Koch Vision // 1994 // 1260 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee // March 26th, 2008
"I won't kid you that life is gonna be easy, but if we're gonna get through it, don't you listen to what other people say. You just do what's right." -- Bridget Paterson, Colour Blind
English author Catherine Cookson (1906-1998) was one of England's most widely read and prolific writers. She penned more than ninety novels which have been worldwide best-sellers. Born Kate McMullen -- the illegitimate child of an alcoholic mother -- she was raised by her grandmother in South Shields. At the age of 13 she left school to work in domestic service and then later took jobs in laundry. In 1940, Kate married Tom Cookson, a grammar school teacher in Hastings. She took up writing while recovering from depression (after suffering four miscarriages) and her first novel was published in 1950. Often set in the regions of Northeast England where she grew up, Cookson's stories centered on working-class characters rising up from their circumstances. She wrote epic stories of headstrong women overcoming misfortune and finding happiness. Cookson disliked her stories being labeled romances, preferring to describe them as historical novels about people and conditions she knew.
In the 1990s, producer Ray Marshall discovered the treasure trove of stories by Dame Catherine Cookson, producing a miniseries line for British television. These faithful adaptations of the author's novels were shot on location in Northeast England with star-studded casts. With The Catherine Cookson Anthology (8 DVD Set) Koch Vision collects seven of these productions.
* Disc 1: The Cinder Path (1994)
Charlie MacFell (Lloyd Owen, Miss Potter) has always lived in his father's shadow. When the cruel master of the estate suffers an untimely death, Charlie gives up university to take up a life on the family farm. Home life is complicated by the resentment of his mother and sister when they are shortchanged in the old man's will. Charlie is pressured into a loveless marriage with neighbor Victoria Chapman (Catherine Zeta-Jones, No Reservations) when he really loves her younger sister Nellie (Maria Miles). The family legacy continues to haunt Charlie in the form of Ginger Slater (Antony Byrne, The Wind That Shakes the Barley), the ex-farmhand who hates the MacFell family and knows the truth behind the old man's death. When Charlie is called to service in World War I their lives are destined to intersect again. Like most of the productions in this set, this story is told in three 50-minute episodes.
* Disc 2: Colour Blind (1998)
This story, based on Cookson's second novel, begins with the newly married Bridget (Niamh Cusack) returning home from Liverpool. There is mixed reaction among the McQueen family when they discover her husband, James (Tony Armatrading, Eragon), is an African sailor. The couple does their best to ignore the intolerance of the community -- Bridget's brother Matt is especially hateful -- and before long their daughter Rose Angela is born. While James is away at sea, Matt is slowly turning his sister into an alcoholic. One night, James gets into a fight with Matt and is forced to go into hiding when it looks like he has killed Matt. Throughout her rough childhood Rose Angela endures the racism around her, longing for the day when her father will make good on his promise to return. Tony, a friend of the family, helps keep the memory of James alive for the young girl -- even though he would like to replace him as Bridget's husband. Fortunes change for the grownup Rose Angela (Carmen Ejogo, The Brave One) when she finds employment with an artist.
* Discs 3 and 4: A Dinner of Herbs (2000)
Told in six episodes on two discs, this is Cookson's epic narrative of how hatred can span generations. The story begins with Roddy Greenbank and his father moving to the Northumberland community of Langley. One night, they encounter a ruthless crook, Dan Bannaman (Ivan Kaye, Layer Cake), who kills the boy's father. Roddy survives but the violent incident leaves him with amnesia. Adopted and raised by Kate Makepeace (Billie Whitelaw, Hot Fuzz), Roddy develops a close bond with his friends Hal Roystan and Mary Ellen Lee. Meanwhile, Bannaman establishes himself in the community but he remains ready to strike should Roddy's memory return.
* Disc 5: The Girl (1996)
Set in the 1850s, the social importance of marriage is a central theme in the story of Hannah Boyle (Siobhan Flynn, The Island), the illegitimate daughter of silver mine owner Matthew Thornton. When her dying mother drops Hannah off at the Thornton home, Matthew agrees to take her in but his wife Anne (Jill Baker, Notes on a Scandal) does not hide her hatred for the girl. Put to work as a servant in the household, Hannah endures Anne's cruelty. As a beautiful young woman, Hannah is much-desired by the local men but she pines for the horse dealer Ned Ridley (Jonathan Cake, Extras: the Complete Series) who was kind to her when she was a little girl. Her hostility as fresh as ever, Anne plots to get rid of the reminder of her husband's adultery.
* Disc 6: The Secret (2000)
Based on The Harrogate Secret, Cookson's only thriller, Colin Buchanan (A Touch of Frost: the Complete Second Season) stars as Freddie Musgrave. He worked as a runner for the local opium dealers in his youth but is now a businessman in Newcastle circa 1885 thanks to the help of his mother's employer Maggie Hewitt (Clair Higgins, Hellraiser). The past comes back to haunt him and his friends when evidence of stolen diamonds turns up. Somehow it is connected to the horrible secret concerning Roderick Gallagher, a monstrous character from their past, and Belle (Hannah Yelland, Dinotopia), the girl Freddie has been protecting all his life.
* Disc 7: The Tide of Life (1996)
Pluck and resilience is the answer to the cruel twists of fate in the story of Emily Kennedy (Gillian Kearney, Shameless). It is 1901 and Emily looks after her sister while their father is away at sea. Her employer's wife has just died and when she stays on as a housekeeper for Sep McGilby, rumors swirl around the village about their relationship. In fact, McGilby is a good and respectful man who eventually asks Emily to be his new wife. When tragedy strikes, Emily and her sister are forced into a new home and find new employment. Finding work on the farm of Larry Birch, Emily's fortunes are due for further turns.
* Disc 8: Tilly Trotter (1998)
Told in four episodes, this is the first part of the epic tale of Tilly Trotter. It is 1839 and Tilly (Carli Norris, Grafters: The Complete First Season) is known in the small village of Tyneside for her strong will and capable hands -- she tends her grandparents' farm as well as any man could. When Simon Bentwood (Gavin Abbot) announces his plans to marry, Tilly is clearly disappointed that the longtime friend of the family has not courted her. To make matters worse, the odious Hal McGrath is pursuing her in a very uncivil manner. It turns out that the McGrath and Trotter families have a feud dating back generations. In this eventful chapter in Tilly's life, she is accused of witchcraft, and works as a nanny and as a miner.
Let me begin by confessing that I had never heard of Catherine Cookson prior to viewing this DVD set. So it was quite a discovery to learn what a huge body of work she created. Obviously, Cookson was immensely popular in the U.K., since the movies in this anthology are only a small sampling of the productions inspired by her books. Since the packaging of this set tells almost nothing of what to expect inside, the movies themselves were my introduction to Cookson's works. They were not the period romances that I was expecting but something more substantial: accounts of domestic life in the 19th and early 20th centuries England filled with earthy realism and winning characters.
Catherine Zeta-Jones, probably the only recognizable star of these movies for audiences on this side of the pond, is featured in a supporting role in The Cinder Path, the first disc of the set. While the story does involve a big historical event (World War I), it is the least compelling of the lot. One problem is that the protagonist, Charlie, is such a passive character for most of the story. He is presented as a victim of his circumstances (inheritor of a successful farm, married to a beautiful but disloyal woman) but I kept waiting for him to toughen up. Mind you, this was my first experience with a Cookson story and I may have been unprepared for her type of protagonist. Indeed, bad marriages and the pressures and expectations of one's community are common themes through all her stories. So, perhaps Charlie MacFell isn't any weaker than the heroes of the other stories. However, The Cinder Path isn't helped by the video quality on this DVD. The picture is grainy with dust and other noise appearing regularly on the image. This is the earliest of the productions in the set and the washed out colors make it feel a lot older. It felt a little like watching a television broadcast of an old, worn-out movie. That said, the video quality of Disc 1 is the exception to the set.
The first mini-series is fine but I enjoyed the other six stories much more. All of them are about working-class people overcoming misfortune and making the best of their situations. The uniformly fine acting really makes these characters appear to fit in their time and place. The production details also add to the realism of these productions. The Northeast England locations are shown off well and they really feel like a unique side of the country. While the rural settings are often beautiful, they look like places where work is done rather than travelogues. I also found the depictions of violence a bit more unsettling than what I would expect in the usual period romance. There are enough fist fights, whippings, and other punishments that occur at a cruel and intimate level to establish an element of danger that runs through all of these stories. In comparison, the World War I battle scenes of the first miniseries feel rather safe.
One aspect of Cookson's storytelling that I really appreciated was that she does not delay the evolution of a conflict unnecessarily. She may have a theme that is dealt with over the course of the entire work, but we do not have to wait until the end of the third episode to have an answer to the problem introduced in the first. Instead, dilemmas and resolutions seem to play out naturally and new ones develop as the story evolves. As a result, I did not get impatient with the plot and found myself further drawn into the lives of her characters the more I watched. Cookson's stories are not so much built around singular incidents as they are concerned with the lives of her protagonists.
I wrote earlier about the video quality of the first disc. The other seven discs have a much more pleasing visual quality but at varying degrees. Small amounts of grain are still present across all discs and the limitations of the transfers are especially noticeable in scenes with bright skies. Colour Blind and A Dinner of Herbs are the best-looking productions with their warmer, richer color palettes. Detail sharpness varies from scene to scene on each disc. Overall, the picture quality on this set is passable, but often it resembles a television broadcast more than a DVD source. The mono soundtrack is adequate for this presentation. Dialogue is clear and it hardly ever competes with the music.
It is unfortunate that this boxed set does not include any extras. The assumption must be that Cookson fans already know what they are getting. For the rest of us, the packaging provides next to no detail about the author. On an inside panel, there are introductions to each miniseries but they are really slim synopses of the stories. They may be useful for jogging one's memory after viewing the series but they offer no help to a new viewer wanting to get an idea of each story.
Now that I have sampled some of Catherine Cookson's works, I agree that she was an accomplished storyteller with a unique perspective of English life. Producer Ray Marshall has done a remarkable job in bringing her stories to life in such lavish detail for a superior mini-series line. Those already acquainted with either the author's work or these productions will appreciate this anthology collection. Fans of English period dramas will not be disappointed by these handsome productions of some very engaging stories, so long as they can overlook the lackluster quality of these DVDs. The image quality varies considerably across the set and that may be a significant enough drawback for viewers accustomed to the current standard of DVD video. Some of these discs could use a re-mastering. While this set is a good collection of stories, the lack of extras makes it seem more like a bundled pack of bare-bones discs.
The filmmakers, having done a commendable job bringing the words of Catherine Cookson to life, are free to go. However, Koch Vision could have done more -- an improved transfer or some basic supplements -- to make the package more accessible to North American viewers. They are guilty of negligence.
Review content copyright © 2008 William Lee; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 1260 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* IMDb: The Cinder Path
* IMDb: Colour Blind
* IMDb: A Dinner of Herbs
* IMDb: The Girl
* IMDb: The Secret
* IMDb: The Tide of Life
* IMDb: Tilly Trotter
* Wikipedia: Catherine Cookson