Wessex Tales (1973– )
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The Withered Arm 

In the early 19th century, a young married woman is stricken with a mysterious malady and searching for a cure leads her in to mysteries and tragedy.




(short story), (adapted by)


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Episode complete credited cast:
Yvonne Antrobus ...
Farmer John Lodge
William Relton ...
Paul Hardwick ...
Conjuror Trendle
Hugh Morton ...
Virginia Snyders ...
John Welsh ...
Valerie Holliman ...
Merelina Kendall ...


In the early 19th century, a young married woman is stricken with a mysterious malady and searching for a cure leads her in to mysteries and tragedy.

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Release Date:

7 November 1973 (UK)  »

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Conjuror Trendle: You must touch with the limb the neck of a man who's been hanged.
Conjuror Trendle: Before he's cold - just after he's cut down,
Gertrude: How can that do good?
Conjuror Trendle: It will turn the blood and change the constitution. But, as I say, to do it is hard. You must go to the jail when there's a hanging, and wait for him when he's brought off the gallows. Lots have done it, though perhaps not such pretty women as you. I used to send dozens for skin complaints. But that was in former times. The last I sent was in '13 - near twelve ...
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User Reviews

An admirable stab at a very difficult writer.
28 May 2001 | by (dublin, ireland) – See all my reviews

Thomas Hardy is a tough one for the heritage fetishists. While undoubtedly a major 19th century novelist, he offers few of the pleasures sought in period dramas - costumes are rustic and functional; characters are uncharismatic and inarticulate rather than witty. There is none of the romance and comedy of Austen, the vivid caricatures of Dickens or the thrilling plots of Stevenson. Indeed, you might almost call them anti-pleasure: from the beginning, the characters set a course towards decline and unhappiness or death, a course relentlessly plotted by nature.

Where other novelists exult in the elegance of the ballroom or the teeming vitality of the Victorian city, Hardy privileges the mundane routine of everyday farming life. The main characters in his works are Nature, the Seasons, the intractable workings of Fate - difficult essences to give concrete realisation on screen. Further, his schematic, deterministic plots, which have a complex philosophical force in the novel, can seem merely contrived in a film. The elements that save the novels - the intricate tableaux of nature, the structuring narrative into rites - are similarly elusive. Only 'Jude' has seemed in any way satisfactory, although the speedy contraction of harrowing events eventually became bathetic.

This 1973 BBC adaptation is one of the more successful efforts, probably because it is based on a short story, and so suffers less in excision. The story concerns the new wife of the local farmer-landlord, who is stared at by a strange youth on her way to her husband's home after the wedding. Her husband advises her to ignore the boy, but it soon transpires that he is his abandoned, illegitimate son by a milkmaid Rhoda (played with unyielding severity by Beckett's favourite actress, Billie Whitelaw), and probably not the only one in the county. Rhoda resents the newcomer, and one night dreams of defending herself against her by searing her arms. The wife befriends Rhoda by showing an interest in her son, and shows her the horrible scar on her arm that no doctor can remove. Rhoda reluctantly suggests a local witchdoctor.

The pleasure of this adaptation lies in its refusal to provide easy pleasure. What has been called Hardy's 'magnificent gloominess' is amply realised, with deeply unhappy characters and horrific events matched by a focus on the monotony and bleakness of such a life. If it can't match Hardy's emphasis on Nature and Fate, at least those forces are powerfully present, while the supernatural plot only literalises the often paganistic impulse behind Hardy's seemingly realistic narratives.

The idea of the sins of the husband being visited on the wife, and that of men on women in general, is strongly expressed, but the sense of enigma is even stronger, that something beyond appearances seemingly structuring our best efforts. Obtrusive period detail is at a minimum, with the emphasis on atmosphere and mystery - the climax, though expected, is agreeably dread-ful.

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