Television & Radio: Old habits die hard

Returning to the small screen as Cadfael, a 12th-century monk detective, was a spiritual experience for Derek Jacobi. James Rampton reports
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The Independent Online
Deep in the woods of Dobogoko outside Budapest, a medieval monk sits deep in contemplation hunched over a tome. His tonsure gleams in the sunlight and beads of sweat trickle down his forehead - those cowls, made of apparently man-eating fabric, are not strictly designed for summer wear. He looks a picture of Middle Ages spirituality, until you notice the author of the book he's poring over: Stephen King.

Sir Derek Jacobi needs such diversions to keep him going during the punishing 12-hour days, six-days-a-week shoot for Cadfael, ITV's meticulous adaptation of Ellis Peters' novels about a 12th-century sleuthing monk. The following day we're stuck halfway up a mountain in a downpour of West of Scotland proportions. We're huddled in a leaking bivouac watching Jacobi examine a corpse laid out on a slab in a mocked-up chapel. The producer Stephen Smallwood snuggles further into his ochre raincoat and ruminates aloud: "Strange to find yourself in some ghastly little tent in deepest Hungary, isn't it?" Despite all this, Jacobi is glad to be back on the small screen.

Later, he hangs the cowl up neatly, changes into mufti - a blue stripey collarless shirt, jeans and blue deck shoes with no socks - and relaxes in his rather monkish caravan (is it this spartan so he can stay in character?). He's given some memorable performances on television, but nothing to match the landmark that was I, Claudius, the BBC's racy 1970s reading of Robert Graves's book, now enjoying a vibrant afterlife on UK Gold.

In the intervening years, he has concentrated on the theatre, building an enviable reputation as a leading man of stature in Much Ado About Nothing, Breaking the Code, Becket, and others. Sir Ian McKellen, a contemporary at Cambridge, reckons Jacobi is the best verse-speaker he knows. His first nights are always heavily patronised by an adoring following known as the "Jacobi Cadets". Now a youthful 57, he is artistic director of the Chichester Festival Theatre, and is currently touring in the title role of their production of Uncle Vanya.

He fingers an ornate-handled medieval dagger - I wonder to myself if he hates journalists that much - and reflects, like an upmarket Gary Glitter, that it's good to be back. "I hadn't done any television for a long time because I'd been in the theatre. People tend to think that either you have given the business up or you're dead if they don't see you on the box occasionally. 'Whatever happened to him?', they say. If you want people to come and see you in the theatre, then it's often a good idea to put your face around on the telly. That helps put bums on seats in the theatre. So I wanted to get back into that marketplace."

The return was considerably aided by the fact that Jacobi has a great affection for the character he plays. "Cadfael is a delightful creature," he muses, "because in a world of contemplation and discipline he has spent two-thirds of his life out in the big, wide world killing people. He's got a hinterland, a whole other life. That was what was interesting - he brings that into the abbey with him and draws on those experiences to deal with the mayhem that is Shrewsbury."

Twelfth-century England was certainly no Disney-esque theme-park. "Life was violent and uncomfortable then," Jacobi continues, fixing me with his limpid blue eyes. "The way Cadfael deals with violence is pre-forensic science and pre-car chases. To chase someone, you have to get on a horse or run. All his detection is done by smell and touch and intuition and knowledge - not only of the world and of the human character but also of plants and animals and nature. That's how he solves the puzzles."

When Smallwood first pitched the idea of filming Ellis Peters's monkish detective to the ITV network, "they thought it an act either of lunacy or of genius. Grown men with holes in the back of their hair wandering around in frocks and sandals were not really the stuff of ITV. But it got good ratings the first time round, so the network centre re- commissioned it."

Jacobi is not at all surprised by that. "Cadfael has got things going for it. One of its charms is the historical context, and there's a certain quaintness about the stories. There is violence but curiously it's a kind of picturesque violence. I love Hamish Macbeth - that has huge charm. Hopefully, we've got some of that. The pictures that they [the makers of Cadfael] have created are attractive to look at - the costumes and the colours. And when the sunlight comes through the woods around here, they are beautiful. It's really escapist."

He freely admits, however, that we are in danger of overdosing on telly 'tecs. "We do have too many - but then there are too many hospital dramas, as well. We've had all the jobs now - firemen, dustmen. Still, if you're going to have a diet of detectives - and they do seem to be one of the main audience-catchers - then at least Cadfael is a detective with a difference."

As you might expect, Smallwood does not beg to differ. "All the research shows that the public appetite for detectives is undiminished. The audience can't get enough of them. What we have to do is provide different sorts of detective. Some wear a dirty mac, or are misogynist, or misanthropist, or any other sort of -ist, but Cadfael is extraordinary in that he's completely straight. That'll probably be his downfall."

'Cadfael: The Devil's Novice' is on Sun at 8pm on ITV and 'Cadfael: A Morbid Taste for Bones' is on 25 Aug