Medieval Adventure… Modern Attitude

“Why is everyone so intent on challenging me?  What have I done to create such chaos in my own house?  Is it so wrong to demand what’s right for your children?  To expect a small measure of respect?”
–Sir Thomas Grey, Lord of Covington Cross

Raising a family as a single parent is an adventure.  Fun, crazy, and heartbreaking… especially in those years where they’re becoming adults themselves, testing their limits (and yours), and the expectations you (and the rest of the world) may have for them.  All in order for them to grow into who they REALLY are.  Sometimes it’s humorous, sometimes emotional.  And society doesn’t help, wanting people to fulfill their proper “roles” rather than become individuals.

Now, imagine bearing that cross in the 14th century in Medieval England, when those expectations and “roles” were far more rigid than today.  It was a time when duty, honor, position, and tradition meant everything… and loving your family meant a balancing act between fulfilling those roles and letting them be true to themselves.

And of course, considering it was a 1992 television series as well, it also meant having fun and adventure along the way… in the castle manor of a place called Covington Cross.

Sir Thomas, Richard, Eleanor, Armus, and Cedric. The Greys of Covington Cross

Sir Thomas Grey (Nigel Terry) is a Medieval father who believes in honor, chivalry, and traditional roles.  His eldest son Armus (Tim Killick) is just returning from fighting in the Crusades; middle son Richard (Jonathan Firth) is in training to become a knight and protector of their land and the local village populace; youngest son Cedric (Glenn Quinn) is studying to become a Friar; and beautiful daughter Eleanor (Ione Skye) is learning the ladylike arts and studying music.  Or at least, that’s what Sir Thomas would wish for, in his traditional view of the world….

The truth is, Armus was in the Crusades all right… as a cook, and not the warrior that Sir Thomas believed him to be, even though he’s strong as an ox.  Richard has learned to be a great fighter, but is almost too eager and hotheaded, drawing his sword instead of respecting honor and authority, and too often challenging his father’s ideas.  Cedric would rather chase young maidens instead of living the chaste life as part of the religious order and studying Latin, and preferring mischief instead of meditation.  And Eleanor… accidentally almost puts an arrow into Sir Thomas’ head with the crossbow she’s been practicing instead of the lute and harp.

Lady Elizabeth

Sir Thomas isn’t angry with his children, just a bit frustrated, but at least he has one solace:  his relationship with the Lady Elizabeth (Cherie Lunghi), a widow who owns some neighboring land and forms both a romantic alliance with Thomas and a trade alliance with Covington Cross.  But even she doesn’t fit the traditional model, having to become a leader of her own territory and holding her own with any man.  While they obviously love each other, Elizabeth is not going to marry Thomas and become subordinate; yet because of her love for him and his family, she maintains a wise and reasoned balancing effect on all of them.

Baron John Mullens

But Sir Thomas has more to worry about than family squabbles.  Another neighbor, Baron John Mullens (James Faulkner) covets Sir Thomas’s land and wealth, and usually has a villainous scheme to try to gain control of them.  Mullens has a daughter who refuses to believe in his nefarious ways… and she is carrying on a secretive relationship with Cedric (echoing the opposing families of Romeo and Juliet, without the dying part).  But when Covington Cross is threatened by Mullens or any other outside force, Sir Thomas can always count on his family and Lady Elizabeth to close ranks and face any plot against them.

“It’s a straightforward adventure, but it’s fun as well.  And it’s not divorced from present day (…) because the dialogue is modern and the issues are modern.  It has a real relevance, but at the same time, it’s a different world.  It’s a wonderful, strange, magical world, which is fun to join for an hour a week.”
–James Faulkner

“14th Century Adventure… 14th Century Romance… 20th Century Attitude” was the advertising tagline for the show, and they meant it.  Covington Cross didn’t try very hard to be historically accurate, even to the point of never saying exactly what year they were in.  They were going more for a generic medieval period setting rather than being derailed by details, even though filming was in England and not just on a Hollywood back lot (the show was a co-production with Thames Television in Great Britain).

The biggest complaint made by TV critics was that Eleanor and Elizabeth most certainly were not accurate portrayals of women of the middle ages, considering their more liberated attitudes (not that TV critics were necessarily experts on the subject).  But this wasn’t a BBC docudrama or something that we’d find today on the History Channel.  The producers weren’t trying to portray the harsher realities of life in medieval times, but going more for the “Errol Flynn” type expectations of the modern audience. 

Covington Cross was a light-hearted entertainment series.  It may have told stories about people torn between duty to society and their own desires, with moral dilemmas and choices, discovering their own strengths and weaknesses, but those stories were told all in the midst of rollicking adventures.  They were modern stories, with modern ideas and modern decisions… it was simply the setting that was different.  Think of it as science fiction in reverse:  commenting on our own lives and struggles, but from the past instead of the future.  And again, with a sprightly tone that avoided parody or outright comedy, but was still fun and filled with heroism and gallantry.

“I was going through the TV Guide, and just kept seeing one frontier family show after another.  In the repeats, I saw High Chaparral, I saw Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, The Big Valley, you name it.  And it dawned on me that this could be a frontier family show, if you just moved the frontier back about 500 years, and changed the guns to swords, and chaps to armor.”
–Creator and Executive Producer Gil Grant

This is NOT Bonanza...

Unfortunately, the show was also dismissed by critics as actually being nothing MORE than Bonanza in the middle ages, with a patriarch and three grown sons (and a token daughter thrown in for 1990’s political correctness).  But that simplified the point of the show FAR too much; the men on Bonanza (like the traditional westerns of the 1960’s era it aired in) were very much fulfilling their expected societal roles.  But from the first five minutes of the pilot of Covington Cross (available here on YouTube), you could see that this show was NOT about trying to fill those roles, but instead, following your heart–and balancing both ends of that scale.  (The clip also shows the light-adventure tone of the series).  Even Sir Thomas, as the patriarch, had to realize that honor could still be fulfilled, even if tradition wasn’t.  In that respect, he’s more like Tevye from the musical Fiddler on the Roof, than he is Ben Cartwright from Bonanza; a parent trying to hold onto his grown children, and still let them go become themselves.

“The show is about them as they mature, discovering their new talents and discovering life, and cutting their teeth in the big bad world outside.  It’s an everyday story of frontier folk who just happen to be in 14th century England.”
–James Faulkner

ABC aired Covington Cross on Saturday nights at 8/7 Central, definitely as a family-oriented viewing choice.  They actually aired the pilot episode early as a “preview” on August 25, 1992… and didn’t air the second episode for another three and a half WEEKS.  (Great way to get people excited about a show, ABC.)  Four more episodes aired, then Covington Cross was pre-empted with no notice for another week (explained in the next paragraph), followed by two more episodes (including the last on a Saturday Halloween night, when their family target audience was likely not at home).  Although there were seven more episodes already filmed, they were never aired.

ABC received an offer from Ross Perot (a maverick businessman who was shaking up the established system by running an Independent Presidential election campaign) to buy the time slot.  Perot wished to air weekly political speeches in his bid to communicate directly with the voters, and ABC was more than willing to take free money for what was essentially an hour commercial.  Failing to find a consistent audience, Covington Cross was cancelled, ironically in part because of a man who thought it was more important to present who he was to the world than follow the traditional method of behavior on a campaign… much like the characters on Covington Cross desired to be true to themselves instead of following the traditional “roles” that had been designed for them.  Ultimately, Perot disappeared from the airwaves and the political scene, just as Covington Cross did from television.

The noble heroes and heroines of Covington Cross

NIGEL TERRY (Sir Thomas Grey) has had an extensive stage career in England, occasionally taking television and movie roles in British productions such as The Lion in Winter, MI-5, and Doctor Who.  He’s probably best known to American audiences for the 1981 movie Excalibur, in which he played King Arthur.  Ironically enough, his love interest in that movie was….

CHERIE LUNGHI (Lady Elizabeth) who played Guinevere in Excalibur, so their pairing in Covington Cross was a spectacular bit of casting.  She has appeared in many, many British series, becoming well-known enough that she was a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing (the original British show that spawned American imitation Dancing With The Stars).  Her most recent work was as a regular on the BBC/Showtime series Secret Diary of a Call Girl.

TIM KILLICK (Armus Grey) is 6′ 5″ tall, and usually gets to play the intimidating muscle type.  He has appeared in the British series Lovejoy and Bergerac, and also in the British/American co-produced period mini-series Ivanhoe and fantasy mini-series The 10th Kingdom.

JONATHAN FIRTH (Richard Grey) is the younger brother of actor Colin Firth, and has performed in the American series Highlander, Relic Hunter, Jericho and Ghost Whisperer, as well as British appearances in The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Cadfael, and Heat of the Sun (all seen here in America on the PBS Mystery! series).  His major parts immediately before and after Covington Cross were in BBC productions of Wuthering Heights and Romeo and Juliet, so he’s well-versed in period pieces.

GLENN QUINN (Cedric Grey) played Becky’s boyfriend Mark Healy on the American series Roseanne, turning what was supposed to be a one-episode appearance into a seven-year run.  He even spent the season break during filming of Roseanne to fly back to England to play the role of Cedric on Covington Cross, thereby appearing regularly on two ABC series at the same time.  He’s also well-known for playing the half-demon Doyle on the first season of Angel (and getting to revert back to his natural-born Irish accent!).  He unfortunately died of a heroin overdose in 2002.

IONE SKYE (Eleanor Grey) is remembered by any teenager who saw the 1989 movie Say Anything, as John Cusack’s girlfriend in the movie (and the iconic scene when he plays the song “In Your Eyes” to her on a boombox, held over his head, outside her house).  Her resumé includes impressive performances in many small films, including Gas, Food, Lodging and Zodiac.

JAMES FAULKNER (Baron John Mullens) has the perfect face and voice for a villain, and has used it well in productions ranging from The Martian Chronicles mini-series to Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis in Hound of the Baskervilles to Herod in I, Claudius.  Starting in 1998, his career branched out into doing voices for English-dubbed Japanese anime.  Even more recently he’s started doing voices for video games, including the best-selling Halo Legends and the voice of Snape in the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince game.

Covington Cross is not officially available on DVD, although excellent quality bootlegs of the entire series, including the seven unaired episodes, are available.  They were apparently taken from the original masters or the syndicated tape provided directly to overseas TV stations (the episodes have no commercials and a placard before the end credits stating “PLACE TRAILER HERE”, so these weren’t just taped copies of aired broadcasts).  Many of the bootlegs also contain an hour-long promotional press video, with interviews from a number of the cast.  Cherie Lunghi’s site has an excellent page on Covington Cross, with emphasis, naturally, on her role in the show.  And, of course, in addition to the scene from the pilot linked in the article, there are also the typical best clips on YouTube.  (Oh, and just for trivia’s sake, in the pilot, there’s a guard with a single line… played by Daniel Craig, the current James Bond in the long-running 007 movie series.  He’s on-screen for such a short time, the clip is only six seconds long! Every actor has to start somewhere….)

The castle of Covington Cross (actually, Allington Castle in Kent, England)

Citing concerns with the cost of the show (filmed entirely on location in England), and knowing that showing huge battles was physically and financially impossible on a TV show budget, there’s an interesting quote in the previously mentioned press video (made before the series even aired) that’s unfortunately rather prophetic:

“Television is still character driven, and hopefully, people are going to tune in after the sixth week to see what Sir Thomas and Eleanor are going to do, rather than see what sword fight they’re going to be involved in….
–Creator and Executive Producer Gil Grant

Of course, ABC only aired 6 of the 13 filmed episodes, so nobody got the chance to tune in after that sixth week for Covington Cross.  And some of the best episodes (in my opinion) are in that last seven that never aired.  But Grant is still right because, even though the middle ages was conducive to battles and swordplay, it was the growth and choices of the characters that made the show work, and not just the setting.  The characters’ push-pull between their roles in medieval society and making their own life choices made the series interesting, fun, exciting, and memorable.  And no matter how old a series is… or how old its setting is… that balancing act is still being performed, every day, by everyone, no matter how old their adventures or how modern their attitude.  It’s part of life.  That’s our cross to bear.

Vital Stats

6 aired episodes — 7 unaired episodes
ABC Network
First aired episode:  August 27, 1992
Last aired episode:  October 31, 1992
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Again, close.  Saturdays at 8/7 Central.  Of course, in a show that wasn’t really exact about when it was set, let’s not be picky about when it aired either.  It would’ve fit in the Friday slot just fine.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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