So, before we begin dissecting individual episodes, there are some things we need to talk about. They are not spoilers, per se; that would imply that knowing about them spoils how the plot will go, which implies that there is any plot to begin with, which is very sweet of you to think but not really so much what Catherine Cookson was good at. So these aren’t so much spoilers as they are ingredients; combining them in different ways produces different kinds of cookies in an unsurprising but delicious process.
Please be warned; some of Catherine’s favorite tropes are totally skeevy. I’ll label the episodes that have nasty goings-on, so those who would rather not deal can just skip.
On to the tropes!
Class Issues: Universal theme that more or less singlehandedly pilots the plot of every single one of these suckers. I have not seen a Cookson miniseries with fewer than three social classes in the mix. If she had a primary obsession, it would be this.
Illegitimate Bairns: If she had a secondary obsession, it would be this. Cookson’s heroines are a spectacularly fertile bunch. If you’re in one of her books, be warned – you fall on a peen just once and you are probably going to turn up with a bairn*. If the heroine isn’t having an illegitimate bairn of her own, she probably is one, or her sister’s having one, or she’s going to end up marrying one. (Hopefully when he’s older.)
* Note: All bairns are portrayed by half a basketball strapped to the heroine’s waist. Poor little bairnsketballs.
Oh, that’s not all.
Molestation: If she had a tertiary…well, you get it. Sure, it was a truth of the times that a woman’s virtue usually wasn’t safe out in the world, but Cookson has a level of butt-grabbing molesty tomfoolery that just never stops. This does not even include rape attempts and/or rapes. Oh, Cookson.
Siblings Who Need Looking After: There are some only children scattered about Cookson’s work, but more often than not, either the hero or the heroine is toting at least one sibling who Needs Looking After. If there’s only one sibling, he or she is probably a little simpleminded, or has consumption, or is expecting a bairnsketball. If there are a passel of kids, good luck with all THAT.
Asshole Dads: Man, are they assholes. Daughter-denouncing, people-slapping, money-wasting, drink-loving, suitor-beating assholes. Of all the ones I’ve seen, there is one nice dad. ONE. Oh, COOKSON.
Things that are not Catherine’s text, but are instead the responsibility of the filmmakers:
Amazing Casting: These miniseries are like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon trump cards. Link any UK actor to Kevin Bacon in only two Catherine Cookson movies! Jack Davenport, Ciaran Hinds, Sean Bean, Gillian Kearney, Ray Stevenson (twice!), Jane Horrocks, Justine Waddell, Juliet Aubrey, Claire Skinner, Emilia Fox, Ben Miles, Emily Mortimer, Brendan Coyle, Alec “Maud’Dib” Newman, Perdita Weeks, Edward Atterton, Lucy Cohu, one of the interchangeable Fox brothers, etc. They were not playing around in the 90s! Which is good, because it helps make up for:
Bizarre Filmmaking: I don’t know if it was just the aesthetics of the 90s or what, but some of these seem like they were shot by some dude with a concussion. Lots of stationary cameras and close-ups of bug-eyed staring and random cuts to unrelated sweeping vistas and lines like, “We’d better get out of this place, or there will be trouble,” followed by a shot of them in an entirely different place in what looks like a different season, and you’re just left to assume there was, in fact, no trouble. Then you get a shot from inside a hovel that’s so dark nothing registers. Whether or not there is trouble in the hovel, you get to sort of decide on your own!
There are other things that have to be discussed (costumes, oh, costumes), but I figure by now you know what you’re in for. Tomorrow, recaps begin, along with some of the most hilariously bad-quality screencaptures ever made.