I first encountered Brother Cadfael when watching Mystery on PBS. I enjoyed the episodes so much that I eventually collected and read the whole set of Brother Cadfael novels written by Ellis Peters (an alias used by Edith Pargeter). That was years ago, and since then I’ve purchased the set of Mystery movies starring Derek Jacobi and I never seem to tire of them. Sometimes, I sit and watch them fully focused from beginning to end, and at other times, I have them on in the background while I pursue other activities, usually on my computer. They are so well done that I am always captivated by them.
Derek Jacobi, who plays the role of Cadfael, plays the role of the worldly-wise contemplative to a “T” with a great supporting cast. Cadfael, having given up his soldierly life, wants nothing more than to spend his days in the herbarium tending the plants and using them for medicines that heal and provide relief from pain. However, invariably someone is found dead and in order for an innocent not to be falsely accused, Cadfael must use his experience and deductive reasoning skills, and his knowledge of herbs, to ferret out the guilty.
Most of the backgrounds were shot on location in Budapest, Hungary as the Shrewsbury monastery and mews no longer stand. But the settings are totally convincing and bring medieval times to life with many of the episodes involving the crafts, customs, and tiered society as the plots wend their way through a country torn with civil war. We encounter minstrels, wars, weavers, barons, servants, soldiers, crusaders, lepers kings, priors, abbots, and wine-makers; we see fairs, celebrations of the hours, weddings, feasts, duels, laws of the times, and the habits of the Benedictines.
The role of Hugh Beringar, under-sheriff of Shropshire changed several times throughout the series and while each successive actor was excellent in his own way, I must say I preferred the original one, played by Sean Pertwee. Perhaps I just don’t like change. The two supporting roles I enjoyed most where those of the unctuous Brother Jerome (Julian Firth) and the overly sanctimonious Prior Robert (Michael Culver). Their air of superiority and resentment of Cadfael’s passing back and forth between town and cloister and freedom to wander the countryside at times seeking evidence, bring a humour to the stories and a satisfaction when they inevitably get their comeuppance.
From the very first episode where the town and castle of Shrewsbury is under siege by King Stephen and his army, we are drawn into the stories and the times as Cadfael tries to satisfy both the sacred and the secular worlds around him to arrive at the truth of the matter. Pargeter always had a firm intention to accurately portray the history and in the filming, and while the seasons went through seven different directors, they seem to have held to this principal as well. I’ve read in places that the stories are “pleasant”. Not all of them are; murder never is. Some of the deaths are quite gruesome and characters despicable. But the movies themselves pass too quickly. You can find them on YouTube, or order the set of DVDs; either way, you can put them up on the big screen and enjoy them over and over again. * * * * *