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Spotlight on: Rosemary and Thyme: Series One

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Rosemary and Thyme: Series One DVD Cover Rosemary and Thyme: Series One

Sorry, no Parsley or Sage here (although the theme, composed by Christopher Gunning and performed by John Williams, does, predictably, incorporate "Scarborough Fair"); Rosemary and Thyme is a mystery series featuring two women with a shared interest in plants. Rosemary Boxer (Felicity Kendal) and Laura Thyme (Pam Ferris) meet through a mutual acquaintance and their friendship is forged through the sharing of drastic changes in their lives. Laura is an ex-cop who loses her husband (also a cop, as is her son) to a pretty young thing and Rosemary loses her university teaching gig. "I think this is what's called freedom," Rosemary says at the close of the first episode, but she may as well have said, "This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship," given how much the final shot resembles that of Casablanca (and how we are meant to realize that it's going to happen anyway).

The hook for Rosemary and Thyme, that makes it different from other mystery series, is that the focus isn't always on the mystery. Bad things just seem to happen whenever Rosemary and Laura working on gardens and, while they're hard at work and mostly being ignored, they become privy to information that would otherwise be unavailable. Plus, as Felicity Kendal says in an interview on disc one (the sole interesting extra in this DVD set), there's no love interest, "which is a relief."

Rosemary and Thyme owes its success to its talented cast and crew. Directors Tom Clegg and Brian Farnham (as well as many of the writers and most of the guest actors) have extensive experience in mystery television, lending a familiarity and confidence to the proceedings. Kendal and Ferris even accepted their roles without having seen a finished script, and producer Brian Eastman encouraged them to work together to develop both characters, leading to an undeniable chemistry that shows in the episodes. Frankly, this kind of mystery "lite" isn't usually my cuppa (I like my murders to take place onscreen), but the lead actors make it an unforgettable experience, even if some of the individual episodes aren't all that special.

For example, nearly everything about "And No Bird Sings" was predictable, from who dies and how, to who _didn't_ but was suspected, to what plants were used in the execution. Being a premiere doesn't help, with all the exposition to get out of the way. Nor does having a conclusion that owes entirely too much to Friday the 13th. The only salvation, really, comes in the form of the absolutely charming lead actresses, especially Kendal as Rosemary. Ferris's Laura tended to get on my nerves a bit, but maybe I'm just not sensitive enough. At this point, I was hoping that, in true television spirit, she would get over this speedbump in her life and find strength in herself. Otherwise, Rosemary and Thyme would turn into the Lifetime Network version of the BBC mystery.

Luckily, "Arabica and the Early Spider" is a significant improvement. No predictions were made, and the solution was a total surprise. Now running their own gardening business together (called "Rosemary and Thyme," one assumes, but this is only hinted at, and no information is given regarding this development of this partnership) and usually sleeping on-site, Rosemary and Laura's relationship comes under close scrutiny when the Detective Inspector investigating the discovery of horse bones (the "Arabica" of the title) in the garden of their latest employer makes the assumption that they are lesbians. Unfortunately, this potential piece of comic gold is played more for indignant outrage, though the performance of Philip Martin Brown is priceless.

Again, a plant is featured (the "Early Spider"), but it is used more in the identification of the killer than in the actual commission of the crime. Laura is still annoying at times, but the series is really picking up and finding its way. This shows in the next episode, which is one of the more fascinating, due to its focus on "The Language of Flowers." Here, Rosemary and Laura are asked to completely redesign a dell originally developed by the owner's late husband, whose book (also called The Language of Flowers) was just recently published. Was he sending a secret message through the floral arrangement, and does it have any connection to the subsequent murder of his widow? I found the subject fascinating and would have liked a little more information on floral communication, but this episode's complexity, combined with its wonderfully game supporting cast brings it near perfection.

The grass is dying at Bowden Grange Language School (teaching English to rich foreigners) and the headmaster is about to flip. He seems less interested in the fact that one of his students -- a lovely Polish girl, the "Sweet Angelica" of the title -- is a shoplifter, or that someone on the grounds is a murderer. When handyman (and I mean "handy") Felix is killed, Angelica is the prime suspect, but she's not talking (except in Polish). Eventually, multiple suspects abound, each as likely as the last. But who wrote the secret coded message that drew Angelica to a clandestine meeting, putting her at the scene of the crime? With a little help from a friend and some Internet research, Rosemary and Laura solve the crime _and_ the problem with the grass, while also coming up with a way to assuage the headmaster's stress.

The final two episodes in Series One are inspired by real estate deals gone awry. When Rosemary's mentor votes down a lucrative deal during a town meeting, he becomes a prime candidate for murder, and nearly everyone who owns nearby property is a suspect. A seeing-eye dog, rearranged allotments, sandwiches, drugs, adultery, romance, and construction all come into play in "A Simple Plot," definitely the best episode in the set (surprisingly, it was the first filmed). The cast is fantastic, especially Frederick Treves as the blind Professor Mullins and Michael Siberry as Hugo Dainty, although Rosemary's brush with death is less than impressive.

The yew tree figures prominently in the episode that bears its nickname, "The Tree of Death." This time, the murder weapon is a medieval arrow taken from the home of Franklin Danvers (the wonderful Michael Cochrane), benefactor of the Baffington vicarage and best patron of the annual medieval "fayre." The victim is a long-thought-dead local man, co-owner of the land in question and ex-boyfriend of Harriet Luke (Victoria Scarborough), the vicarage secretary, Danvers' assistant, and all-around object of affection. The competition between Danvers and Knussen's, a pharmaceutical company looking to make a cancer drug out of yew bark, comes to a head while Rosemary and Laura attempt to suss out the amateur Robin Hood.

As they progress, these mysteries get more and more like Agatha Christie setups (not surprising, considering that Farnham directed several Poirot episodes), with their multiple fully-motivated suspects, interlinked relationships, and complex investigations. "Tree of Death" even utilizes misdirection, getting the killer to confess to having information only the killer would know, while trying to support the accusation of another.

All in all, I enjoyed this series fully, in spite of my preferences and preconceptions. Its target audience will appreciate it all the more. Kendal and Ferris make a great team and complement each other's styles. Their characters' different approaches to each situation (one academic, the other traditional) assure that all the bases are covered, making a series that mystery fans and gardening buffs of whatever stripe will find pleasing.

The set is well put together, as well, save for a couple of complaints. This is the third Acorn title I have seen not offering the option of subtitles or closed-captioning. Have they forgotten their older customers and others that are hard-of-hearing? Also, the "widescreen" presentation apparently only plays on widescreen televisions, leaving portions of the picture cut off at the left and right, and leaving me with the impression that I was watching "osemary and Thym". But these are small drawbacks, and I'm already looking out for the eight episodes of Series Two to make their way across the pond, so I can enjoy the continuing adventures of Rosemary and Thyme.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2005. Reprinted with permission.

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