It’s been a rough week, here at Frock Flicks HQ. The urge to crawl into a hole and never come out is strong, but yet, we must persevere. There are costume flicks to watch, blog posts to write, and snark to be snarked! So, rather than dwell on the bullshit that is Real Life, let’s delve into the comforting embrace of one’s favorite beverage of choice and curl up with classic British miniseries, Cadfael (1994-1998).
Apparently, just mentioning Cadfael in a recent post made it abundantly clear that there are quite a few of you out there who also love this show as much as I do. Are the costumes good? Not particularly. But the scripts, the direction, and the actors (especially Derek Jacobi) make you utterly forget that fact. And on the drive in to work this morning, I was thinking about a post Kendra did a few years ago, Why Jane Austen Movies Are My Comfort Object, that detailed the reasons why she returns to Jane Austen films over and over. Thinking about it, I realized that the Cadfael miniseries is that exact thing for me.
So, what about the show makes it my comfort object? Let’s explore the following ways…
Cadfael takes place in the Middle Ages
I have a very strong positive association with the Middle Ages that I think has something to do with having spent over half of my life concocting elaborate escapist fantasies around this particular historical period (i.e., being a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism).
For those who may not be familiar with this classic British mystery series (which was a staple on PBS’ Mystery! stateside), Cadfael is based on a series of novels by Ellis Peters, and refers to the eponymous hero of the series, Brother Cadfael, a mid-12th-century Welsh monk living in Shrewsbury during the period of English history known as “The Anarchy.” One of my favorite periods of English history, the Anarchy basically tore England into two warring factions: Those who supported the direct succession of Henry’s sole living child, Empress Maud; and those who supported Maud’s cousin, Stephen, who was Henry’s next male living descendant. When the series begins, Stephen is on the throne, although precariously so — especially in the border town of Shrewsbury which has many nobles declaring support for Maud, who is now in hiding in France.
Cadfael, a man in his mid-fifties at the start of the series, was “some forty-years in the world” before taking vows — he fought, and achieved some renown, as a soldier in the First Crusade, spent time in the Holy Land afterward, and learned a thing or three about herbs in the process. He’s a keen observer of humanity, which serves him well when troubles arise in and around Shrewsbury Abbey.
Don’t get me wrong, I would never want to actually live during this period … But something about it conceptually just feels so … homey.
Cadfael stars Derek Jacobi
I’m not the only person in my household that has a rampant crush on Derek Jacobi (I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the cat). Seriously, he’s a delight to watch in any role, big or small.
Cadfael has a pretty bitchin’ soundtrack
That is, if you like Gregorian chants and pseudo Medieval music. Which I do.
Cadfael takes place in England
And I am nothing, if not an an unabashed Anglophile.
Cadfael is uncomplicated
Don’t mistake me, I’m not saying the show is dumbed down or facile. What I mean is that it is a show that manages to be captivating without laying on the gritty realism or the anxiety-provoking cliff-hangers that are super common in mystery shows these days. You know that Brother Cadfael is going to be charming and clever and fix everything in the end, no matter what happens.
It’s the perfect mystery show for people with anxiety disorders, in other words.
I have no idea why, but smarmy, bitchy little Brother Jerome just delights me to no end. It’s also worth pointing out that the smug little shit is played by Julian Firth, brother to known-historical-film-stud Colin Firth.
My other favorite brother is sweet-natured and guileless Brother Oswin, Cadfael’s sidekick of sorts. His role gets expanded and considerably darker as the show goes on, which gives a nice dimensionality to him that Jerome lacks. Jerome is just a lackey, but Oswin has layers.
Avice of Thornbury
Basically, the female version of Cadfael. She’s direct, honest, and is definitely experienced when she decides to take the veil. She’s only in two episodes, but she manages to make the most of it.
As a show, Cadfael only has two major flaws … first, the costumes:
The costumes are in no real way historically accurate, especially once you look past the monks and start paying attention to the secular characters. The women’s costumes in particular are really weak, especially for the nobility. As with most shows set pre-15th-century, I get it … The early-middle ages are a hard period to costume because, first of all, there’s not a lot of visual documentation that is easy to understand; and two, what can be gleaned from manuscripts can look pretty boring to modern eyes. That said, if the series wasn’t as strong in every other area, I would be a lot less forgiving of the costuming.
The women’s costumes are … well… they’re a mash up of vaguely medieval and fantasy and a lot of modern upholstery.
Second, the endless recasting of Hugh Beringer:
Cadfael’s right hand man, Sheriff Hugh Beringar, is played by no less than three different actors throughout the run of the series. I hate it when shows do this, but I understand that Hugh is pretty integral to the stories, and to write him off the show would mean messing with the perfection that is Ellis Peters’ novels. Still, it’s jarring to see Sean Pertwee, Eoin McCarthy, and Anthony Green in the same role, especially when you’re binge-watching. None of these actors look anything like one another, and honestly, only Sean Pertwee is of any caliber close to Derek Jacobi.
Season One Hugh Beringer: Sean Pertwee
Seasons 2 and 3 Hugh Beringer: Eoin McCarthy
Season 4 Hugh Beringer: Anthony Green
The bad costuming and the fact that Hugh Beringer might be a Time Lord aside, I still find myself reaching for this show whenever I need to feel better about life. Pro Tip: If you have Amazon Video, it’s currently available through the BritBox subscription.
Do you find Cadfael comforting too?
Cadfael is my Aloysius. I simply love the books, and Sir Derek is perfectly cast as Brother Cadfael. Sean Pertwee looks alot like Outlander’s Tobias that I did a double take. But yes, he’s the best of the three for Hugh Beringer.
And yes, the costumes are meh. But I still prefer them to the atrocity of The White Queen and it’s Satan spawn, The White Princess.
Didn’t you know that the Bobby Pin Shortage began in France during the time of Heloise and Abelard?😁
Satan’s Spawn! +; Literally, I refuse to watch The White Princess after the Travesty that was The White Queen. It doesn’t take much effort to improve on that nonsense, to be honest.
I had to force myself to continue watching once Sean Pertwee was gone; I simply couldn’t believe in the other Hughs.
Just looked up Sean Pertwee in Wikipedia. Hugh is only listed in Filmography. Not under known for. Pity.
I’m so happy to find that I’m not the only Hugh Beringar fan! And yes, I’ve been turning back to Cadfael a lot lately.
I went to the Pride parade in NYC a few years back, right after Obergefell so it was a very joyous occasion already. Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi were both parade grand marshalls, and when Sir Ian rode by, everyone in the crowd went crazy … then when Sir Derek rode by, the crowd quieted a little – I’m not sure everyone knew who he is, exactly – but there I was over on the sidewalk just screaming my head off, making a fool of myself. It was wonderful seeing him in person though. :)
I remember seeing those photos & those two were SO AMAZING. How cool that you were there in person!!! <3 <3 <3
Their silence was in awe and respect for the incredibly talented and majestic Mr. Jacobi. obviously.
I was a history major in college. My favorite professor invited students over every weekend, and we worked through several historical TV shows. We did Foyle’s War- Michael Kitchen is everything- and we did Cadfael. I liked Cadfael so much, I bought the DVD set. And you’re right, Sean Pertwee is the only Hugh worth his salt.
I had a crush on “the first Hugh Beringar” as a tween/teen, but never bothered to look up who the actor was. Now I know!
He’s the son of Jon Pertwee, who was the third Doctor. He’s a better actor than his father was, though.
He’s currently playing Alfred in Gotham.
HEY!!!! no knocks against the Doctor!!!! Jon Pertwee was a very good actor, you can only do so much with the script you’re given.
Went to Shrewsbury. It was all right there, as described. Lots of old, old buildings. The abbey surprised me by being red – I’d always envisioned it whiter. Went on a walking tour of the area, including the Meole Brook.
In high school, I used to stay up late to watch Cadfael. I was very cool.
In fact, just re-watched CADFAEL start to finish. I have agreed with myself to ignore the Hugh shifts, the sometimes weird costuming choices of fabrics and colors and styles. Derek Jacobi makes up for all.
While I’ve got you here, I have to say I have not been reading here much of late. It’s the snark. There is so much of it in the world these days, I just don’t have tolerance for more. But I still value the costuming information and examples, so I save them as a resource.
Really love this series. The opening credits/theme were enough to hook me for life. Many intriguing hints of Cadfael’s PAST–even a love child from his warrior days, whom he meets briefly. The son he might have raised–very poignant. And, yes, Team Pertwee! (his dad was one of the Doctors–don’t know which #)
Sadly, not a lot of film choices in that period. My favorite is “A Lion in Winter.” All your comments also apply to it–superb, with a few warts. I blush to admit that I also love “El Cid”–if you don’t mind Hollywood Goes Medieval too much (Sophia Loren as a Spanish noblewoman!). To Ms. Staples: try IMDB for movie info. It lists casts down to the “second crusader on horse” kind of thing, plus trivia, goofs, quotes and locations. And anachronisms! My go-to, very thorough.
Jon Pertwee was the Third Doctor. :)
Hugh Beringer is a Time Lord…. and was first played by the son of the Third Doctor. This just amuses me to no end.
I was hoping someone would pick up on that. ;)
Also, Derek Jacobi played one of the incarnations of The Master.
I love Cadfael so much that my answer to those “where would you live if you could live anywhere” questions is always Shrewsbury.
I am glad that most people agree with me that Sean Pertwee is the One True Hugh Berenger.
As someone who has done a lot of clothing for this era in the SCA, it’s NOT that hard to get right. It’s just “boring” for people who think medieval = Renaissance Faires. So yes, I am deeply disappointed in a lot of the female clothing in Cadfael.
Meanwhile, anyone else wanna write some Avice of Thornbury fan fic? :-)
I would if I could write. But sadly, I’m not a writer. But I would read it.
Way back when, I watched an episode of Brother Cadfael back in the day and misremembered it as The Name of the Rose. I’m now curious what would happen if the two had a baby.
I forgot how much I loved this for a few years (back when the VHS tapes were like $100 a set), then saw the entire series for cheap on Amazon, bought it… and now I can’t go literally a week without a craving for Cadfael. It’s just that good.
Sean Pertwee is my favorite Hugh, too. A friend met him at Comic Con last year, and said out of an entire line of GOTHAM hipsters, she was the only one to slap down a copy of her favorite Cafael book and asked him to sign it. He was damn near moved, and told her why he had to leave the show — and how much he did not want to (stupid other commitments… forever robbing us of the BEST Hugh). The other day, her cat ran past with a Cadfael book COVER in its mouth, and she freaked out for twelve seconds until she realized he HADN’T torn up her Sean Pertwee copy. Hahaha.
No crush on Derek Jacobi is bad. Just saying. I give a dorky little fangirl squeal whenever he shows up in unexpected places. (Didn’t they slap a horrible bald cap on him and force him into a minor role in The King’s Speech a few years back? Of course, I was so Traumatized(TM) from seeing Anthony Andrews as the Prime Minister — wow, dude, what happened to my Percy? You must stay YOUNG FOREVER — to really process it at the time.)
Why yes, I have had caffeine today, thanks for noticing.
I WOULD DIE IF I GOT TO MEET SEAN PERTWEE
I too love this series, and especially the gorgeous Sean Pertwee. Myself and husband-at-the-time went on holiday to Shrewsbury in 1995 on the strength of watching the first season, and we were not disappointed. One of the attractions, close to the abbey, was called ‘Shrewsbury Quest’ – solving a Cadfael murder mystery by searching the buildings and looking for clues. Sadly now closed and long gone!
Talk about a dream holiday activity, so sad that it is no more!
I think the building is still there, now used for the Shropshire Wildlife Trust. I passed it when I was last there, about 8 years ago.
I truly adore Derek Jacobi but his silvery elegance is dead wrong for Cadfael, just as tall fair haired Sean Pertwee is wrong as Hugh Berringar. I could forgive that but the horrible things they did in ‘adapting’ the books turned me off forever.
I am soooo happy you posted this!! I love Cadfael and have since I was about 12. Derek Jacobi is so marvelous! A few years ago I got to see him play Lear. Amazing.
And Brother Jerome is my favorite!!! Ahhh he cracks me up. I didn’t realize he was Colin’s brother. That makes it so much better. Thanks for writing this one!!
Saw the show, went across the street to the library and checked out all the books, and started seriously considering joining the SCA for the first time. I also have a Brother Cadfael herbal/gardening book.
I think Colin Firth’s brother is Jonathan Firth, not Julian. Crispin Bonham Carter (Mr Bingley in 1995 P&P) appears in a Cadfael episode – The Rose Rent.
Jonathan was also in an episode, though, wasn’t he? The Leper of St. Giles, I think?
Yes, you are right bshaurette. Colin’s brother Jonathan Firth was in episode 3 of season 1.
Susanna, I came here to state the very same thing. Julian Firth (brother Jerome aka “punchable face”) is NOT a brother of Colin Firth. They were both born in 1960 and are NOT related. Colin has only 1 bother who is indeed called Jonathan Firth (also an actor) who was born in 1967. They have 1 sister called Katie Firth (who is a voice coach).
I loved Cadfael when it first in 1994. And found it on YouTube, just the other day. So now I’m trying not to binge watch the whole 4 seasons in one go. 😁
I love Cadfael! I have the boxset and I love the soundtrack too
Thanks for this posting–loved this show. No, it is Julian, not Jonathan Firth (though check out Jonathan in Middlemarch, from 199something–feckless and adorable); you can see him in hip 1950’s gear in Absolute Beginners (I want to live in this movie’s vision of London!) and as the incredibly icky Mr. Soames in Clarissa (which you should watch anyway because of Sean Bean AND Sean Pertwee as best friends). And I hope you all have seen the wonderful Jacobi in two amazingly costumed Dickensian films–Little Dorrit (way better than the recent one w/Claire Foy and Matthew McFadyen) and The Fool–both directed by Christine Edzard. Her sense of period detail is immaculate. The Fool is much harder to find, but it’s a story of a nobody clerk who creates an alter ego of the urbane Sir John. Loved it. Think I’ll go now and watch it again.
I love Derek Jacobi too but he’s much too elegant and handsome for Cadfael. And not one of Hugh’s actors is short, slim and dark as he is.
I adore Cadfael. Its literally one of my favourite historical dramas of all time, but I must agree about the costumes and Hugh Beringar. Also, Cadfael is not nearly Welsh enough, and there are some other dodgy scenes.
Otherwise though, I freaking love Cadfael, because its about the best depictions of herbalism in the Middle Ages that I have ever seen. Any other series would have some stupid anachronism with a ‘wise woman’ and everyone running around screaming ‘witch’ because she plucked some Sage or set a bone.
Also, its one of the only Medieval series that accurately distinguishes between priests and monks.
One of my absolute pet hates is when characters in historical dramas make confession to monks, or refer to them as ‘priest’ or ‘father’. If you’re going to have characters from the clergy, at least get their roles and positions right, for the love of Pete. Its so lazy and annoying when they don’t.
The Cadfael series makes me scream/laugh! It is absolutely awful compared to the books. Stories are dumbed down or changed, some actors are horribly miscast, including Derek Jacobi as Cadfael.. or no, maybe to be fair he was badly directed, there are too many times he is stuttering, exasperated, disapproving, compared to the mellow, experienced and forgiving (not to mention Welsh) Cadfael of the books. The relationship between Hugh and Cadfael, don’t get me started.
However, I have to give credit to Michael Culver as Prior Robert, and Julian Firth as Brother Jerome. They stand out as the two really well cast and pertrayed… the two that I see in my mind when I read the books.
I love the books, and years ago a friend gave me the first vhs set. . . and what the screenwriters did to one of my favorites, The Pilgrim of Hate (changing an actual beautifully done miracle for someone having been faking their disability the whole time) – well, that annoyed me so much, I refused to watch the rest. I’ll just re-read the series.