In the 1830’s in northern England, Riah Millican, a widow with three children, takes a job as housekeeper to a reclusive former teacher, Percival Miller. Miller makes Riah the gift of a black velvet gown, and even educates her children. But when Riah discovers the reason behind Miller’s gifts, she vows to leave his house, but Miller has a hold on her, even after his death, when he leaves his house to her on the condition that she never marry. Riah’s daughter, Biddy, grows up and becomes a laundress in a large house where her education keeps her from fitting in and makes her a target. But it also catches the eye of a son of the house, and with Miller’s legacies, Biddy may yet find her way to happiness.
Deceit and drama in the gloomy north
Although I’ve never read a Catherine Cookson novel, I’ve seen a few of these ’90s-era adaptations of her work now and they’re all splendidly evocative renditions of her writing.
THE BLACK VELVET GOWN is a case in point: it’s a well-paced and engaging saga charting the fortunes of a poor family in mid-19th century County Durham. One of the most interesting things about this saga is that it’s devoid of cliché, and you’re never quite sure where the story’s going to end up.
In essence, this TV movie is made up of two parts. The first features Bob Peck’s Percival Miller, a slightly odd man, reclusive in nature, who takes on a housekeeper and her children. The story that develops between the characters looks like it will follow well-worn routines, but in fact it doesn’t; there’s a twist that comes totally out of left field and one which I found very moving. Peck gives a physical performance in this one: all staring eyes and gnashing teeth. The camera loves him, and I loved his character. As the put-upon heroine, Janet McTeer looks and breathes the part, living in the era like few actors can manage.
The second half moves forward in time to chart the fortunes of Geraldine Somerville, then breaking into acting for the first time with this her first major role. She’s wonderfully: icy and fragile, a character who follows her own internal convictions rather than those of society. The film features some intense conflict and wonderfully understated little character moments.
Director Norman Stone handled some of the best Cookson adaptations (including Robson Greene’s THE GAMBLING MAN) and this is another highlight of his career; a strong, compelling take on a classic storyteller.