Looking Back At CADFAEL - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At CADFAEL

Tony’s taking the cowl.
There have been many impeccable adaptations of crime novels, with central characters embodied by people who seem to have been born to play the role of some of the reading public’s favourite detectives. You think immediately of Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, or David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, or Joan Hickson as Miss Marple.

Here’s a heresy for you. Derek Jacobi was NOT born to play Brother Cadfael, the 12th century Welsh Benedictine monk at the heart of Ellis Peters’ Cadfael Chronicles.

Y’know how you can tell he wasn’t born to play it? Easy. If you see any of the other three, they’re pretty much definitive – anyone else playing the role is… ok, but not definitive. If you squint at Derek Jacobi’s Cadfael, you can imagine other takes on the character, other actors in the robes, and it neither seems impossible nor breaks your heart.

There are roles for which Jacobi absolutely WAS born (the Emperor Claudius and the War Master in Doctor Who spring immediately to mind), but Cadfael’s not one of them.
Having said which, don’t go running away with the idea that there’s the slightest thing wrong with the way he plays the monk: there isn’t. But rather than any kind of all-consuming passion, as with Brett’s Holmes or Suchet’s Poirot, what you have in Jacobi’s Cadfael is simply an impeccably good actor in a hell of a role. And seriously, on any given day, that’s more than enough.

Let’s backtrack a little. If you’re just joining us in Nostalgiaville, who or what is Cadfael?

This might be a little odd to imagine, but there was a time when historical crime and mystery was much less of a genre that it is today. While The Name Of The Rose by Umberto Eco, published in 1980, is sometimes erroneously seen as the mould-breaker on this, two things are important to note.

Firstly, Eco’s book (and the subsequent movie) is undoubtedly gripping, but it’s aimed more at literary fiction readers than the gumshoe paperbackers who made the likes of Holmes, Poirot and Marple into household names.

And secondly, not to be picky, but Edith Pargeter (pen name Ellis Peters) published the first Brother Cadfael mystery in 1977, and was on book 3 in the series by the time Umberto Eco’s debut novel hit the world. Which is why it’s Ellis Peters and Brother Cadfael, rather than Umberto Eco and William of Baskerville, who are usually, correctly, credited with first mass-popularizing historical crime or mystery fiction.

So, in a very monastic sense, nehh.
Cadfael (pronounced, Welsh-style, Cad-Vile) is a medieval Welshman who came to monastic life late, having been a soldier in the Crusades, a sailor in the sunlit regions of his world, and a lover wherever he was accepted as such before retiring to the Abbey Church of St Peter and Saint Paul at Shrewsbury, almost on the border between England and Wales, during a time popularly described as the period ‘when Christ and His saints slept,’ a time of turmoil, a disputed royal succession and a war for the crown of England between two strong candidates – King Stephen, and Empress Matilda (or Maud). With these competing forces in the land, Wales being a country unto itself with a different language and laws, and the nature of what is legal in any case in a state of permanent flux depending on which power was winning at the time, Cadfael is the Abbey Church’s herbalist, Welsh translator when needed, and a man who sees deeper into things than many of his counterparts who took holy orders before truly experiencing the world. He may not be the most holy of God’s Benedictines at Shrewsbury, but he’s probably the most wily.

Which is just as well, as most of the books have him tangling with church superiors, fixing young love affairs, tiptoeing around entitled nobles, and crossing wits with King Stephen’s equally intelligent Sheriff of Shrewsbury, Hugh Beringar, most usually while trying to solve unsolvable murders with murky motivations.

The adaptations of the books on screen frequently differed from the plots of the books, using the source material as at least jumping-off points. The adaptations were also significantly at variance with the order of the books. While this wasn’t quite as blatant as, say, what happened in the Bond movie franchise, it did confuse a lot of Cadfael novel fans, as it seemed to imply that the books were somehow lacking in impact or storytelling, which they genuinely aren’t. And, more than in Bond, or even Christie (who frequently wrote her books out of chronological sequence), Ellis Peters wrote each Cadfael book set a year on from the last one, so the progress through the time of turmoil made cohesive sense. Mess with that and what you have is a fairly scrambled history, which meant even if you watched the Cadfael adaptations in transmission order, the pressure of the external conflict was more or less impossible to follow.

The adaptations are also an inherently challenging prospect to some modern crime junkies. How do you solve a murder with only a strictly medieval understanding of the world? Cadfael is rarely sure, but he’s always crafty enough to try, moral enough to know that every dead body was once a person who deserved the human decency of respect, and wily enough to think of things that official guardians of the law might not imagine.

While that sometimes came through on screen, because Jacobi can do wily all day long and twice on Sundays, the show was hampered by decisions like the one to chop and change elements and timelines to smooth the progress of the story in an ITV format with advert breaks, or indeed to intensify the drama for a modern audience. The adaptation of Saint Peter’s Fair, for instance, takes significant liberties with the book, pitting Cadfael and Hugh Beringar against each other as genuine enemies, where in the books, they are always friendly (or at least each respectful of the other’s gifts) after the first novel, when they get the measure of one another.
The show was also not especially helped by cast changes from season to season. There are changes which are valid - in the books, the abbot of Saint Peter and Saint Paul is physically replaced in book 3, “Monk’s-Hood,” which pleasingly allowed the addition of Demon Headmaster Terence Hardiman to join the medieval fun as Abbot Radulfus for series 2-4. What’s more confusing is that across four series, there are THREE different actors playing the role of Sheriff Hugh Beringar!

Naturally, this is not explained in the stories, as they’re supposed to be the same man, but once you’ve had a part played by Sean Pertwee, as he is in Series 1, accepting one substitute is difficult enough. Accepting two plays absolutely merry hell with your suspension of disbelief.

It's also noteworthy that some of the historical accuracy is… to put it mildly… interestingly interpretative. Watch Cadfael with a person who knows and cares about period armour and two things will happen. Firstly, your friend will get as apoplectic as a Daily Mail reader. And secondly, you’ll never understand who committed the crime, because you’ll be getting a lecture on how the production could have got closer to reality.

In among all this, it’s worth remembering that Derek Jacobi is spellbinding as Brother Cadfael. We said you could imagine other versions of Cadfael on screen if you wanted to, and you can, but that doesn’t mean you should at any point discount the quality of Jacobi’s performance. With very rare exceptions, whenever he’s on screen, it’s Jacobi’s Cadfael you’re drawn to, and he’s able to do a lot with small gestures. When he gets a good speech – and there are a few in Cadfael, as deductive reasoning and force of argument take the place of DNA evidence or 17 types of cigarette ash – it’s a joy that just rolls over you, whether he’s in reasonable mode or speaking almost as the voice of God’s justice on the guilty.

The Cadfael team didn’t film all 20 of the Ellis Peters novels, so the show never became a ‘complete canon’ rendering of one of the most interesting and different crime novel series of its day. And issues like big liberties taken with some stories and the ever-changing Sheriff of Shrewsbury stopped it from really bedding into the audience’s psyche in the same way some other major detective adaptations.

But for time spent with Derek Jacobi being clever, and wise, and mostly calm, while learning a little about a period in British history that’s rarely highlighted and even less frequently understood, Cadfael is still an entirely worthwhile delight, more than twenty years on.

Watch Cadfael today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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