In the footsteps of Brother Cadfael

Popularity has its price - as sir Derek Jacobi has discovered.

Ever since he played the medieval sleuthing monk Brother Cadfael in the television series based on the best-selling books by the late Ellis Peters, Sir Derek Jacobi has been inundated by eager fans who send him gifts.

"Usually" he says with a shy smile, "books about medicines and herbs and remedies".

Cadfael, the fictional 12th century Shrewsbury priest who was once a warrior knight, is a detective far ahead of his time. He examines minute clues at the scene of crimes, and is more than adept at brewing up a potion or two, hopefully to cure all ills.

"There's a Brother Cadfael Trail in Shrewsbury now and I went along the other day to give it my blessing. It's a terrific idea, and I wish it well. It's absolutely fascinating stuff, and they've put such a marvellous insight into Cadfael's medieval world. There are also a number of car trails to help visitors find other places mentioned in the Cadfael stories. Ellis Peters created an enduring character that has found a loyal - and growing - audience around the world."

He laughs: "I suppose I'm following in the wake of the Catherine Cookson Trail on Tyneside, and the Inspector Morse Trail in Oxford, but as far as I'm concerned, if it's useful and informative and enjoyable for the visitors, if it's good for the local economy, and if it helps all sorts of people enjoy themselves, I'm more than happy."

Shrewsbury AbbeyPart of the appeal of Cadfael, reckons Sir Derek, "is that it is set at a time of history which people in the UK know very little about, the first civil war between king Stephen and the Empress Matilda. So you get this contrast between the quiet of the cloister of the Abbey and the conflict raging outside.

Derek says: "The books are unique, and we try to remain faithful to Edith's remarkable spirit, but inevitably, in an hour and a half, we do tend to lose a lot. I read the originals and I read quite a bit about the period. But ultimately, that's all you CAN do before your inner Sense takes over. I suppose Cadfael is a glorious contrast to all the other detective series, where the hero relies on forensic science or fast cars (or both) and where he always gets the girls, or is angst-ridden because he doesn't.

I find it rather amusing that when they show it in the States (its hugely popular on PBS), they give it a slogan underneath the title so that people know instantly what its all about. It reads: "Cadfael - He Serves God - He Solves Crime"!.

I do get a lot of fan mail from it, which is very gratifying indeed. The nicest thing is that Ellis Peters fans - of which there are hundreds of thousands - tell me that the perceptions of their hero have been accurately portrayed on the screen, which is lovely. One doesn't want to go around letting people down."

And he adds: "One of the nicest things about the Cadfael series is that it is, in essence, an ensemble piece - I'm not the be-all and end-all of the stories. OK, Cadfael is pivotal to the plot, but there are some good meaty parts for a lot of other actors as well. I love the idea that viewers now want to find out more about the man, his time and his territory. As I said, Cadfael is the sort of series that makes you want to find out more.

So visit Shropshire, explore Shrewsbury and the other places Ellis Peters wrote about, and take part in the Cadfael adventures yourself.

First Published: 1998