Sunday, 1 October 2017


At least in my experience, 1980’s A Tale of Two Cities, often seems to receive decidedly little discussion by Cushing fans. Perhaps due to it not receiving an official UK DVD release, being a TV movie and not part of an established fan-base (such as many of his Horror films, Star Wars and the Dr Who movies) it has slipped into obscurity. This is a shame because (along with 1984’s The Masks of Death) it’s not only one of his last great roles but one of his very best performances. 

The two cities of the title are of course London and Paris, with the film taking place in the run-up to the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. It tells the story of Dr. Manette (Cushing), a man wrongly imprisoned in the Bastille for eighteen years. He has never met his daughter Lucy, who now remains in England. The film follows events concerning them and Lucie’s lover, Charles Damay who has an uncanny double in Sydney Carton who (you guessed it) also loves her. I’ll keep the plot explanation brief for those who have yet to see today’s upload!

The adaptation was the tenth film/television version of Charles Dickens novel, and was produced by Hallmark Hall of Fame who assigned Jim Goddard to direct. By this point, Goddard was well known as the director of the original The Black Stuff the play that went on to launch the Boys from the Black Stuff series and had made a name for himself as a successful TV Movie director. Hallmark appear to have splashed out as the film is lavishly produced, with impressive sets and large crowd scenes. Oddly enough the production was criticised for showing: ‘Little sense of the mob, or of an overall social sweep’[1], though I found this to be one of its strengths! Scenes showing the general poverty (such as one where a crowd sups wine from the floor) are amongst the adaptions most powerful. Whatever was felt to be its misgivings, it was nominated for both an Emmy and the Golden Globes in 1981, though it won neither. 

Cushing himself is on top form and I in particular count it among his best performances. One particular scene in which Cushing meeting his Daughter for the first time, is arguably his most moving portrayal of a character. Having been a prisoner for so many years, he has become frail and senile, almost at breaking point from the years of imprisonment. It really does stand amongst his best work and considering that this happens within the first ten minutes, you really have to prepare yourself for what is a pretty emotional ride! The really genius of Cushing’s performance however is how he shows his character of Manette slowly regaining a lot of his self-esteem and confidence, culminating in a rousing sequence where he urges the crowd to free an innocent man and take him instead. Unsurprisingly, Cushing steals the show!

The supporting cast is full of recognisable faces. Chris Sarandon, perhaps most well known as Jerry Dandrige in Fright Night (1985) and the voice of Jack Skellington in The Nightmare before Christmas (1993), plays the dual roles of Lawyer Sydney Carton and Charles Dannay, providing a few recognisable differences for the audience between the two. 

Alice Krige, who would later become primarily known as the Borg Queen plays Manettes Daughter Lucie. Kenneth More puts in a memorable performance as Dr Jarvis Lorry, all the more astounding considering he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. However, Billie Whitelaw…nearly very nearly manages to steal the show from Cushing with her malicious Madame Defarge. Whitelaw, channelling a completely different type of viciousness to that that gave her such power as Mrs Baylock in the Omen, being utterly repulsive yet utterly watchable.

There are a few notable Cushing connections in some of the supporting cast and bit-players. Robert Urquhart, who appeared alongside Peter Cushing in The Curse of Frankenstein as Paul Krempe, has a very small role as the Chief Adjudicator whilst Kevin Stoney (from The Blood Beast Terror) appears as the Chief Lord Justice. Also look out for a very young and pre- Poirot David Suchet In his first on-screen role.

One another odd note, very possibly it was scheduling conflicts with this film that stopped Cushing appearing in Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat (1981)[2]. Though the actual reasons are unknown, it is perhaps something of a blessing.

It’s hard to believe Cushing would have been comfortable with Fulci’s penchant for extreme gore and we would have missed out on a role that is both a joy to watch and one that was clearly very close to his heart.

As previously stated the film has no official UK DVD or Blu-Ray release, but Shout! Factory did put out a very good Blu-Ray that is currently still available in the US.


Screen Caps and Gifs: Jamie Somerville
Feature: :Callum McKelvie.
Callum McKelvie, is the new head features writer at the Peter Cushing Appreciation Society. You can read more of his reviews and features here at the PCAS website, and shortly at the relaunched
 THEBLACKBOXCLUB.COM website and Black Box Club Facebook Fan Page

[1] Miller, David: Peter Cushing: A Life in Film p161
[1] Glavin, John: Dickens on Screen, p213 

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