Wives and Daughters (1999)

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Released 2-Nov-2001

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Main Menu Audio
Scene Selection Anim & Audio
Audio-Only Track-The Music Of...
Trailer-Pride & Prejudice; David Copperfield
Trailer-Middlemarch; Our Mutual Friend
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1999
Running Time 301:45 (Case: 300)
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (79:34)
Dual Disc Set
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Nicholas Renton

Roadshow Home Entertainment
Starring Francesca Annis
Ian Carmichael
Deborah Findlay
Barbara Flynn
Michael Gambon
Iain Glen
Keeley Hawes
Tom Hollander
Anthony Howell
Barbara Leigh-Hunt
Bill Paterson
Justine Waddell
Penelope Wilton
Case Soft Brackley-Transp-Dual v2
RPI ? Music John Keane

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.78:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.78:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits Yes, end titles over ending scene

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

Plot Synopsis

Wives and Daughters is yet another of the BBC's excellent and well-produced TV mini-series adaptations of works of English literature. This one is based on Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell's last book, which has remained incomplete since she died before she could finish it. Anyone not familiar with the book or Elizabeth's other works could perhaps be forgiven for thinking it to be a pale imitation of a Jane Austen novel. In truth, after watching this I think in some respects it is superior to Austen. It is not as light-hearted or as witty, but makes up for it by being less judgemental, and having more balanced and realistic characterization. Wives and Daughters makes rather acute social observations on the complex class hierarchy as well as customs and mores of English country life during the Victorian era.

Elizabeth Gaskell (ne Stevenson) was born in London in 1810 of middle class parents. She married Reverend William Gaskell, a Unitarian minister, when she was 22 and bore him several children. She wrote her first novel, Mary Barton, after her son died of scarlet fever, and it was acclaimed for its shocking but sympathetic portrayal of the grim living conditions of Manchester's factory workers. Her most well-known novel is Cranford, a portrayal of life in a small community which drew on memories of her childhood in the small Cheshire town of Knutsford. Besides novels, she also wrote short stories, essays, and articles, including a biography of Charlotte Bront.

Wives and Daughters: An Every-Day Story was serialized in instalments in the Cornhill magazine from 1864 till 1866, a year after her death in 1865. The final instalment was never written, but apparently Elizabeth's intentions with regards to the ending were well-known. The story has been brought to "life" as a four-part costume drama by the same team behind the acclaimed production of Pride and Prejudice: producer Sue Birtwistle and screenwriter Andrew Davies.

The first episode mainly introduces us to the characters and the complex inter-relationships between various family groups in the small English town of Hollingford. The entire social hierarchy of a small town is faithfully represented in the story, from Lord (Ian Carmichael) and Lady (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) Cumnor residing at the palatial "Towers" to the gardeners, maids and nurses.

The main character is Molly Gibson (Justine Waddell), only daughter and child of the local doctor. At the beginning of the episode, we see a very young Molly attending a yearly party held by Lady Cumnor at the Towers. Exhausted, Molly falls asleep underneath a tree and is separated from her chaperones, the Miss Brownings (Barbara Flynn and Deborah Findlay). She is noticed by Lady Harriet (Rosamund Pike), youngest daughter of Lord and Lady Cumnor, and is put in the charge of Lady Harriet's governess - Hyacinth Kirkpatrick (Francesca Annis) - known as 'Clare' to the Cumnors. Molly wakes up disoriented and starts panicking when she realises she has been left behind but she is "rescued" by her father Mr. Gibson (Bill Paterson).

Although this scene seems disconnected to the rest of the story, it does hint at the unfolding drama involving these characters and the viewer's attention to small details here will reap rewards of understanding later on in the series. Mr. Gibson has brought Molly up by himself ever since his wife died (when Molly was very young), and hence he and Molly have a very close relationship. Molly is headstrong, tomboyish, independent and prone to speaking her mind as there has been a lack of female influence moderating her behaviour - in other words she is a prototypical feminist. When Mr. Gibson decides to remarry none other than Hyacinth, Molly finds that she has to adjust to her new stepmother's fussy and frivolous ways.

The other family featured in the story is the Hamleys, including the Squire (Michael Gambon), his wife (Penelope Wilton) and their two sons Osborne (Tom Hollander) and Roger (Anthony Howell). The Hamleys invite Molly to stay with them for a while, and she becomes friends with the two sons. Osborne is the handsome, beloved elder son and his parents have very high expectations of him. When he subsequently fails to meet those expectations, he causes grief to his parents and his frequent trips away from home as well as ever-mounting expenses lead his father to suspect the worst - that he is a gambling ne'er-do-well. His brother Roger was always regarded by his parents as strong and dependable but not too bright. Imagine their surprise when he turns out to be quite a scholar and a scientist, and is sponsored by Lord Hollingford (Shaughan Seymour).

In the second episode, we are introduced to Cynthia (Keeley Hawes), Hyacinth's beautiful daughter returning to stay with the Gibsons after some time in France. Cynthia is roughly the same age as Molly and despite their differences in character and temperament, they become close friends. Cynthia is fully aware of her beauty and craves the attention of young men, who seem to flock over her. This includes Roger, who madly proposes to Cynthia just before he is set to go off on a long journey of scientific discovery in Africa.

In episode three, we learn that both Cynthia and Osborne harbour secrets. Mr. Preston (Iain Glen), a somewhat sinister and unsavoury land agent seems to have some sort of hold on Cynthia. Molly somehow gets involved in the middle of all these and does her best to hold things together but things fall apart when a series of misunderstandings leads to scandal and gossip that damages Molly's reputation. In addition, Molly has a secret of her own - she has fallen in love with Roger but she refuses to admit this even to herself because of his engagement to her half-sister Cynthia.

What will happen? Will Roger survive Africa and who will he end up marrying? Will the secrets ever be revealed? Will Molly's name and reputation be forever tarnished through no fault of her own? All will be revealed in the fourth, and concluding episode.

Many aspects of Elizabeth's own life made it into the story: like Molly, her own mother died when she was young and Hyacinth was perhaps modelled after a stepmother that she did not get along with. Her own son died of scarlet fever and later on in the story one of the characters develop scarlet fever.

Wives and Daughters is well worth watching and gives a fascinating insight into Victorian society. What I like about the story, apart from the subtle feminist message, is that none of the characters are completely good or completely evil, and people are never quite what they seem. All the characters seem real and I feel as if I can understand their motivations and why they do the things they do.

In addition, Gaskell is not afraid of killing off her characters so you never know how it will turn out at the end. Incidentally, if you do not know the story, I strongly urge you to restrain yourself from glancing at the chapter titles printed in the inner cover of the DVD case - they contain pretty major plot spoilers not to mention revealing the ending.

The cast, costumes and locations are all wonderfully authentic (not that I would be able to judge, but it looks authentic!). Keeley Hawes who plays Cynthia seems to have a superior accent to Justine Waddell's Molly, but this is consistent with the story, as Cynthia has been brought up in a boarding school and has lived in France, whereas Molly presumably has never left Hollingford. Anthony Howell's accent occasionally fails him but he otherwise delivers a creditable performance.

For more information on Elizabeth Gaskell, including an e-text of the novel, visit the Gaskell web site. In addition there is a nice web site on the TV production. I think I'll have to read the book one of these days.

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Transfer Quality


This is a widescreen 1.78:1 transfer with 16x9 enhancement. Given the recent age of the feature (1999) I would suspect that this is the intended aspect ratio even though this is a TV production.

Although the transfer is superior to that of Pride And Prejudice, particularly in terms of detail and colour saturation, I was annoyed by varying levels of grain present in the film source, which ranges from almost unnoticeable to extremely distracting. In general, the outdoor scenes generally have far less grain than the indoor scenes, leading me to suspect that it is due to the nature of the film stock. If so, I wished they had used a better quality film stock or switched to digital video.

The detail levels are good, and colour saturation in most cases is pretty accurate, though not as vivid as I would have liked. The shades of green of an English countryside are well-represented, and the subtle differences in flesh tones between characters are accurately rendered. Occasional scenes seem slightly over-exposed but not unpleasantly so. Black levels are generally good, but can be occasionally problematic in low-lit scenes due to the presence of grain.

Apart from slight edge enhancement, there are no artefacts present in the transfer.

There are two subtitle tracks on the disc: English for the Hearing Impaired and Dutch. I engaged the English subtitles briefly just to verify that it was there. The English subtitle track does include transcriptions of auditory and other non-verbal cues.

This is a two-disc set and both discs are single sided and dual layered. Each episode is authored as a separate DVD title. The layer change for the first disc occur 4:54 minutes into the second episode and is mildly disruptive even though it occurs during a scene change. The layer change for the second disc occur in between episodes and hence is not noticeable at all.

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


There is only one audio track on this two disc set: English Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s).

The audio track is certainly pleasant enough to listen to and is problem free. It is mastered at a relatively high level (about 4-5 dB above average) so remember to turn down your volume control.

This is nominally a stereo audio track, but it is not very directional, so dialogue is pretty much centred in front and the left and right speakers are mainly used for music. There is no rear surround or subwoofer speaker activity.

I did not detect any issues with dialogue quality or audio synchronization.

The original music score by John E. Keane is pleasant-sounding and very hummable. If you really like the music, a 30-minute compilation mixed into 5.1 is available as an extra (on both discs - but it's the same content duplicated).

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


Given the inclusion of the music score compilation and a 30 minute featurette, I would rate the extras on this two-disc set as being reasonable.


The menu is 16x9 enhanced and comes with background audio. The scene selection menus contain animated chapter thumbnails and background audio.

Audio-Only Track-The Music Of... (30:03)

This is a rather surprising extra: a selection of the original music score for the TV series mixed into Dolby Digital 5.1 surround playing over a video still. If you really enjoyed the background music this will please you no end, and the audio quality is superb - very near CD quality apart from a slightly shimmery feel to the sound. The surround mix is quite subtle in that only ambience is directed towards the centre and rear channels, and the subwoofer is lightly utilised. However, the three dimensional soundstage it creates is very impressive indeed. Judging by the quality of this audio track, I think I'll have to save up money to buy a DVD Audio player to listen to surround sound music.

Trailer-Pride & Prejudice, David Copperfield, Middlemarch, Our Mutual Friend (2:17)

This consists of trailers for other BBC period drama productions, all concatenated into a single DVD title/chapter. It is presented in either 1.78:1 with 16x9 enhancement (apart from Middlemarch which is presented in 1.33:1 with mail-slotting) and Dolby Digital 2.0.

Featurette - Who The Dickens is Mrs. Gaskell? (26:22)

This is a fairly substantial featurette that combines a brief overview of the life and times of Elizabeth Gaskell, with behind-the-scenes footage, excerpts and interviews of the cast and crew. It is presented in widescreen 1.78:1 with 16x9 enhancement and Dolby Digital 2.0 sound, and contains English and Dutch subtitle tracks.

Narrated by Sue Johnston, the featurette includes interviews with:

I quite liked how the real life tiny village of Marsfield was converted into the fictional Hollingford, plus footage of members of the Gaskell society on a tour of places frequented by Elizabeth during her life. The colour saturation of the featurette is better than that of the episodes as it appears to be shot on videotape rather than film.

R4 vs R1

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

The Region 4 version of this disc misses out on;

The Region 1 version of this disc is a three disc set that misses out on;

I would be inclined to go for the Region 4 version because of the aspect ratio, although the additional featurettes found on the Region 1 version would have been nice.


Wives and Daughters is an excellent BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's final novel into a TV mini series and should please lovers of quality British period drama everywhere. It is presented on a two-disc DVD set with an okay but grainy widescreen video transfer, and a pleasant-sounding Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track. The extras include a 30 minute featurette and a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track containing selections from the original music score.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Christine Tham (read my biography)
Tuesday, November 06, 2001
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-626D, using Component output
DisplaySony VPL-VW10HT LCD Projector, ScreenTechnics 16x9 matte white screen (203cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationDenon AVR-3300
SpeakersFront and rears: B&W CDM7NT; centre: B&W CDMCNT; subwoofer: B&W ASW2500

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