Filmed in Britain by Central Films Prods. Executive producer, Ted Childs; producer, Stephen Smallwood; director, Graham Theakston; writer, Paul Pender; based on a novel by Ellis Peters; Host: Diana Riggs.
“Mystery!” dishes up four weekly 90-minute adaptations of Ellis Peters’ books about fictional 12th-century Benedictine monk Cadfael, but the introductory entry about a titled lady whose vile fiance’s murdered near Cadfael’s abbey is only a format whodunit in period costumes. Derek Jacobi, who hasn’t much to chew on, is the title character: Ellery Queen in a cowl.
The monk is clumsily arranged to be intriguing: Take an ex-Crusades fighter, add a healer who works with herbs, toss in a religionist who solves crimes, and you have Cadfael, looking for a murder. Initial case ropes in two deaths, several prospective murderers and a small colony of lepers with a mysterious leader, and winds up with the equivalent of a drawing room showdown in the abbey’s forecourt.
The nasty baron (Norman Eshley) will marry pretty Iveta (Tara Fitzgerald) tomorrow in the abbey chapel. Her mean guardians, pushing the case, are aiming to exclude Joscelyn (Jonathan Firth), a squire who loves Iveta as much as she loves him. On the eve of the wedding, the baron gallops off alone on an unexplained all-night trip.
Confounding things are Iveta’s desire to marry Joscelyn; the baron’s nephew Simon, who stands to inherit; a nun tucked away in a nearby nunnery; an ostentatious finger ring and a locket holding a lock of hair. Cadfael pokes around clues and deduces lots; it’s familiar territory.
Dialogue’s pedestrian, and director Graham Theakston does nothing to create suspense. The aspect of the telepic involving lepers and how they were disdained calls for some attention, and the story of Lazarus, the leper of St. Giles, could amaze some viewers.
Thesping’s OK, with the agile Firth showing some life, Fitzgerald looking sweet but confused and Sean Pertwee supplying a vigorous undersheriff of Shrewsbury. As for Jacobi, his Cadfael is soft-spoken, shrewd and uncommanding. The English countryside looks lovely, and tech credits are OK.
“Mystery!” host Diana Riggs and her material demonstrate both intelligence and lucidity, as usual. Trying to hype”Cadfael” is a challenge; she meets it.