Actress Joanne Froggatt Goes to the Dark Side as Murderess Mary Ann Cotton in Dark Angel on Masterpiece Classic PBS

After reading the advance press on Dark Angel – the new period drama starring Joanne Froggatt as Victorian-era serial killer Mary Ann Cotton – I was seriously considering skipping my weekly MASTERPIECE appointment with my television. Multiple murders by a woman who successively kills her husbands and children by poison for their life insurance sounded like nails on a chalkboard to me – something way beyond my comfort zone. The fact that it featured Froggatt, an awarding winning actress who I adored as Anna Bates in Downton Abbey, Emmy award winning director Brian Percival (Downton Abbey) and acclaimed screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes (Miss Austen Regrets) softened the blow a bit, but I was still not convinced.

My tipping point was my love of English history and my curiosity. Life in lower-class Victorian England was harsh and bleak, however, many wives and mothers did not become serial killers. What was Mary Ann Cotton’s story? What pushed her beyond despair and made her a mass murderer?

“Why don’t you let me make you a nice cup of tea?” – Mary Ann Cotton

Screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes had an extraordinary true-life story to draw from. It is estimated that Cotton poisoned with arsenic up to 21 people including: three of her four husbands, fifteen children, a lover, a friend, and her mother – collecting life insurance for many of them.

Joseph Nattrass (Jonas Armstrong) flirts with Mary Ann (Joanne Froggatt)

Born on Halloween day in 1832 in Low Moorsley, a small village just outside Sunderland in north east England, Mary Ann was the daughter of Michael Robson a colliery sinker (coal mine shaft construction and maintenance worker) who died in 1842 in a mine accident in Murton, Co Durham, when she was ten. This appears to be the beginning of a long list of family deaths for Mary Ann. At age 20 she married William Mowbray in 1852. He died in 1865. Husband number two was George Ward. He died in 1866. Employed in Sunderland as housekeeper by a recent widower, James Robinson, she snagged him too and they wed in 1867. Robinson resisted her pitch to insure his life and later threw her out over stolen money and debt, but not before 4 of his children and her only living daughter died under her care. Next, she became a bigamist and married Frederick Cotton, the brother of a young friend who died of stomach ailments shortly before the nuptials. Soon after their marriage she convinces her husband to move to West Auckland where a former lover, Joseph Nattrass, was now residing.

A brief aside. Nattrass is a unique last name originating in north east England. It happens to be my surname, but my line springs from Allendale, Northumberland, and Joseph’s is from Co Durham. It was a relief to know that I have no familiar connections to Mary Ann Cotton, whatsoever!

While married to Frederick Cotton, Mary Ann bears her twelfth child, Robert Cotton, in 1871. Up until now I have not mentioned all the children. All you really need to know is that up until this point they are all dead along with 4 of her step-children. (The one exception is her son George Robinson whom she left in the care of his father.) Husband number four Frederick Cotton dies in 1871, followed by their son Robert in 1872. The only child remaining is her 7-year-old step-son, Charles Edward Cotton, who she is now saddled with after the death of her husband. Free of all declared husbands, Mary Ann hooks up again with former lover Joseph Nattrass who becomes her lodger until he changes his will in her favor and dies in 1872, followed by her step son Charles Edward. This is where the madness ends for Mary Ann. You’ll have to watch Dark Angel to find out how her house of lies, deceit and death comes crumbling down.

Inspired by the book Mary Ann Cotton: Britain’s First Female Serial Killer by noted criminologist David Wilson, screenwriter Gywneth Hughes has crafted an engrossing tale revealing the inner-motives of a ruthless killer. Over the course of twenty years, we see Mary Ann as a young mother eager to rise above the poverty, filth and disease of her life. We cringe at her dire circumstances and feel her pain. Froggatt excels as downtrodden as we experienced with her Anna Bates in Downton Abbey. It is great to see her acting chops in full action when her darker side appears as she morphs into the black widow – using her sexual allurements to entrap her next husband – and then her detached cunning in dispatching her victims; be it man, woman or child. The body count is staggering. It is no wonder that in real-life Mary Ann’s arrest, trial and execution were sensationally publicized in Victorian newspapers becoming a national obsession.

Was Mary Ann Cotton driven by nature or nurture? Her mother, step-father, husbands and friends all seem as helpful and supportive as they could be under their own limited means. It is amazing to think that no one in her inner circle noticed the pattern of death around her. Even the insurance company does not put two and two together and continued to pay her as each family member died. I have my own theories, but honestly being a pioneer of anything gives you great advantage as a criminal. Who could possibly suspect a woman of such deeds?

Mary Ann Cotton was charged and convicted of willful murder of her step son Charles Edward Cotton by poisoning and has executed by hanging on March 23, 1873 at Durham County Goal. She declared her innocence until the very end.

Of Mary Ann’s 13 known children, only two survived her: Margaret Edith (1873–1954) who was born while she was in prison and was adopted by friends and her son George Robinson whom she left with her third husband James. They survived because they were in the care of others.

Now, when anyone offers me a cup of tea, I will be hard pressed NOT to think of Mary Ann Cotton!

Watch an interview of Joann Froggatt on her role as Mary Ann Cotton.

View Dark Angel online at PBS Video through June 3, 2017.

Images Courtesy of Justin Slee/World Productions and MASTERPIECE © 2016

Downton Abbey – A Celebration: The Official Companion to All Six Seasons, by Jessica Fellowes – A Review

Downton Abbey a Celebration 2015 x 300“It’s that time of year when the world falls in love” … with Downton Abbey all over again. The final season starts in less than one month on Masterpiece Classic PBS on January 3, 2016. My anticipation of another season of great drama, romance and witty retorts runs high.

I am, of course, paraphrasing The Christmas Waltz; the famous 1954 holiday song written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne for Frank Sinatra. There is nothing like listening to Christmas carols to make me sentimental. Coupled with the fact that this will be the sixth and final season of Downton Abbey, one of my favorite period dramas on television, and I am ready for a double shot of brandy in my eggnog.

Despite my melodramatic angst over the conclusion of the Crawley family and their servants’ story, fellow Downtonites can revisit the fabulous plots, locations and characters by reading the final companion volume to the series, Downton Abbey – A Celebration, by Jessica Fellowes. This is her fourth large and lavish book spotlighting the phenomenally popular, award winning television series.  And, it truly lives up to its title—a jubilant fête worthy of her uncle Julian Fellowes’ vision of portraying the changes in the British aristocracy through the Crawley family and their servants from the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 to the Jazz Age of 1925. Continue reading

The Wit and Wisdom of Downton Abbey, by Jessica Fellowes – A Review

Wit and Wisdom of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes 2015 x 200Will we ever be able to explain the phenomenon that is the television series Downton Abbey? Watched by millions and showered with awards, I find the reason for its success as elusive to pinpoint as Jane Austen’s lasting appeal. It means so much to so many. In two hundred years time will people be watching and reading about this period drama as passionately as we do Austen’s novels?

Quite possibly so. Their common link is the witty writing. Clever bon mots and cheeky retorts never go out of fashion. They make us smile, laugh-out-loud and reflect upon what makes us tick as humans. They are a window into our souls.

The Wit and Wisdom of Downton Abbey, by Jessica Fellowes is a collection of those fabulous zingers that make this series so “light, bright and sparkling” to Austen fans and the bazillion other viewers around the world. Creator and writer Julian Fellowes must love Austen as much as this Janeite. He certainly recognizes how her prose can sing with humor and social reproof using the same technique in his own dialogue. Whenever anyone complains about anything I am tempted to use a little Lady Catherine, oops, Lady Violet on them… Continue reading

Giveaway Winners Announced for Ross Poldark and Demelza Books

Ross Poldark A Novel of Cornwall, 1783 to1787 2015 x 200        Demelza A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790 by Winston Graham 2015 x 200

It’s time to announce the giveaway winners of the first two novels in the Poldark Saga: Ross Poldark and Demelza. The lucky winners drawn at random are:

1.) Eight (8) trade paperback copies of Ross Poldark

  • lex6819, who left a comment on June 22, 2015
  • Bookfool, aka Nancy, who left a comment on July 13, 2015
  • Ladycrumpet, who left a comment on August 05, 2015
  • Trudystattle, who left a comment on June 9, 2015
  • Veronica Sweet, who left a comment on June 7, 2015
  • Patricia Barraclough, who left a comment on July 19, 2015
  • Elizabeth, who left a comment on August 3, 2015
  • BeckyC, who left a comment on June 10, 2015

2.) Eight (8) trade paperback copies of Demelza

  • Debraemarvin, who left a comment on June 9, 2015
  • grace2302, who left a comment on July 7, 2015
  • SeldomKate, who left a comment on August 3, 2015
  • Sofia Guerra, who left a comment on June 22, 2015
  • Missyisms, who left a comment on June 11, 2015
  • Greta, who left a comment on June 9, 2015
  • monicap79, who left a comment on June 11, 2015
  • Maureen M., who left a comment on August 5, 2015

Congratulations  winners! To claim your prize, please contact me with your full name and address by August 12, 2015 or you will forfeit your prize! Mail shipment to US addresses only.

Many thanks to all who left comments, and the good folks at Sourcebooks Landmark who contributed the giveaway copies of Ross Poldark and Demelza.

Cover images courtesy of Sourcebooks Landmark © 2015; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2015, Austenprose.com

Poldark Season One Episode Seven on Masterpiece Classic PBS – A Recap & Review

Captain Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner). Image (c) 2015 Mammoth Screen, Ltd. for Masterpiece PBS

Captain Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner). Image (c) 2015 Mammoth Screen, Ltd. for Masterpiece PBS

Last week in episode 6 of Poldark, we had the “Pride and Prejudice Poldark Edition,” in which talk of frocks, balls and beaus resounded with snappy repartees and witty retorts, in true Jane Austen style.

This week in episode 7 of Poldark, it’s just another day in Cornwall when an epidemic strikes the community, tragedy befalls the Poldark family and a rip roaring shipwreck sends more than a ship to the bottom of the sea, in the thrilling and heartbreaking 2 hour season 1 finale.

Side Note: Masterpiece Classic chose to combine episodes 7 and 8 of the UK broadcast into one episode. This will be confusing to some. Do not be alarmed. Both episodes are included.

(Fair warning. There be spoilers ahead)

RECAP (longish)

Where’s Verity?”—Elizabeth Poldark

While George Warleggan (Jack Farthing) reminds Ross Poldark’s (Aidan Turner) business partner Sir Jonathan Tressider (Mark Seaman) where his true interests lie in light of the debt that he owes to Warleggan Bank, Verity (Ruby Bentall) makes her move (finally) and elopes with Captain Blamey (Richard Harrington). Francis Poldark (Kyle Soller), the narcissistic cad that he is, does not take the news well. He is convinced that Ross aided them in their plans. His wife Elizabeth (Heida Reed) questions his rash accusations, defending Ross proclaiming, “I stand up for no one, but it’s the merest justice not to condemn people unheard.

Jud (Phil Davis) and Prudie (Beatie Edney) leave Nampara in Poldark. Image (c) 2015 Mammoth Screen, Ltd. for Masterpiece PBS

Jud (Phil Davis) and Prudie (Beatie Edney) leave Nampara in Poldark. Image (c) 2015 Mammoth Screen, Ltd. for Masterpiece PBS

Don’t bend ye brows at me girl. You ain’t nothin’ but a trull from Illugin.”—Jud Paynter

Continue reading

Poldark Season One Episode Six on Masterpiece Classic PBS – A Recap & Review

Image of Demelza Poldark (Eleanor Tomlinson) at the Warleggan ball in Poldark (c) 2015 Mammoth Screen, Ltd for Masterpiece PBS

Image of Demelza Poldark (Eleanor Tomlinson) at the Warleggan ball in Poldark (c) 2015 Mammoth Screen, Ltd for Masterpiece PBS

Last week in episode 5 of Poldark everyone was reckless and bold—gambling on their future and love. Miner Mark Daniel married a questionable woman, Ross began a copper smelting company, Demelza played defiant matchmaker and Francis had a meltdown after losing his mine in a card game.

This week: The Pride and Prejudice Poldark edition. In which talk of frocks, balls and beaus resounds with sparkling repartees and retorts, echoing Jane Austen’s prose.

(there be spoilers ahead)

RECAP

Francis (Kyle Soller) scythes. Image (c) 2015 Mammoth Screen, Ltd. for Masterpiece PBS

Francis (Kyle Soller) scythes. Image (c) 2015 Mammoth Screen, Ltd. for Masterpiece PBS

You’ll never get it Ross.”—Francis Poldark

What?”—Ross Poldark

Justice for all.”—Francis Poldark

Fair wages would be a start.”—Ross Poldark

With the image of the shirtless and buff Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner) scything his field in episode three still fresh in our minds, the scene of his cousin Francis (Kyle Soller) attempting the same sends an entirely different message. Moral fortitude vs. weakness has won the day. Taking the initiative and rebuilding your life has paid off for Ross. Will his cousin rise to the challenge? The omen that Aunt Agatha (Caroline Blakiston) foretold of the dark and fair Poldark, “The stronger rises as the weaker falls,” has flipped in the five years since Ross’s return. The only ammunition that Francis has left to wound his cousin is sarcasm and doubt. Continue reading

Q&A with Poldark Historical Advisor Hannah Greig

Captain Ross Poldark in His Majesty's 62nd Regiment of Foot regimentals (c) 2015 Mammoth Screen, Ltd for Masterpiece PBS

Captain Ross Poldark in His Majesty’s 62nd Regiment of Foot regimentals (c) 2015 Mammoth Screen, Ltd for Masterpiece PBS

Getting the historical details correct is so critical in period drama today. Gone are the days when Greer Garson could wear a hoop skirt in the 1940 Pride and Prejudice and get away with it. The production team of the new BBC/PBS Poldark, at Mammoth Screen Ltd., have stepped up to the mark depicting late eighteenth-century Cornwall, warts and all. Advising them in this monumental task is lecturer, author and historian Hannah Greig who joins us today to answer a few questions about her role in the production of Poldark and the historical context that it is set in.

An illustration "A Beauty in Search of Knowledge" derived from a print by John Raphael Smith, 1782 (c) British Library

An illustration “A Beauty in Search of Knowledge” derived from a print by John Raphael Smith, 1782 (c) British Library

LAN: Welcome Hannah. One has visions of historians entrenched in musty library stacks secretly pining for their favorite reference librarian! Besides teaching and writing, you have carved out an interesting niche as Historical Advisor for films, television and theatre. This seems like a very glamorous job. Can you share with us what your duties are, what a typical day would be like, and what kind of questions are asked by the production team? Continue reading