Friday, February 3, 2012


(This post is part of a series on the 14 Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen)

We begin our countdown of The Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen with Number 14, Cadfael. I came into this series cold, knowing nothing other than Derek Jacobi starred in the title role as a detective. Having recalled Jacobi from his outstanding performance as the Emperor Claudius in I,Claudius”, I would have tuned in to watch him read the phone book, so I knew I had to watch “Cadfael”.

Cadfael is a Welsh monk in the Middle Ages who manages to become entangled in mysteries. Think Sherlock Holmes with a cowl in a monastery in medieval England. The series is based on 21 books by Ellis Peters, who was actually a woman named Edith Pargeter (1913-1995). Brother Cadfael found his calling as a monk late in life, providing him a deeper characterization than his peers at Shrewsbury Abbey. He had been a soldier in the Crusades, a sailor, and now, 20 years later, he has entered the Rule of Saint Benedict in the Abbey of St. Peter and Paul. He is a healer and a man of peace, but unlike his brothers, has killed men. As he puts it: “I have seen death in many shapes, I've been a soldier and a sailor in my time; in the east, in the Crusade, and for ten years after Jerusalem fell. I've seen men killed in battle. Come to that, I've killed men in battle. I never took joy in it, that I can remember, but I never drew back from it either... [Now] I grow herbs and dry them and make remedies for all the ills that visit us... To heal men, after years of injuring them? What could be more fitting?

Peters wrote, “My monk had to be a man of wide worldly experience and an inexhaustible fund of resigned tolerance for the human condition. His crusading and seafaring past, with all its enthusiasms and disillusionments, was referred to from the beginning. Only later did readers begin to wonder and ask about his former roving life, and how and why he became a monk.”

Described as “a compassionate seeker of truth and justice in chaotic medieval England,” Brother Cadfael is a man of God, a man of science, and when necessary, a man of action. As an herbalist, the medieval monk applies his knowledge of herbs to his deductive reasoning to solve murders. A skillful observer of human nature, Cadfael finds himself cast in the role of doctor, medical examiner, detective, and diplomat. Since he became a monk late in life, Cadfael is more familiar than his brethren with the secular world beyond the monastery gates and his modern, pragmatic attitudes and progressive ethics often conflict with his superior Prior Robert (Michael Culver) and Robert's annoying lackey Brother Jerome (Julian Firth).

Set in the 12th century, between 1135 and 1145 during the battle between King Stephen and Empress Maud for the English throne, Cadfael is historical fiction. The show ran for four seasons, broadcast in the U.S. on the PBS series Mystery! Each episode was 75 minutes and drew from the novels.

Below, you'll find links to the show's listings at the Internet Movie Database,, an episode guide, a fan Web site, a clip from the series hosted on YouTube, and a link to purchase the DVDs on Amazon. The clip I've chosen is from the episode "Virgin in the Ice" and we find Brother Cadfael meeting Olivier de Bretagne, a Syrian-born squire, who describes his origins and the father he's never met. He explains his mother's glowing description led him to embrace his father's Christian heritage instead of her Islamic faith. As the boy asks if Cadfael knew his father during the Crusades, Cadfael slowly realizes Olivier's mother Mariam was his lover from his time in the Crusades in Jerusalem, and that the youth before him is his son.

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