Vintage TV Miniseries Review: Jamaica Inn (1983)
Jamaica Inn is a veritable bag of Gothic goodies. We’ve got murders aplenty. There’s madness and creepy housekeepers and even an albino. We’ve got windswept moors aplenty. Smugglers and wreckers are afoot, mysteries abound, and our plucky, orphaned beauty is in the middle of it all. The melodrama is so thick, you can cut it and savor. Oh, it’s good stuff!
Jamaica Inn is a six-part miniseries (or three-part, depending on how you’re counting), starring Jane Seymour, Trevor Eve and Patrick McGoohan. It runs for about three hours. This ITV miniseries is an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s literary classic of the same name. Unfortunately, this adaptation has been forgotten as the years have gone by. This is an injustice. ITV’s Jamaica Inn is a Gothic gem!
Murder, Madness, Mysteries, Moors – Oh My!
Mary Yellan (Jane Seymour) is ousted from her peaceful existence when her beloved, sailor father is brutally murdered by wreckers. Wreckers are essentially land pirates, who lure ships to their rocky graves with lights and then loot them. Mary’s mother (played by the always wonderful Vivian Pickles) promptly goes mad. Check, check, check. That’s pirates, murder, and madness in the first few minutes of the first episode! Throw those into your Gothic goody bag.
And when Mommy dearest bites the dust, as mad women do – often rather spectacularly – well, Mary is on her own. And off to the only remaining relative she has left, her Aunt Patience (Billie Whitelaw). Mary hasn’t seen Patience in years. Patience has married since they last saw one another, and she now lives at Jamaica Inn.
It quickly becomes apparent that Jamaica Inn has a reputation and not a good one. The coachman is loath to even stop there. Jamaica Inn sits in the middle of a lonely moor in Cornwall. Her Uncle Joss (Patrick McGoohan) is a giant brute of a man, prone to drink and violence, often together. Aunt Patience has lost her bloom, is a shade of her former vibrant self. She lives in fear of her husband. Ruffians and criminals frequent the place. Wagons arrive in the dark of night to load and unload wares. Something is afoot.
Moors, isolation, brooding brute, mysterious doings – add those to the Gothic goodie bag.
This, of course, is the central mystery of the story. What in the heck is going on at Jamaica Inn?! That’s for our fair maiden to figure out, which she does with some help. She befriends a local clergyman – an albino. She also finds herself drawn to Uncle Joss’s little brother, Jem (Trevor Eve). Jem’s an admitted horse thief, as well as a rogue, full of twinkle-eyed, possibly silvery fork-tongued banter. But just how much he too is involved with Jamaica Inn’s dark dealings, Mary does not know. Oh, the bad boy love appeal. Is he in earnest? Does he speak the truth? That too is a mystery Mary must solve.
And that’s about it. Mary sleuths about and susses it out. And I’m not going to ruin it all here.
Gothic Done Just Right
Jamaica Inn could move into corny territory with all its melodramatic, Gothic elements. And yeah, it’s over the top, but then that’s the genre and the joy of it. And it’s also the book. Yes, it’s got its cheesy moments. But the acting and the atmospheric tension-building are truly captivating. The settings are wildly wonderful – the moors, the coastlines, the rocky outcrops. There’s a good amount of shocking brutality with a wee bit of mild, mostly symbolic gore. I quite enjoyed that. Dead bodies floating to the surface, blood on hands, blood pools on tiles, just little touches. Never overdone. Just right.
However, it’s truly the three main leads that carry Jamaica Inn. There are great performances going on here. Patrick McGoohan – a tall beauty of man known for playing suave James Bond-types – is transformed here into a volatile menace. His Uncle Joss feels true to the book, needy and brutal, prone to muttered soliloquies about life and death. He’s incredibly frightening, and yet there’s a vulnerability there, which incites compassion as well. That Patrick McGoohan can hold onto these conflicting polarities in his portrayal is a feat. He never moves into melodramatic stock characterization and stereotype. It’s a nuanced performance.
Jane Seymour is as beautiful as ever here. And her fresh-faced beauty is used to full effect. Her long locks are perennially free, wildly blowing as she walks across the moors. She’s a likable heroine, strong-willed, straight-talking, compassionate, loyal, trying to do what is right. Jane Seymour is incredibly expressive and photogenic, and there is no lack of close-ups of her face and those eyes and that hair. The make-up artist was a little heavy-handed with the make-up at times, but then it was made in the 80s. Suffice it to say, Jane Seymour makes a fine Mary Yellan.
All Gothic stuff has an undercurrent of sex and sensuality, and Jamaica Inn has that in spades. Again, beautiful Jane Seymour is good at evoking this sexual awakening. And the man evoking such responses in Mary is Jem Merlyn, played by Trevor Eve. Oh man, the chemistry between these two is crackling. You know how it is, when you just say to yourself, “Oh, I’ll just watch that scene again.” And you get that smile-inducing pleasure right down in your core every single time. Well, Eve’s Jem and Seymour’s Mary have that going on. It’s fantastic stuff!
Trevor Eve’s Jem is a playful rake with a heart of gold and a soft spot for Mary. He’s less brooding and melancholic than Matthew McNulty’s Jem from the 2014 adaptation of Jamaica Inn. There’s a devil-may-care attitude à la Robin Hood and Han Solo. A flirtatious lightness that masks his inherent goodness and depth of emotions. He’s very appealing in that deliciously bad boy way. Very appealing. Pretty much every scene he shares with Mary leaves you smiling.
I am now a huge fan of ITV’s 1983 adaptation of Jamaica Inn. It is an overlooked gem, and I intend to remedy that. I will see this again and again. It’s such a viewing pleasure, so full of Gothic goodies and evocative performances. And yeah, it takes liberties with its source material, and the picture quality hasn’t aged well. But it is so worth watching and savoring. Eat it up and enjoy every Gothic morsel!
Content Note: Probably PG-13 for thematic material, violence and minor swearing, mostly of a blasphemous type. There is a brief shot of a wet, see-through chemise, where a woman’s breasts are seen.
Where to Watch: YouTube, DVD.
Photo Credit: ITV.
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