The Catherine Cookson Experience: “The Wingless Bird”

I fell off the wagon about these in a major way, didn’t I? And in the home stretch! Shame on me.

For those who are new since my last one (welcome!), a bit about the Catherine Cookson Experience. Catherine Cookson, author of historical potboilers, enjoyed a magnificent heyday between about 1995 and 1997, in which the BBC went NUTS for her and filmed approximately eight hundred of her books in an attempt to employ every actor from Great Britain, Scotland, and Ireland it could get its hands on, and also to use up a lot of sawed-off basketballs they needed to use to simulate pregnancy.

More than a year ago, in a fit of good judgment, I embarked on a quest to watch every Catherine Cookson movie ever filmed. As it turns out, that is very difficult, partly because there are so many of them, and partly because some of them are just the worst ever and involve a lot of asshole dads and/or men getting romantically interested in a girl he met when she was nine and/or a complete lack of anyone making sense. (…a cave? Really?)

It has been a long, long time since my last one (the delightfully cheeseball The Rag Nymph), and I’m not sure why. All I know is that I sat down this weekend and found myself reaching for one of my favorite Cooksons, and the next thing I knew, I had 50 screencaps, so I guess I’m back on the wagon! Let’s do this thing.

Note to all: these entries are inevitably huge and image-heavy. I didn’t use all fifty screencaps, but there are certainly 30something of them under this cut.

This is The Wingless Bird.

It’s different from many of the Cooksons because of its central family’s position in life (firmly middle-class, prosperous shopkeepers) and the frank (for Cookson) examination of class differences. That said, someone still gets beaten with a shovel and someone else dies of consumption, so, Cookson ahoy!

Vital Stats:

Era: 1913 and some years after.
Heroine: Agnes
Siblings that require looking-after: Jessie, her younger sister, who is dumb as a box of hair.
Illegitimate (Self or sibling): Check! Jessie’s as illegitimate as her judgment is questionable.
Asshole Father?: Possibly one of the jerkiest patriarchs in all of Cookson. He spends most of his time doing a Malcom McDowell impression.
Romantic interest(s): Charles Farrier, his brother Reginald. WHOOPS.
Bairnsketballs: Yup.
Fistfights: A shovel-beating and a shooting. Also, World War I, so there’s that.
Assaults: Not one! PROGRESS.

Under the cut: candy-store porn.

We open in this Dickensian candy-store wonderland some night relatively close to Christmas, as our heroine Agnes is getting shit from her father. (Leitmotif!)

She’s not having it.

Side note: Agnes is one of my favorite Cookson heroines, because she’s smart as a whip and, unlike many other Cookson heroines, keeps a level head in all situations, and does not take any shit about anything, ever, including her awful, awful dad.

Also, every time I mention she speaks with her father, what I mean is, it goes like this:

Him: Have we ordered more sugar?
Her: I asked you if you wanted me to, and you said no. I can now, if you want
Him: Why, you insolent hussy! HOW DARE YOU!
Her: If you strike me I’ll leave here forever and then who will run both your candy store and your tobacco store?
Him: …ten pounds of sugar is probably good. Insolent hussy.

He’s a prize.

One night, he goes to his Very Important Poker Game Full of Men-Types and leaves Agnes in charge of the store, which, incidentally, is seriously delightful:

There are about eight metric tons of sugar consumed by all actors in this. They probably hated it. It looks good to me.

Just before closing, Agnes is visited by a very nice lady and her brother, Duncan Idaho the Human Golden Retriever, who spends every moment of his screen time being as adorable as it’s possible to be.

They take a shine to each other, which they demonstrate by having a silent “Who Can Smile More Awkwardly” competition.

Ah, Brits in love!

On her way upstairs for the night, Agnes finds out that her sister, Jessie, is making out with her dockhand boyfriend Robbie in the backyard of their house, in full view of their jerkwad father and their bitter mother and whoever’s staying in the guest house (they have a guest house, you know how candy shops do).

And in fact their poker-drunk dad does catch her sneaking back in. Not to worry, though – clever Jessie has an excuse at the ready!

Nice one, Secret Agent Jessie.

But Dad doesn’t have time to worry about his daughter consorting with the lower classes – he’s late for an appointment to yell at his wife for being frigid, as Agnes finds out when she wanders by.

(Check out Mom’s face; Agnes came by her bitchface honestly.)

Dad: Why don’t you want to do the nasty?
Mom: Because you’re a drunk on your way home from your mistress’s place?
Dad: But that’s just what happens on Thursdays!
Mom: And I had to raise her daughter Jessie like she was mine!
Dad: You get so touchy about the slightest things!
Mom: Also you raped me, which is why I have no desire to sleep with you!
Dad: Man, what is your DEAL?

That awkward breakfast after you realize you’re in a Cookson novel.

But it’s okay, because Duncan Idaho has a huge crush on Agnes and comes back to see her to buy some cigars for no reason!

Brits in love!

He’s seriously in love, too. He’s so in love that he goes home and sits super, super close to his sister to tell her about his feelings.

…for that sugar mouse, or for Agnes, whichever.

Also present, and not super thrilled to hear his high-class brother is consorting with the counter-tending kind, is his brother Reginald.

(He’s supposed to be a big ladies’ man. I…will take their word for it.)

But Duncan and Agnes aren’t the only star-crossed lovers here! Jessie, who caught a case of bairnsketball, tells Robbie! Robbie, who is upstanding and adorable, vows to marry her!

Not pictured: the moment Dad finds out his little girl wants to marry some dockworker, and attacks the dockworker with a huge-ass shovel.

Agnes heads down to inform Robbie’s family of what’s happened. They sort of hate her for about two minutes, but then they realize she’s actually awesome and things go fine.

(Clearly, Jessie is not marrying the cutest Felton, since there’s a proto-McAvoy up there just waiting to deploy some serious Yearning Face.)

Back at home, Mom has come up with the genius plan that Agnes should get dressed in her super-fancy frock and go beg their second cousin or great-aunt or someone else Agnes has never seen to raise Jessie’s child as her own, because that will totally work even though this distant relative is extremely posh and the baby is the illegitimate offspring of a shopgirl and a dockworker.

(Agnes came by her bitchface honestly; her smarts are clearly a mutation.)

But still she suits up and goes to town, and meets the aunt, who treats her so terribly before she even gets a word in that she turns around and goes right back to town to kill time before the train.

But you know who’s stalking her hanging around in the same location being super-sweet and completely dismissing deeply-ingrained ideas of class? Duncan Idaho the human golden retriever is who! He literally jumps out of a boat to see her. I can’t even.

Turns out he wants to break away from the family money and just write about architecture for a living! (Of COURSE he does; your first serious boyfriend ALWAYS does.) And he’s so, SO excited to be able to introduce Agnes to his brother Reginald so Reginald can get to know her, as a potential sister-in-law, just in a friend way! It’s going to go great!

Okay, slow start, but they’ll get familial any minute!

Yeah, that’s going to end wonderfully.

However, Agnes doesn’t have time to think about nice, sweet Duncan Idaho and his smokin’-moustached brother. She has a sister to think about, and thanks to Duncan’s advice and it only being 1913, she knows you can sneak away and get an emergency marriage with some forged signatures, so she gets Jessie the Slightly Dim and Robbie the Symbol of the Ambitious but Morally-Upright Lower Class to sneak out under her parents’ noses.

Done! Goes off without a hitch! Things look good!

Then her dad, doing a truly magnificent Malcom McDowell impression that I could not screencap, shows up at Robbie’s house, shoots Agnes right in the arm, then has a heart attack and dies.

(This is a surprisingly simple demise for a Cookson bad guy. Usually Duncan Idaho would have had to slap him so he could fall down a flight of stairs, and then be run over by a car, and then buried in simple syrup, and THEN die.)

The bad news is: not a damn thing. That guy was a raping, screaming drunk shovel-beater and everyone is pleased as punch that he’s dead.

The good news is: Agnes inherits everything! Now she owns both stores, the candy factory, and the random guest house in the back! She’s rich as crap!

And she got a snazzy black sling for her shooting injury! Bonus.

Also a bonus: Duncan Idaho, still with his Pining Levels set to 11, who comes by to condole and proposes while he’s at it, because it’s 1913 and getting back and forth from places is a pain. You just propose whenever you can.

They’re thrilled.

Double-thrilled are his parents, who just love knowing their son is going to be marrying the daughter of Batshit Conway of Shoot-‘em-Up Lane.

You know who will be totally equally pissed about this for completely the same reasons and not at all have serious conflicts of interest about the whole thing?

The Reginator.

Here’s how that goes.

Reg: I know he loves you very much (just like meeee), but there are complications.
Agnes: You mean how his parents hate my guts for being middle-class and involved with the whole Shoot-‘em-Up Lane thing?
Reg: That’s it. (Gosh I love you.)
Agnes: Well, I told him as much, so until he works that shit out, I’m not even considering marrying him.
Reg: You’re a smart girl (who I love desperately).

Things seem to be quieting down until Duncan gets consumption from living in the damp garrett he moved into to spite his parents. (Actually happens.) Agnes treats him well, and wins his parents’ grudging respect about being totally boss, so they get to be engaged, but eventually Duncan has to go live with a nice family on a farm.

While he’s recuperating, Agnes finds herself dealing with economic turmoil, and also Jessie and Robbie living in the guest house, which sounds like it turns into a huge subplot but really it’s just Robbie learning to make candy.

Meanwhile, World War I is breaking out, mostly via bad performance art projected all over Reg’s face.

I find this weird mostly because a lot of the rest of the treatment of war seems much less anvilicious (for Cookson). We’ll assume a first-year film student got into the editing room at the last second.

During leave, Reg comes to visit Agnes, because he can’t stand the idea of visiting his parents and pretending everything is okay.

She does the best she can to be sympathetic and not put words in his mouth, and as he leaves, he lays the world’s longest cheek-kiss on her.

Your brother, Reg. Seriously. Think of your golden retriever!

Speaking of which, how is Duncan?

Sadly, he and his inexplicable boyband haircut are not long for this world. But they do have time to get married, and have a brief honeymoon before his parents die in a car crash (yikes) and Reg’s bunker suffers a direct hit (yiiiikes).

Reg survives, but when Duncan and Agnes come to visit him at his request, they find out that he lost an arm, and his face got torn up, and he has no plans to accept his inheritance and be the next Lord Whatshisface. He wants Duncan to do it instead. Duncan, completely unaware that he is not long for the world, agrees.

Then Agnes comes in against Reg’s wishes, the one thing she does in this miniseries that is not cool.

Reg agrees with me.

It doesn’t go well – she tries to say that it doesn’t matter because he’s the same person on the inside, and he emphatically explains he is no such thing, and everyone parts feeling completely awkward and unhappy. It’s as realistic as Cookson gets, but it’s not what you’d call a fun scene.

Still, Agnes and Duncan try to keep the house cheerful, and there’s this nice scene with everyone gathered to celebrate the bairnsketball’s second birthday.

Moments later, Duncan Idaho succumbs to the Spice. (Or consumption. Whatever.) He is as adorable in sickness as he ever was in health, but since there’s only about 20 minutes of miniseries left everyone knows this time the illness is really serious, and Agnes summons Reg to Duncan’s deathbed.

Here, a touching scene taking place on the bed, that the camera is clearly not interested in capturing whatsoever, since it’s just focusing on this dresser and fainting couch like they’re going out of style. (In retrospect, this camera was probably right.)

Since the camera is not helping us out with this, here’s the gist:

Duncan: Reg, you’re my beloved brother, and Agnes, you’re my beloved wife. And I want you to love each other when I’m gone.
Reg, about to be overcome with joy: …wait, how, specifically?
Duncan: *urk*

OH, SNAP.

Cut to mumblemumble years later, when Reg makes a habitual visit to the great house, where Agnes is sitting around being awesome all by her lonesome.

She is overjoyed to see Reg in a way that is clearly warm for his form, but he seems determined not to admit he likes her back. (Britsinlooove.)

To prove it to himself, he suggests they toast to friendship, saying, “They say Friendship is Love without his Wings,” which would be completely jerkbaggy except that he’s got his Yearning Face on.

Agnes, who has more sense than everyone else in this entire miniseries put together, is like, “Oh, for – I can’t toast to that, because the bird has grown wings, because I love you, okay? Do you read?”

Oh, girl, he reads so much he’s a librarian.

(Awesomely, because British law didn’t allow a man to marry his brother’s widow, they just decide to live in sin forever. Get it, Agnes.)

This one was monstrously long, sorry. I just really like this Cookson; the next few will be some of my least favorites, and will be shorter, mostly so I can knock them out at a decent clip and then wrap with the best Cookson of all time.

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