Between 1977 and 1994, Edith Pargeter (writing as Ellis Peters) penned twenty novels featuring the Crusader turned Benedictine monk Brother Cadfael. The Cadfael novels were set during the early part of the 12th Century, a period when England was divided by a bitter civil war fought between the Empress Maud and King Stephen.
Whilst the Cadfael Chronicles didn’t invent the historical genre of detective fiction (Peter Lovesey’s Victorian detective Sergeant Cribb, for example, first appeared in 1970) it’s fair to say that Peters’ books encouraged other writers to try their hand with historical detectives and the last thirty years have seen something of a boom in this genre.
The character of Cadfael himself is undoubtedly one of the reasons for the continuing appeal of Peters’ novels. When we first meet him, he’s a man in his early sixties and is obviously someone who’s lived a full and rich life before deciding that the world of the cloister was for him. Prior to this, he had been both soldier and sailor, fighting in the Holy Land.
His knowledge of the outside world tends to give him a broader outlook than many of his brothers (some of whom have little knowledge of life outside of the cloister) and his independent spirit tends to bring him in conflict with Prior Robert (as well as his obsequious shadow, Brother Jerome).
With such rich source material, it was inevitable that radio and television adaptations would follow. On radio, Cadfael has been portrayed by both Glyn Houston and Philip Madoc, whilst thirteen of the novels were adapted for the Carlton series, broadcast between 1994 – 1998, which starred Derek Jacobi.
For lovers of the original novels, the Carlton series can be a frustrating watch at times. Some stories are more faithful to the original source material than others, but it’s true that all of them lose out somewhat in the transfer from the printed page to the screen. Partly, this is unavoidable, as one of Ellis Peters’ strengths was her deft descriptive ability.
It’s hard to replicate her atmospheric prose style on screen (the radio adaptations retained it with the use of a narrator) so this ensures that all the television versions lack a little something. Also, Peters herself never made the claim that she was the greatest whodunnit writer – and after you’ve read a few of her stories, a pattern becomes obvious.
Most of them feature a young man and woman who meet and fall in love – but we see that their potential union is threatened (usually because the man is either suspected of the murder or is being hunted by the authorities for some other reason). You can tell that Peters was always kindly disposed towards them and eventually Cadfael is able to unmask the true murderer and see the pair off to safety. Other crime-writers (like Agatha Christie) would have been far more ruthless and nobody could be ruled out as a suspect (even the young lovers).
So if the mysteries aren’t always the strongest and the Carlton series could never hope to replicate the atmosphere of the novels, it was therefore essential to cast a strong actor in the role of Cadfael. Derek Jacobi, of course, fits the bill nicely. He’s never less than totally compelling and his commitment to the part is clear.
One Corpse Too Many was the second Cadfael novel, but it was the first set in Shrewsbury and also the first to feature Hugh Beringar, so it was an obvious choice to launch the series with. The first six minutes or so are rather stilted, but when Cadfael makes his first appearance things pick up instantly.
It’s a very efficient introduction for the character, as it clearly demonstrates exactly who he is, who he was and what he stands for. Cadfael is castigated by Prior Robert (Michael Culver) and Brother Jerome (Julian Firth) for his late attendance at Vespers. Cadfael explains that the Abbot gave him leave, as he was tending the sick. For Robert, devotions come first and the secular world is a very distant second. Cadfael has completely the opposite view – whilst he accepts his duties as a Benedictine monk, he also considers they have an equal duty to the world at large. This difference of opinion will drive much of the tension between Cadfael and Robert for the rest of the series.
Immediately after, we see Cadfael disarm a solider who had been attacking an unarmed man. It’s a moment invented for the series, but it works well as another shorthand moment to demonstrate that Cadfael is not only a man who will stand up for the underdog, but he also has the skills to do it.
The success of Inspector Morse in 1987 had an impact on all ITV crime series that followed in its wake. Before it aired, the two-hour (100 minutes excluding adverts) slot was seen as a risk. Until then, drama had tended to be broadcast in a one-hour (50 minutes excluding adverts) slots. Morse proved that audiences would stay with a two-hour drama if it was good enough, and many series that followed (the revived Van Der Valk, A Touch of Frost, etc) followed suit.
Cadfael had a ninety minute slot (75 minutes excluding adverts). This was quite unusual and it’s something of a comprise, I think. Had the novels been compressed to 50 minutes then far too much would have been lost, but there seems to have been concerns that 100 minutes would have stretched the material too far. One Corpse Too Many manages to be a reasonably faithful adaptation, but for those familiar with the leisurely original novel, it does tend to move at a breakneck speed.
The story opens with the aftermath of the siege of Shrewsbury. The town had declared its loyalty for the Empress Maud, but King Stephen’s forces were too strong and afterwards the King is totally ruthless – calling for all the rebels at the castle to be hanged.
Cadfael and the other brothers are given the grim task of preparing the ninety-four hanged men for burial. But as he counts the bodies he becomes perplexed – there are ninety-five and one of the corpses was clearly not hanged. He appears to have been killed and then placed with the others in the hope that nobody would spot the extra body. But Cadfael does, and he’s intent on bringing the murderer to justice.
One of the less successful parts of this adaptation is the introduction of Godric, who’s a young lad brought to help Cadfael. This isn’t really the fault of the programme though, as it’s plainly obvious that Godric isn’t a lad at all – she’s actually Godith (Juliette Caton), daughter of the rebel Fulke Adeney. In the book, Godric’s deception lasts a little longer (although not much) but here, Cadfael unmasks her instantly. Characteristically, Cadfael doesn’t give her away – he has no allegiance to either Maud or Stephen, as he answers to a higher authority.
There seems to be a lot of dubbing in this story. Juliette Caton appears to be dubbed throughout as does Maggie O’Neill as Aline Siward. It’s possible to accept that smaller parts (such as the boy who appears at the end) might have been played by played by local actors (the series was shot in Budapest) who were then dubbed at a later date, but it’s hard to understand why some naturally-speaking English actors were dubbed. It’s a little distracting, especially when the two of them share a brief scene!
One Corpse Too Many is the only television story in which Aline Siward appears. She’s another casualty of the streamlining process – in the books she marries Hugh Beringar following the conclusion of the adventure and the pair become Cadfael’s close friends. Here, she vanishes, never to be seen again.
But Hugh Beringar does turn out to be a close ally of Cadfael’s in the years ahead, although to begin with he appears to be an enemy. Sean Pertwee played Beringar during series one (he was unavailable for the second series, so the role was recast). It’s a pity that he didn’t remain as there’s a nice rapport between him and Jacobi. The opening story puts Hugh in the middle of the action – he’s hunting for the treasure which was spirited away by the rebels (and Cadfael fears he’s also hunting for Godith). But Cadfael comprehensively outwits him and Beringar admits, without rancour, that he’s been bested (although it’s a pity that we don’t see him burst out with laughter when he realises that what he believes to be the bag of treasure contains nothing but rocks, as per the novel).
Although the story sometimes suffers from having to fit into the 75 minute format, it’s still a decent enough adaptation which benefits enormously from Derek Jacobi’s performance as the wise and wily ex-warrior monk.