abbey's dues from the annual fair. Then a merchant is found murdered - but there's more to this than meets the eye!
"The Virgin in the Ice" (sixth Chronicle): After the sack of Worcester by Empress Maud, a nun, a young nobleman and his sister get lost in the Marshes. Cadfael rushes to the rescue - and meets a messenger from his own past!
"The Devil's Novice" (eighth Chronicle): The Abbey accepts a novice with a troubling zeal for monastic life (but not its virtues), who may or may not be connected to the death of a cleric traveling through his home village.
"A Morbid Taste for Bones" (first Chronicle): The monks mount an expedition to Wales to retrieve the bones of a local saint after a young monk claims to have seen the saint in a vision in which she asked that her bones be brought to Shrewsbury. The mission runs into serious trouble when the local lord, who has opposed it, is found murdered.
"The Raven in the Foregate" (twelfth Chronicle): Cadfael must solve the mystery behind two deaths; one of a young woman who (unsuccessfully) sought his spiritual advice, the other of the priest to whom Cadfael sent her: the new priest in Shrewsbury's foregate, an ambitious, power-hungry cleric in direct allegiance with King Stephen.
"The Rose Rent" (thirteenth Chronicle): A grieving young widow, beset by suitors, gives her house to the abbey for a single rose's annual rent. But her gift of beauty turns bloody when the emissary delivering the rose, a young monk, is found murdered.
"The Pilgrim of Hate" (tenth Chronicle): A cripple, his sister and two brothers on a painful pilgrimage meet at the Abbey during the annual feast of St. Winifred. Soon, the question arises whether religion is primarily penance or faith in God's love of mankind.
"The Potter's Field" (seventeenth Chronicle): The discovery of the bones of a woman in a field once belonging to a potter turned monk leads Cadfael to unveil a harrowing tale of love, loss and a deadly wager.
"The Holy Thief" (nineteenth Chronicle): Competitors for the possession of St. Winifred's relics show up in Shrewsbury! Then the holy bones disappear, a monk is found murdered - and a tonsured troubadour finds his lady love.
Also recommended: A Rare Benedictine A Morbid Taste for Bones: The First Chronicle of Brother Cadfael One Corpse Too Many: The Second Chronicle of Brother Cadfael Monk's Hood: The Third Chronicle of Brother Cadfael Leper of Saint Giles (Brother Cadfael Mysteries) The Virgin in the Ice (Brother Cadfael Mysteries) Brother Cadfael's Penance (Brother Cadfael Mysteries) A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury"
5 stars AT LEAST
R. C. Walker | Encinitas CA, United States | 05/18/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Now that all 13 episodes of (Sir) Derek Jacobi's landmark mystery series "Cadfael" are now available in a single package, it's time to give this treasure a good look. The bound-leather look of the collection is nice, even if it's obviously not mediaeval. It has convenient double trays and a clever faux clasp to hold it shut.
"Cadfael" is based on the novels of Ellis Peters (pen name of Edith Pargeter). It's set in 1138-1144/5, during the spotty reign of Stephen of Blois - King of England 1135-1154 - and his civil war with his cousin "Empress" Maud (or Matilda). Stephen's claim to the throne was less compelling than that of Matilda (or Maud), as he was the son of William I's daughter Adela and had already sworn to support his cousin's claim. Maud's (or Matilda's) claim was better, since she was the daughter of William II. Her title "Empress" was only a courtesy because, although she had been wife to Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, she had never been crowned. Despite his oath Stephen quickly appeared to claim the throne when William II died. Matilda (or Maud) came to England in 1138 and a bitter civil war ensued. "Cadfael" begins in 1138, when Stephen seems to be gaining the upper hand. He has just captured the Shropshire area, subsequently executing a large number of his enemies - thus effecting the taming of Shrewsbury.
I expect some really sincere groans after that....
Brother Cadfael is the herbalist and, in consequence, as close to a doctor as Shrewsbury Abbey is likely to get. His medical practices are fairly advanced for the time - but then, any genuinely medical practices would be. Cadfael has come late to his monkish vocation, having spent 3 or 4 decades in Palestine on Crusade. He has an interesting past ... many details of which we learn as the series progresses. Learned for his time, and being clever and inquisitive, Cadfael's avocation is solving murder mysteries. Derek Jacobi invests the character with enormous humanity and compassion in brilliant and nuanced performances.
In fact, "Cadfael" is an ensemble of excellent performances. Not least of these is the performance of the technical staff in reproducing the squalor and degradation of living in 12th-Century England. At the height of the Little Ice Age, England was a less pleasant and productive land than it is now - a situation exacerbated by the collapse of Romano-British civilization, the deep-rootedness of Christian superstition, and the triumph of Norman greed. Interestingly, this period is equally well portrayed in a comedy, the hilarious Brit series "Dark Ages".
The mysteries that involve Cadfael are complex and interesting, lasting about 1 hour 15 minutes each. His task is made more difficult by the rampant sophomoric thinking of the times and the numerous uptight personalities who think they're better than anyone else.
Speaking of personalities ... this series is full of them, all highly interesting and individualized, portrayed by accomplished actors. While the murders pose interesting puzzles - especially in the absence of modern forensics - it's the interactions of the characters that really make the stories. (As to forensics, Cadfael is surprisingly thorough and almost scientific. This is almost a century before the prime of Roger Bacon, an era of the triumph of religion and therefore the abasement of empiricism - and yet, here is Cadfael.)
Most of the main characters are involved in the abbey. This is, initially, headed by Abbot Heribert (oddly [for the time] spelt "Herribert"). He is played with gentle gravitas by Peter Copley. By decision of a church council, Heribert is quickly replaced by, Radulphis, played with assertive gravitas by Terrence Hardiman. Whilst Heribert tended to give Cadfael his head, Radulphus began his tenure as more skeptical of Cadfael's abilities. However, he quickly came to depend on Cadfael in difficult situations involving murder.
Cadfael's nemesis in most circumstances is Brother Robert, the abbey Prior, played with stuffy all-purpose disapproval by Michael Culver. In his grouchy skepticism, he's seconded by busybody Brother Jerome, played with prissy toadiness by Julian Firth. It's not always clear what this pair is up to, but they're always up to it together. Cadfael is assisted by young Brother Oswin, played with earnest immaturity by Mark Charnock. His clumsiness is a running joke for a time, but this is later wisely abandoned.
Cadfael's main ally is the Under Sheriff, Hugh Beringar - originally a partisan of Matilda (or Maud) who ultimately swore loyalty to Stephen and was raised to his current post. He is played very authoritatively by Sean Pertwee - easily the best bit of eye candy in the series. Alas, Beringar is played by 3 actors. Pertwee has the rôle during Season 1, Eoin McCarthy in Seasons 2-3, and Anthony Green in Season 4. The latter two do well, but the viewer misses Pertwee's affable authority. Beringar is assisted by a Sergeant, Will Warden, a hulking berserker sort, prone to arrest first and ask no questions after, played with appropriate menace by Albie Woodington. He doesn't appear in the last season, alas.
"Sheriff", by the way, should more properly be spelt "sherrif". The Old English is scir gerefa, later rendered as "shir[e] reeve" once the "ge" syllable had been lost (nasty Teutonic thing). Conflating into a single word, we should have been left with a double R (and a single F). Such are the vagaries of English. Ask me about the abomination "dwarfs" some time.
The generally top-notch actors give real life to some top-notch stories. But these are, of course, British films. It's amazing that this country, with a fine and sophisticated mystery tradition of its own, has produced little to rival the great British mystery series. The viewer should of course be aware that (as usual) the original novels have been tampered with whilst bringing them to the screen. Some of this tampering seems excessive and unnecessary and one would think that the Brits would give us greater fidelity to the originals than the tamper maniacs in Hollywood. Be that as it may, "Cafael" is one of those great series and this set is the most convenient and most economical way to get it."
12th Century Who-Dunnit
G P Padillo | Portland, ME United States | 02/04/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is one of the best crime series produced for television. Derek Jacobi is Cadfael, a 12th Century, peace loving, open minded, crime solving naturalist who is practically the antithesis of those around him. In a still nearly dark age, abounding with myths, mystery, superstition and disease, Cadfael brings a modern sensibility as well as an ability to look at things straight on.
The recreation of 12th Century England and Wales is visually opulent in both architecture and costuming evoking a world as frightening as it is beautiful.
Jacobi is never less than terrificly engaging and the entire series is highly watchable with a high re-watchbility factor.
Fabulous mysteries in a rich historical setting
Ralf Grisard | Dayton, OH United States | 12/20/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I've read all the Ellis Peters "Cadfael" novels, and am favorably impressed by the fine job the producers of the Cadfael series have done in bringing the books' rich cast of characters and wonderful sense of immersion in the ordinary and extraordinary details of life in 12th century Shrewsbury to the small screen. But for me, the make-or-break factor in bringing the monk-detective to the screen had to be the casting of Cadfael himself, and I cannot think of a better choice than the outstanding Derek Jacobi, who brings Cadfael to life as brilliantly and with the same powerful humanity as he did the Roman emperor Claudius in the terrific "I, Claudius" series. Refreshing, original mysteries by a fine historical author with a wonderful feel for creating living, breathing, suffering, and triumphant characters. If you'd enjoy a break from technology, the relentess fast pace of modern life, and smart-ass cinematic detectives, it's hard to beat time traveling back to medieval England for an evening with the caring, perceptive, tough, complex Brother Cadfael."