Since starting up this blog, I’ve re-watched quite a few series which I first saw several years ago. Most have lived up to my memories – but this swashbuckling BBC adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s tale of chivalry didn’t… or not quite.
The main problem is that, at 300 minutes divided into six episodes, at times it feels rather slow and repetitive. I feel I’ve got something of a cheek complaining about this, since I’m usually moaning that adaptations race through a story too quickly – but this mini-series slightly goes to the other extreme. Although I’ve chosen an illustration of a Dutch DVD set, because I think it’s the most striking sleeve, this set is also available in UK and US editions.
Despite criticising the pace of some sections, I did enjoy it, and got really caught up in the action. I have read the novel, but don’t remember it all that well and so can’t comment on how closely the drama follows it in terms of plot detail. I think the romantic, intense atmosphere and the rather vague medieval world do have the same flavour as the book. However, the violence is more real and more bloody than in most swashbuckling dramas I’ve seen – at times hard to watch, but probably giving a far more real picture of what would have been involved in all those jousting sessions described in tales of King Arthur.
The story is set in the time of Robin Hood (he actually appears as a character, played by Aden Gillet), but focuses far more on the Norman/Saxon conflict than most versions of Robin Hood which I’ve seen. I suppose this sort of divided kingdom especially interested Scott, as he had spent so much time writing about Jacobite rebels in Scotland.
Steven Waddington heads the cast as the noble Saxon Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, who returns from fighting in the crusades to find that he has been falsely accused of betraying King Richard. As a result, his father, Cedric (James Cosmo) no longer wants anything to do with him – and has forced his childhood sweetheart, Rowena (Victoria Smurfit) to become betrothed to a hulking Saxon prince, Athelstane (Chris Walker).
Hiding his identity, Ivanhoe decides to uphold Saxon honour by fighting in a tournament organised by evil Regent Prince John (a magnificently over-the-top performance by Ralph Brown.) However, although he wins, Ivanhoe is badly injured, and nursed back to health by Jewish maiden Rebecca (Susan Lynch) – whose beauty and character are soon almost tempting him to forget his vows to Rowena. There is a powerful visual moment where Ivanhoe, who seems to be almost dying, reaches up a hand caked in blood to caress Rebecca’s face.
The plot thickens when the brave but tormented Knight Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert (Ciaran Hinds) is involved in a kidnap plot, which leads to the injured Ivanhoe being trapped in a castle along with both Rowena and Rebecca. Bois-Guilbert at first tries to seduce Rebecca, but then falls wildly in love with her – however, she determinedly rejects his overtures, insisting that he can never be her master, never “have her soul”, which he insists he wants. For me, the scenes between these two are probably the most powerful part of the the whole series - as you see how fascinated they both are by one another, and yet how impossible it is for there ever to be any relationship. I definitely think that Hinds and Lynch, as the dark hero, or anti-hero, and heroine, are more memorable and haunting than Waddington and Smurfit. I found an interesting article at a Ciaran Hinds website, Brian de Bois-Guilbert: The Villain as Hero, by Andrea Grunert, which also has a lot of background information about the novel and the series.
There are many more plot twists, but I won’t go into all those, just mentioning that Christopher Lee of Dracula fame is even more over the top than Ralph Brown, playing Lucard de Beaumanoir, obsessed leader of the Knights Templar, who is determined to burn Rebecca at the stake as a witch.
I do remember that, in the book, the portrayal of Rebecca’s father, Isaac of York, follows an anti-Semitic stereotype, showing him as very keen on money. The mini-series largely gets away from that and concentrates on his love for his daughter and determination to save her, without making the character, played by David Horovitch, ever become too sentimental.
The series was directed by Stuart Orme, who has directed many British TV productions, including the costume drama The Blackheath Poisonings, and the cinema period film The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Writer Deborah Cook has also worked on a lot of TV productions, including costume series The House of Eliott.
I should also mention that Sian Phillips and Ronald Pickup are both wonderful, as Queen Eleanor and Fitzurse – and Ciaran Madden gives a wistful, compelling performance as the ageing Saxon beauty Urfried, who doesn’t seem too sure about what is present and what is past.
I’d also like to see the 1982 adaptation starring Anthony Andrews, and see how it compares with this version. Andrews is great as a swashbuckling hero, as I know after seeing him in The Scarlet Pimpernel – yet another of the long list of films I’d like to review here some day!