It may seem like Judge William Lee has read a big stack of books on 19th century England, but he hasn't really. That's the beauty of screen adaptations of literature.
"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.
Facts of the Case
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)
• Disc 2: Colour Blind (1998)
• Discs 3 and 4: A Dinner of Herbs (2000)
• Disc 5: The Girl (1996)
• Disc 6: The Secret (2000)
• Disc 7: The Tide of Life (1996)
• Disc 8: Tilly Trotter (1998)
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.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
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.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
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