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on 23 August 2016
Cadfael’s Shrewsbury looks nothing like it should. OK, so it would be impossible to film in the wonderful country town today, but the choice to go to Hungary to shoot the series means that the landscape – and even the plants – are not redolent of England. And Shrewsbury itself often seems deserted.
But my most scathing criticism of the TV adaptations is that Derek Jacobi eschews a Welsh accent. Because Jacobi does not employ one, when other Welsh people make negative comments about the English to him, viewers might wonder why they had done so, assuming Cadfael to be English.
Nor is Jacobi as Cadfael as bulky as Ellis Peters describes him. I imagined a Welsh Brian Blessed in the role, as that is how I see him in the books. (In interview Jacobi admits he thought he could not play the role as his physical description in the books did not fit him.)
There is so much that is wrong or questionable in historical terms in these TV adaptations. In the first season we have dining chairs like caveman Chippendales, large windows with curtains, doors with windows, fireplaces and chimneys, staircases with bannisters, small notebooks, and perfectly sawn wood. This is supposed to be the early twelfth century!
Admittedly, the anachronisms did get better with each new season, but the damage was already done in terms of its credibility. In season two a witness in the countryside refers to seeing the victim at around six o’clock (a laughable statement that actually comes from the book). The best episodes for me was the last, ‘The Potter’s Field’, the only one directed by a woman. It was less formulaic and worked at a different pace. ‘The Pilgrim of hate’, another season four episode, was good too.
It seems churlish to complain too much, for great efforts clearly went into the production and there is much that is right. For instance, the architecture of the abbey is generally correct and I liked the wall-paintings in the abbot’s lodgings. But the series continued to reduce the roles of the Prior and Brother Jerome to cartoon characters Moreover, the closeness in the books between Cadfael and Hugh Berengar (Sean Pertwee was the best) is lost on the screen, a point made by Derek Jacobi in interview.
The series is interesting for fostering young stars who have later matured into more famous roles: actors like Toby Jones, Natasha McElhone, and Richard Bonneville. Young male actors such as Steven Macintosh, Jonathan Firth, and Jonny Lee Miller had prominent parts. And it was a bit of a coup to get the likes of Ian McNeice and Julian Glover to appear in season two. But come the third and fourth, money must have been tight as there were few stars of note.