A Tale of Two Cities (1980)

If you create a user account, you can add your own review of this DVD

Released 5-Oct-2006

Cover Art

This review is sponsored by

Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Main Menu Audio
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1980
Running Time 190:00
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Michael E. Briant

Roadshow Home Entertainment
Starring Paul Shelley
Nigel Stock
Ralph Michael
Vivien Merchant
Sally Osborn
Judy Parfitt
Stephen Yardley
Case Amaray-Transparent-Secure Clip
RPI Box Music None Given

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.33:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis


It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

    With the above lines Charles Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities, which was to become one of his most popular works. Published in a weekly serial form in 1859, it is a historical novel, a rarity for Dickens. It is set in the period between 1775 and 1793, with the crux of the action taking place during the French Revolution. In fact, the above lines do not appear in the program, but the final lines, which are equally memorable, do make a prominent appearance.

    The tale at the heart of A Tale of Two Cities is divided between London and Paris. The plot is a little hard to follow at first but bear with me.

    It begins with intrigue. In 1775 banker, Jarvis Lorry receives a message to meet a young woman in Dover. The woman is Lucie Manette, who is the daughter of an eminent French doctor, believed dead after having been imprisoned in the Bastille for 18 years. After hearing news that the doctor is in fact alive, they race to France and are met by Defarge, a former assistant of the good doctor.

    Instead of the proud physician of old, he is a broken old man who can only remember his name as "105 North Tower" and believes himself to be a shoe maker. They whisk him out of the country to bring him to life. For his unjust imprisonment Dr Manette becomes a symbol for the French populace of the capriciousness of their ruling class.

    Five years later, a Charles Darnay is on trial in England for treason. His fate seems to be doomed until his lawyer's assistant, Sidney Carton, undermines the prosecution case that their witnesses could unmistakably identify the traitor they saw as Darnay. The reason? Carton bears an uncanny resemblance to Darnay. There is another unfortunate coincidence as both men form an attraction to Lucie Manette. However, it is really a one-horse race, as Darnay is a wealthy man of quality and refinement whereas Carton is, by his own admission, a good for nothing fellow whose life has never accounted to much.

    Back in France, we are briefly introduced to the Marquise de Evremond. This man is bad. So bad that when he runs over a peasant child in the street in his carriage he quickly enquires as to whether his horses have suffered any injury. Cruelly tossing a coin to the dead child's father, he starts a fire that will lead to revolution. For the father breaks into his house that night and kills the Marquise. Prior to the murder (or public service depending on your view of things) Marquise's nephew, none other than Charles Darnay, tells his uncle that he renounces his title due to the unacceptably cruel treatment of the people.

    Meanwhile, Darnay marries Lucie. Carton visits her and pledges his love notwithstanding that he knows it can never be returned. In Defarge's wine shop in Paris his wife, Madam Defarge, sits quietly knitting. In fact this seemingly gently pursuit has a dark purpose. Into the knitting she is weaving the names of those who are to be executed when the Revolution comes.

    In 1789 the Revolution comes and the peasants storm the Bastille. Defarge finds an important document in the old cell occupied by Manette and the clerk in charge of maintenance of the Evremond estate is imprisoned. Against everyone's better judgment, Darnay travels to Paris to rescue him and he is promptly arrested and charged by the Revolutionary Committee.

    The final quarter of the story sees all the parties in France with their lives at risk. Despite the melodramatics, it is a moving story and no matter how many times it is seen or read, the ending is still extremely powerful.

    This production dates from 1980 and was apparently a co-production between BBC TV, Time Life Television and the Australian Broadcasting Commission. It runs for approximately three hours and consists of eight episodes. A decision has been made to play the episodes as they were screened, which is disappointing in one way in that some of the episodes are barely more than 20 minutes long, to which credits time is added. One episode at a time is not nearly enough, and it is a bit frustrating having to sit through the credits over again.

    The acting is fine and consistent with the period. By that I mean it is something of a filmed play, therefore the acting is suitably theatrical. Public tastes have changed since 1980, and the show would have been performed and directed very differently ten years later, and indeed ten years after that. In particular, the horror of the Revolution and the guillotine is really only brought home in a few moments.

    Despite this, it is an entertaining production provided you can accept the production values and acting style. There are only a few points where the series diverges from the book, most importantly where the couple leaving on their honeymoon causes Dr Manette to revert to his shoe-maker ways rather than the revelation to him in the book that Darnay is a member of the Evremond family, who was instrumental in his imprisonment.

    Darnay and Carton are played by Paul Shelley who does a nice job distinguishing between the two. Lucie Manette's guardian, Miss Pross, was the last performance by Vivien Merchant, who keen theatre watches will know as the wife of Harold Pinter and the originator of some of his female roles. She was not often seen after their marriage split up in 1975, and she died of acute alcoholism within two years of making this series. Unfortunately her last performance was not her best. As Madame Defarge, Judy Parfitt captures a woman with a blood thirsty resolve to carry her plans out to the end and to have her revenge upon the Evremond family. Recently seen to similar chilling effect in the BBC series Funland, she gives a scary performance here.

    Overall, this is an enjoyable version of the story. For many fans it probably does not replace the 1935 film version with Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton, despite the strange tag line for that movie: "The most delightful love story in all history of literature!". It is a bit stagey in its design, but as mentioned, it still has the power to move the viewer.

Don't wish to see plot synopses in the future? Change your configuration.

Transfer Quality


    A Tale of Two Cities comes to DVD in a 1.33:1 transfer, which is consistent with its original television aspect ratio.

    The production was originally broadcast in 1980 and viewers should be aware that this program is consistent with the look of British Television from that era.

    The print itself has not undergone any restoration but it must be said that, given its age, it is in reasonably good shape. There are some small but noticeable artefacts throughout, including specks that appear for lengthy periods throughout each of the eight episodes. This is particularly noticeable in the final episode, where two specks remain in the same position throughout the episode. I suspect that the BBC budget does not extend to restoration costs of a work like this and, to be honest, the work itself probably does not justify great expense. It is fine for what it is but this is one Dickens that is clearly in need of a new version.

    There is a disconnect between the exterior shots – which look a bit hazy and may have been shot on film – and the interiors, which are most definitely shot on video. The image quality was probably never that great to being with, and it has deteriorated with time. The colours are largely muddy greens and browns. All the problems that can affect very old video are present in the transfer, including some cross-colouration, slight but noticeable comet trails on those scenes where the camera moves when focusing on a scene with candles, and occasional noise issues. The image is generally soft.

    There are subtitles for the hearing impaired, which are clear and easy to read.

    Although the image quality is average at best, it is certainly consistent with the era; the transfer itself cannot be criticised. However, viewers should be aware of what they are getting.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    A Tale of Two Cities comes to DVD with an English Dolby Digital 2.0 (192 KB/s) soundtrack. This is no surprise given its television origins and for the most part, it works well.

    The only scene that would have really benefited from a surround mix is the storming of the Bastille in episode five. Having said that, most viewers weaned on any current mini-series featuring battle scenes such as Band of Brothers will find the Bastille fighting about as violent as a pillow fight at a girls' sleep-over!

    The dialogue is easy to hear thanks to the expert enunciation of the British actors. In this production, the decision was made to have everyone speak in English accents, which saves the viewer from the "Monty Python effect" of French accents. The only difference in accent is the working class assistant to the Banker, but fortunately his accent is also easy to understand.

    The music for this series was by Paul Reade. It has a central theme that is memorable and hummable, although I am not sure whether it has stuck in my memory due to its quality or simply because of the level of repetition through the episodes. The music is generally good and consistent with the era, however, there is an "approaching dread" string tremolo which is a bit too schlock horror! The audio sync is fine and generally the sound is quite acceptable.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


    There are no extras.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    This DVD is currently available in Region 4 as part of a series set of Dickens novel adaptations. In Region 1 the 1989 version is available, but not this 1980 version.


    A Tale of Two Cities is a popular Dickens novel that has not often been filmed. Perhaps this is due to the complexity of the plot and the historical demands it places on the viewer. This is a fine adaptation which is deserving of a look but will probably be of interest only to the Dickens fan.

    The video and sound transfers are consistent with television of the era, and whilst somewhat primitive, they should not put off the dedicated viewer.

    There are no extras.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Trevor Darge (read my bio)
Saturday, November 18, 2006
Review Equipment
DVDOnkyo DV-SP300, using Component output
DisplayNEC PlasmaSync 42" MP4 1024 x 768. This display device has not been calibrated. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver.
AmplificationOnkyo TX-SR600 with DD-EX and DTS-ES
SpeakersJBL Simply Cinema SCS178 5.1

Other Reviews NONE
Comments (Add) NONE