Wives and Daughters, Unpressed

Okay, one last Spanish blu before we move on to other, pressing stuff.  You know, for now.  I'm not declaring a moratorium or anything.  But before we sail away, I wanted to look at one more of the newer Mapetac editions of a classic BBC miniseries.  So we go from Husbands and Wives to Wives and Daughters, another one of my personal favorites that was in desperate need of some help on home video.  And once again, Spain's the only country that answered the call.
Yes, this is another Andrew Davies adaptation.  Call me a fan boy if you must, but how can you watch something like (the original) House of Cards and not be?  And while he's had his misses alongside his hits, I think this is up there among his best work.  This time he's doing Elizabeth Gaskell's last, unfinished novel, Wives and Daughters, an Every-Day Story.  But this is no Sanditon, where Davies' imagination was left to run wild with nothing but the author's starting opening chapters to indicate the characters and direction of the story.  It's mostly all there.  Although, with that said, it's worth nothing that despite the fact that Gaskell's book was published completed by journalist Frederick Greenwood in the 1800s, Davies doesn't seem as beholden to Greenwood as he is to Gaskell.
Now, I hate to appeal to authority, but this series is swimming in BAFTAs.  The whole cast is strong, but surprisingly it's the men, particularly Traffik's Bill Paterson, and The Singing Detective himself, Michael Gambon, who steal the show.  But all the characters are layered and intriguing, on both the writing and performance level.  The production values are high, with various lush locations and authentic period imagery that the BBC, by this stage, had become quite expert in reproducing.  From countrysides to manors to old London and even Africa, this series doesn't attempt to compress the novel standard handful of drawing rooms.  But it also doesn't shy away from the minutia, including the literal insects Gaskell wrote of in her novel.
One surprise I have to address is that I popped the blu-ray in and it's six episodes.  Everywhere else I'm familiar with - from how it originally aired on Masterpiece Theater, to the DVD, to the way it's currently indexed on Amazon Prime - it was four episodes.  I got a little optimistic at first: was this another case where the US version was cut down and I'd found an original, full-length UK version, like Northanger Abbey, and I was going to be discovering a fuller, richer version than I'd known before?  But nah, it turns out it's more of an I, Claudius situation, where the episode breaks were just altered to make the series fit a more conventional TV broadcast schedule (turning the original, 70-odd minute episodes into 50-some ones, i.e. an hour with time for commercials).  Well, I tallied the total run times and they both clock in at just over 300 minutes.  This Spanish version does run a couple minutes longer, but that makes sense as it has two extra sets of opening and closing credits.  So neither version appears to have any extra or absent footage.
Wives and Daughters debuted on DVD in 2001 from BBC Warner, later repackaged in 2015.  There are other DVDs around the world, but if you're in the market for a blu-ray, Spain is your only option.  And like Middlemarch, this is another case of it coming first from Llamentol in 2013, and then being reissued by Mapetac in 2016.  Given Llamentol's infamous reputation, I took a shot on the Mapetac.

After my previous four posts exploring Spanish blus, you might've thought I was slowly disproving the preponderance of BDRs instead of properly pressed discs over there.  Well, I just found a BDR.  In fact, I daresay all these Mapetacs are just reissues of the same Llamentol discs.  Remember, Mapetac's Middlemarch BD actually had a Llamentol label?  This one doesn't name Llamentol or Mapetac on its label, but dollars to doughnuts, it's the exact same one you'd get if you ordered the 2013 release.  Oh well, let's at least see if this BDR is any good.
2001 US BBC Warner DVD, 2016 ES Mapetac BDR.
Okay, looking at these screenshots, it ain't pretty.  It looks like an SD upscale.  I'd almost conclude that there's no reason to upgrade, except... the DVD is a nightmare!  It's an extra low res non-anamorphic image with serious interlacing problems.  And look at that AR: 1.53:1?  The back of the 2015 DVD box calls "14:9 letterbox," which is a new one on me.  Surely that can't be the OAR. [Or maybe it can... see the comments.]  Compare it to Mapetac's 1.78:1.  It has exactly the same vertical matting but reveals substantially more on the sides.  Side by side, the DVD really looks boxed in and truncated.  And while yes, this is a BDR, at least it's, dual-layered and 1080i, which is appropriate for a broadcast master.

I honestly don't know if this series was shot on digital... 1999's right on the borderline where it could go either way, and the camera in the behind-the-scenes doc doesn't look to have film mags.  So maybe this is about as HD as it gets?  Or maybe a new restoration would work wonders.  Straight edges often look jagged due to low resolution, blacks seem crushed and the color range feels limited, but again, those are symptoms of late 90s digital films just as much as they are of problematic BD transfers, so it's hard to say.  But for our purposes, where these are our options anyway, I'd say we don't gain any additional detail or clarity, but the blue does clear up the interlacing problem.  That plus the aspect ratio and the anamorphic issue makes this a substantial improvement, even if it does still look like crap.
Audio-wise, both discs are lossy.  Surprise, surprise.  But I was pleased to see that the Mapetac blu included optional English subtitles (as does the BBC Warner DVD), in addition to the expected, and also lossy, Spanish dub and subtitles.

But here's the only category the DVD actually wins in: special features.  The Mapetac blu has nothing, not even a commercial.  But BBC Warner has a whole third disc dedicated to nothing but extras.  Specifically, two.  There's a 20+ minute behind-the-scenes documentary, with on-set cast interviews and a look at how they created the period.  And then there's a 50 minute Omnibus documentary about Elizabeth Gaskell overall.  Both include optional English subtitles as well.  This is good stuff (I would've preferred more on the making of part), and it's a shame to lose it.
So if you're upgrading, I recommend hanging onto your DVD as well.  And sure, you might scoff at the idea of upgrading to a BDR that looks this grungy, but it really is a far superior way to watch this excellent series.  Honestly, I never thought I was about to luck into a gorgeous, high end special edition.  I was just hoping for a fix to the interlacing and non-anamorphic issues, and I got it.  The improved framing was a pleasant surprise on top of that.  As long as you go in knowing what to expect - and what not to expect - it's a worthwhile acquisition.

2 comments:

  1. If memory serves, 14:9 was fairly common on British TV around that time, with 4:3 TVs still being the norm and wider ratios not yet being embraced.

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    1. Oh, interesting! I never realized that. The Spanish framing with the sides intact still seems preferable; but yeah, maybe they shot it with that AR possibility in mind after all.

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