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The Mallens miniseries, 1978, based on the Catherine Cookson novels.

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While I don't think this miniseries qualifies as either a BBC television production or a Masterpiece Theatre presentation, hey, it's British, it's on DVD, and I've seen it. So here is my review for it!

This TV miniseries sucks you in, getting you thoroughly hooked and wanting to know what comes next. Based on the Catherine Cookson historical novels (which I have never read), it starts as a smarmy but fun bodice-ripper, full of rakes and scoundrels and heaving bosoms. The first part of the story focuses on two brothers, Matthew and Donald Radlet, who are humble farmers in 19th Century England. Donald has the tell-tale "Mallen Streak" in his hair, a trait passed down from father to son in the Mallen family. (Donny's mom was ravished by the scoundrel, Squire Thomas Mallen, a prominent man in the area.) Donny is very close to his sickly half brother, the gentle-natured Matthew.

Into Donny and Matthew's lives enter the two nieces of Thomas Mallen, Barbara and Constance—and even old man Mallen himself. Accompanying the two girls is Miss Brigmore (played fabulously by Caroline Blakiston, later seen in Return of the Jedi) who is their iron-willed and pragmatic governess. Miss Brigmore is a strong and vital character through this entire miniseries.

Later in the series, the storyline focuses on the next generation—the children of the two sisters, cousins Michael and Barbara. Their turbulent and shaky romance is the driving force in the second half of the series. Miss Brigmore is still a central figure as well. Some other characters are introduced, including the straight-shooting and honest Bensham family. I won't give away too many of the plot points of this melodramatic, soap-opera-esque miniseries. It is better to watch it yourself and get carried away with all the twists and turns.

The casting for this miniseries is good. John Duttine plays Donny, the bastard son of Thomas Mallen. I had only seen Duttine in Masterpiece Theatre's To Serve Them All My Days, where he plays an entirely different sort of fellow. Here he handles the dynamic (but bitter) role of Donny just fine. John Hallam is great (in a creepy sort of way) as the smarmy and arrogant Thomas Mallen. The gentle and fragile Matthew is portrayed well by winsome Ian Saynor. Pippa Guard (as Barbara) and Julia Chambers (as Constance) were well cast also. Guard captures Barbara's strong-willed personality, just as Chambers is fine playing the sweet-tempered but somewhat naive Constance. I thought Juliet Stevenson was an interesting choice for the daughter, Barbara. She's not classically beautiful, but is attractive and believable as a girl with a little too much of a headstrong "Mallen streak" in her. The late Gerry Sundquist (who tragically took his own life in 1993) does fine as the somewhat weak-willed Michael. And as mentioned above, Caroline Blakiston as Miss Brigmore is outstanding.

Video quality in this series is uneven. Originally made in 1978, it has that cheesy, soap-opera video look to it. The picture is sometimes murky and direction is adequate. Production values improved in the second half of the series, but only marginally. But, this was the norm for television from that era, so it's something that simply must be accepted.

I enjoyed parts of this series very much, but I don't know if I'd recommend others buying it. I might be more inclined to recommend it to the big Catherine Cookson fan, or to someone who enjoys this type of storyline more, but I have to confess it dragged on a little too much and was a little too "down" for me. It seemed like, even though there were phases of happiness for all the characters, too often something really rotten or tragic happened to them. It got depressing after a while. Also, (and I will try to not give away too much here), I ended up getting so worn out by the end of the series that I didn't care all that much if major characters lived or died. The "downer" nature of the story eventually became overly wearisome.

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Constance & Matthew


Barbara


Miss Brigmore

Matthew

Donny

Thomas Mallen

Miss Brigmore

Young Constance

Barbara

Donny in a surly mood

Barbara, the daughter

Harry Bensham

Matilda Bensham

Mary

Michael

Barbara & Michael

Doing sign language

Constance at 40 years.

Photos © Granada Television & BFS Video

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