So, here’s the deal: Part of me always wanted to save the best Cookson for last. However, the moment comes in your life when you realize you are just never going to make it through A Dinner of Herbs, and if I waited for that to happen before I did The Moth, this entry would be dated sometime in 2017. So, let’s just end 2011 on a high note, with the very best Cookson of them all: The Moth!
The Moth is actually where all this rigmarole got started in the first place: my friend Eileen, who knows from period pieces, brought The Moth over on a visit on a lark, thinking we’d watch it a little and then hang out and actually do something in New York. That was foolish, obviously, because as soon as we finished that one I was looking for the next one. Also, it turns out we accidentally started with the best one, which made the rest of the Catherine Cookson Experience sort of a slide downhill? Not that I hold that against Eileen at all; I think the only way to handle Cookson is to start with a nice one, because if you open with The Tide of Life the entire thing sort of becomes a non-starter.
However, that does nothing to diminish the fun of this puppy, where things are good and/or good to make fun of, which is the ideal combination for a great time in a Cookson, I feel.
Heroine: Robert Bradley and Sarah Thorman, who deserve equal billing here, I think. He’s a ship-builder who loves to read and feels social injustice keenly! She’s a lady of the manor with budding feminist feelings! Together, they fight crime.
Siblings that require looking-after: Millie, Sarah’s younger sister, who has Peculiar Yet Winsome on speed dial.
Illegitimate (Self or sibling): Somebody sure is!
Asshole Father?: This thing is an Asshole Father-Off, and competition is fieeerce.
Romantic interest(s): Each other! Marvelously. In a way that makes you want to bang their dolls together almost as much as they do.
Fistfights: Oh gosh. Definitely a few fights, including one instance of someone getting attacked by a carpentry implement to the face.
Assaults: None! It’s a Christmas miracle!
Under this cut, endless glee. Also, endless pictures, sorry.
So, the setting for this one means that it covers a lot. There are pubs as the centers of political debate, the rise of industrial employment and urban living leading up to and during the war, and some low-level feminism. But mostly it’s an adorable love story, and some of the usual plot soup that Cookson does so much.
Also, as per usual, this is a DVD of a recording made when someone held a pin camera up to a VCR recording, so the quality of the screencaps is iffy, and occasionally there is just nothing doing in terms of legible screencaps. It’s all part of the charm of Cookson.
This is Robert Bradley, intellectual and forward-thinking ship builder!
And everyone in this picture will make his life miserable.
It’s his uncle, his aunt, and his cousin Carrie, who have come to help him bury his father, and to offer him a job in their country town far away from the bustle of the shipyards. For some reason, Robert thinks this is a good idea, even though his uncle is clearly a totalitarian religious nut who completely sucks and Robert is a man who can own property and has a perfectly decent living, and is generally not a dummy except when he has to have occasional lapses of judgment for plot purposes, I guess.
Upshot: Time to get some tweed and head for the country!
The lapses of judgment continue as he starts to date villager Nancy, despite the fact that when he meets her she is wearing this hat, which could not be a more up-front sign that something is terribly wrong.
But that subplot is almost immediately cast aside, when Robert goes for his nightly 35-mile constitutional and ends up at the right lake at the right time to meet a young lady who scares him shitless by just appearing out of the night like some asshole.
(She’s The Moth! I know it’s super tangential to the major plot, I didn’t name the thing.)
The young lady, Millie, is quickly discovered by stick-wielding butler Filch and Sarah, Millie’s older sister, who keeps Filch from getting into it with Robert and then informs him with Older Sister Face that he’s trespassing.
Robert’s like, “Yeah, I’m completely sorry for trespassing at Millie Scares The Pants Off You Bay.” Meanwhile, Sarah has realized that Robert is being played by Jack Davenport and is dreamy.
(Get used to this. They stare at each other A LOT.)
Once all the municipal land ordinances are settled, everyone returns to things as normal. Robert heads home to his awful family and the cousin whose extracurricular activities he has to cover for before his shithead uncle beats her to death.
Sarah, meanwhile, makes her way back to the big house and her milquetoast fiancÃ© and nasty abusive-drunk father and doormat mother and a forced piano recital.
(Everyone in this picture will make her life miserable.)
In fact, they waste no time making her life worse – her mother succumbs to Lady-itis, leaving Sarah behind with her drunk-ass dad and a pile of letters she gives Sarah about how Millie isn’t her father’s daughter, but her mother’s LOVAH’S DAUGHTER.
(In case you couldn’t tell Sarah’s mom was unhappy, they had her cry in front of a window where it’s raining as she writes her letters, which all sound like, “My Dearest Darling, how I wish I was banging you instead of hanging out here amongst the landed gentry! Your illegitimate daughter continues well, and I love her way, WAY better than my older daughter. Kisses.”)
While Sarah is off dealing with things way better than could ever be expected and running the house and being cool, Robert is having kind of a time of it. Perhaps tired of her bizarre hat collection, he breaks up with Nancy:
They stand in front of that tractor business the entire time, and it runs the ENTIRE TIME, so that halfway through their breakup, as he’s shouting over the motor that he can’t be tied down, not by her or ANYONE, both of them are slowly engulfed in a thin grey film. Excellent planning, everyone!
However, Tractor Lung is the least of Robert’s problems, since when he comes home he finds out Carrie has a case of Bairnsketball and since he covered for her the night she was out late, he is Private Enemy Number One. He denies being the father, even as his aunt screams that he is, he is, can’t he stand up for his cousin, and you understand why, especially as Uncle Shithead gets more and more upset, but you also understand Robert’s need to extricate himself from this entire quagmire of awful choices, but not before Uncle Shithead gets him right in the brainpan with a chisel. (It’s even darker and blurrier than the rest of this miniseries, so screencaps were just not going to happen.)
When he recovers from Ye Olde Reality Showe, he realizes that in order to get work he’ll have to apply up at the Big House. (Also he thinks Sarah is pretty, but we’re not at a point where either of these jerks is going to admit something like that to themselves.)
Sarah is not super happy with him because something he offhandedly told Millie means Millie has been diving for invisible sixpence in the dirt and knocking over Sarah’s awful fiancÃ©, etc. Robert, realizing he’s on thin ice, applies a little of the ol’ Davenport.
(It really is kind of delightful how Angry Butler is like WE DO NOT HAVE A JOB FOR LADY-MAKE-OUTERS and Sarah is like, “Make out, you say? Sure we do.” and Angry Butler is Not Pleased. This begins the leitmotif of supporting characters marveling at how much these two want to bang faces.)
Robert gets the job, and tries to settle in to being subservient in a household, when his carpentry skills have meant, in the past, that he can make his own terms. It’s interesting!
But, not as interesting as Sarah barging into her dad’s office demanding he sober up and stop buying jewelry for his mistress (of course) and pay this stack of bills already, at which point he cracks her across the face (of COURSE).
Robert, working nearby, does not think that was cool Whatsoever and checks in on her. Because he is the best and they are the best, he respects her wish to be left alone, and just lets the housekeeper, Mrs. Angry Butler, know what’s up, so that some half-decent parenting can happen.
The semi-happy family! (Mr. Angry Butler ends up going way off the rails, and it’s especially sad considering that at this point he and Mrs. Angry Butler are basically the only parents Sarah and Millie ever had, and even then they’re so powerless that Sarah is basically alone inside. Except for the hot new guy, but we’ll get there.)
To illustrate this even more sharply, Sarah decides that since the house is probably going under, she’s going to appeal to her fiancÃ© to let her and Millie live on the cottage on his hunting grounds, take the surrogate parents with her, and get the hell out of this whole scene.
However, when she shows up at Downton Abbey, he’s playing tennis with some other woman! Being British, we all know what THAT means.
He tries to tell her she misinterpreted their friendship. She handles it as long as she can (Her: “James, we’ve been engaged for three years.” Him: “…”), but finally she flings his diamond ring at him so hard she cuts his mouth open (yikes), and heads out into the field for a nice primal scream and a breakdown.
Luckily, Robert is there to literally pick her off the ground and then hold her close to console her, like you do with that employer you haven’t known very long.
When Sarah informs the household that she’s not going to be relieving them of the burden of the one responsible person in the entire house, everyone’s thrilled.
Gormless brother Rupert Penry-Jones is especially thrilled.
Meanwhile, Robert becomes Millie’s best friend ever, and settles in with the downstairs folks, including sassy maid Maggie and grumpy stableman Greg, who also have crushes on each other and are like the kittens of people.
Things are fairly quiet until Drunk Dad decides Millie is the cause of all their problems and he should drown her (YIKES).
Luckily, Angry Butler is on the scene!
Look, an actual murder captured on film in a Cookson! He throws the guy into the river, and the guy dies! (This makes one of the very few Cooksons with direct cause-and-effect with regard to death. Usually butlers push people into rivers, and then piranhas attack them, and then they get pneumonia, and THEN they die.)
Robert shows up in time to be helpful, at which point he runs home and breaks the news to Sarah just the way you do to the employer you have and want to maintain appropriate relations with.
Her reaction is perfect (Angry Butler: “I’m sorry!” Her: “Don’t be.”), everything is covered up neatly, and things cruise along pleasantly at home while they wait for the financial anvil to fall.
That awkward moment where the guy you have a crush on is showing some other girl his workhorse, and it’s not a euphemism.
But tensions escalate, and when Rupert Penry Jones insults Maggie and Maggie cries about it, Sarah gets an attack of the Unreasonable Interference and barges in.
HOW TO HAVE A ROMANCE MOVIE ARGUMENT: A DIAGRAM
1. Barge in demanding explanations! Freeze on an inexplicably funny face.
2. Close the object of your affections in with you, manfully yet without excessive force.
3. …Because you’re saving the excessive force to press her up against a wall and explain yourself in a husky voice as she has Every Feeling All At Once.
4. Aim for Phantom of the Opera lighting, if at all possible.
5. Get some distance about halfway through so you can explain that Maggie was upset because Lord Gormless insulted Maggie’s looks. Add, “How would you like it if you heard that a man would have to be blindfolded before he could touch your body?” and move even closer than before to give her the old up-and-down.
6. Now that she’s had her sexual awakening, tell her you’re quitting, and then just let the awkwardness siiiink in.
But the awkwardness doesn’t last long, because the whole downstairs begs her to ask him to stay, and Millie begs her to ask him to stay, and because nothing gets your motor going like that dude who mildly menaced you in the barn. They have a long conversation, including things like education vs. intelligence, and then she asks him to stay, and he can’t even pretend to be hard to get any more, look at his face.
Two things here: one, they keep framing Sarah, Robert, and Millie like family, and two, basically you can assume from now on that when these two talk to each other they are hiding Super Emotions behind their voices because all they want to do is get five minutes alone so they can finally just neck.
Exhibit A: Actual Christmas present he gives her, actual reactions.
On the eve of the New Year, everyone gathers to dance to accordion music provided by someone who is either their gardener or a hostage.
But the party’s interrupted by Uncle Shithead, bringing news that since the death of Carrie and Carrie’s baby, Uncle Shithead owes him an apology, and also has pneumonia, so whoops. (Not shown: the scene where he probably says they should go ahead and just have fun without him, if they think that’s what the Lord would really want them to do, don’t worry about him, he’s just sitting here having pneumonia, he’ll be fine if the fluid drains, please, go ahead and keep dancing, those hostages are expensive, etc.)
Uncle Shithead soon perishes of his illness (yay!), and while Robert tries to balance his sizeable inheritance of land and business and money with the job he insists on keeping back at the house for no reason stop looking at him, he and Sarah are seriously not fooling anyone, including Greg in the background.
(Re: that last one – since they’re British and it’s the Edwardian era, we can assume she’s getting pregnant RIGHT NOW.)
Also not having it: Angry Butler, who’s getting a twitch like Daria’s history teacher just thinking about his darling Sarah lowering herself to chat with a Davenport:
He ends up writing a letter to her family friend Lady Noseypants, who stops by for one scene to remind everyone that if a woman lowers herself in marriage than everyone of good society vomits just thinking about it and also she’ll never be allowed to be forced to give them recitals ever again and we hope you are thinking about this, young lady. Sarah mostly deflects, except for the moment where she admits how alone she is, which is actually very sad except that we are pretty sure she will end up with a hottie hubs, if she can just hang in there.
But Angry Butler tries to pull an Uncle Shithead on Robert and concussion him right out of the house, and Robert has had enough of all this nonsense since he’s worth more than Lord Gormless as it is, and since he knows Sarah will never admit her feelings, he is peacing the hell out.
But what’s this? She’s saying she’ll miss him! Will he at least kiss her goodbye?
Girl, will he EVER.
(No joke, this kiss goes on for ages, and there’s inexplicable Lord of the Dance flutes, and a spinning camera, and the whole thing.)
And Matthew Crawley is not happy about it. Get out, Davenport! I SAID GET OUT.
And he does! And after some verbal abuse from her brother, who has rented out the estate to the army without asking anyone, she heads to Robert’s place to ask if she and Millie can live there, and if Robert will marry her. He agrees vociferously, and they blissfully make out some more, and everything is just the more adorable ever.
Back at the house, the situation is deteriorating.
(Angry Butler set the whole place on fire, which even Mrs. Angry Butler cannot get behind, especially when they realize that Millie was NOT in the garden, but instead chasing her puppy in the attic. Also, that puppy chills out for several very uncomfortable scenes of people carrying it while trying to smash windows, dodge open flames, etc. It is the world’s most uninterested dog. Oh, fire? That’s fine I guess.)
Angry Butler dies attempting to rescue Millie; Robert burns the living hell out of his hands actually rescuing Millie (and the puppy).
He tries to manfully break off their engagement, but Sarah is not having that, because she is in it for the duration no matter what it means, and she says she wants to marry him as soon as he can put the ring on her finger, and it’s all really adorable.
(Not shown: hilarious cut from “I want to marry you as soon as you can put the ring on my finger” to his super-bandaged mitt shoving a ring onto her finger, like as soon as he realized that marriage meant sex, he was down with WHATEVER.)
Honestly though, this is one of the few Cookson couples who you actively root for, and this is probably my favorite Cookson couple, because they have conversations about things besides each other, and they have in-jokes, and they get to know each other, and they are just the best, okay, people have feelings about things is all!
Just look how thrilled they are to be making out! (They also take a break from making out to laugh a little about her having to peel both their clothes off, which is a great and adorable ending even if it makes you wonder who exactly dressed him that morning and if that was awkward for him and Aunt Shithead or what.)
Basically, of all the Cooksons, this is the best-written, and one of the few not-awful Cooksons that rises above Cheeseball Fun (lookin’ at you, The Rag Nymph) to take a stab at Actually Good (lookin’ at you, The Wingless Bird). This is the one I saw first, and it will forever be my favorite Catherine Cookson Experience.