Case Histories: “When Will There Be Good News?”

Jason Isaacs as Jackson Brodie with Gwyneth Keyworth as Reggie
Jason Isaacs as Jackson Brodie with Gwyneth Keyworth as Reggie
If life doesn’t provide you with good news, you stop waiting for it to arrive. You recalibrate, then you take the news life does provide and consider it good.  Call it lowered expectations if you like, but it’s more than that—it’s a survival strategy.

Survival is what this week’s episode of Case Histories is all about.

Based on Kate Atkinson’s novel, When Will There Be Good News?, the third in her Jackson Brodie series, this week’s episode is the most complex of the three that have been dramatized on Masterpiece Mystery. While the TV adaptation doesn’t come close to capturing the book’s layered plot, it does a fine job of conveying its underlying spirit of hope—or at least determination—when you’re playing a less-than-desirable hand.

Take Reggie, who’s already experienced more than her share of hardship in her sixteen years. No mom, no dad, and an older brother who lacks even the slightest redeeming quality. Even the people she’s come to count on are abandoning her. Her tutor, the quirky Ms. MacDonald, is nearly blind and dying from a brain tumor. Her boss, Dr. Joanna Hunter, has gone AWOL, uncharacteristically and suspiciously.

Jackson Brodie
It seems like such a little knock to the noggin…
Reggie’s just the sort of girl Jackson Brodie would feel compelled to rescue, but instead she rescues him. For Brodie’s latest bit of derring-do—trying to pull a victim out of a crashed car before an oncoming train smashes them to smithereens—leaves him unconscious and bloody by the side of the tracks, and it’s Reggie who administers CPR and keeps our hero afloat until the paramedics arrive.

Afterwards, Brodie doesn’t remember a thing.

And that’s not all he doesn’t remember: He also can’t recall what he told DI Louise Munroe, former colleague and now friend with, shall we say, potential. (Louise, on the other hand, can’t forget what Brodie said to her.)

Thus begins another visit to Jackson Brodieville, where the women are always irresistible and inevitably problematic.

Gwyneth Keyworth, as Reggie, is fun to watch. In another generation, she would have been called “plucky,” but there’s too much sadness at her core for that to be an adequate description. She’s a survivor. Now, Brodie owes her for saving his life, and she’s not about to let him forget it—just as Morgan Freeman owes Kevin Costner for saving his life in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, she explains.

“Is that the only film you’ve seen?” Brodie grumbles.

“I’m more of a reader,” she replies matter-of-factly. “I read very widely.”

What’s not to love?

In return for rescuing him, Reggie wants Brodie to find Joanna Hunter—she’s certain that there’s foul play involved in the woman’s disappearance. Naturally, if grudgingly, Brodie agrees, and the wheels of a mystery that stretches back a lifetime begin to turn. Dr. Joanna Hunter, we learn, is a survivor too, in a way that Reggie could never have imagined.

Brodie and Louise
Brodie and Louise
Then there’s Louise. We haven’t talked about her, and we should. Played by Amanda Abbington, DI Louise Munroe is Brodie’s last friend from, and only connection to, his days as a policeman. Is there romantic tension between them? Well, of course there is. Yet Louise’s role in the series is different from her role in the books, and I do hope the script writers find something more for her to do than acting exasperated and giving Brodie access to police records and resources.

It’s been interesting to watch Case Histories develop onscreen. The farther along we go, the more the TV series departs from the novels. For When Will There Be Good News?, screenwriter Peter Harness (who’s also writing three upcoming episodes of Wallander, based on Henning Mankell’s detective) pared away a good deal of the backstory to keep the plot moving. Sometimes it worked; other times it didn’t. (If you’re wondering, Brodie’s connection to the train accident was more plausible in the book.)

As someone who loved the books, especially because of Kate Atkinson’s skillfully crafted characters, I am sometimes frustrated by trimming that sacrifices character development for action. Apparently, Jason Isaacs, who plays Jackson Brodie, was as well. But then he came around, as he said in a BBC interview: “[W]hen you like the books so much you think, ‘Why don’t we just put the books directly on the screen?’ If you try to do that, it’s clear it’s not going to work…. Television is a very linear and literal medium, so in a way you have to obey the conventions of the genre so that you can then do something very unconventional. That’s what I think the producers have managed to do really well.”

It sounds as if they will continue with more episodes in 2012, the first one based on Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog.

In the interim, Jason Isaacs will star in Awake, a new psychological thriller series that should premier on NBC early next year. On PBS, Masterpiece Contemporary begins next week with Page Eight, a spy drama starring Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Gambon. (Yes, we’ll be tracking that one right here at Criminal Element, too.) And you can watch When Will There Be Good News? on the PBS website and find more Masterpiece Mystery at our feature page.

Good news all around.

Leslie Gilbert Elman blogs intermittently at My Life in Laundry. She’s written two trivia books and has a few unpublished fiction manuscripts in the closet to keep the skeletons company. Follow her on Twitter @leslieelman.


  1. Arthur Frank

    Leslie: Thanks for the post. I haven’t read Atkinson’s novels yet; a novel per week or less is the best I can handle now, so it will have to wait a while. Actually the producer did a pretty good job in portraying the feel of Scotland and the Borders and the north western UK coal country. Life there is a lot tougher than here in the States. You work a lot harder to get a lot less for your efforts. You have a lot less fun and you die sooner. In that respect Americans are jaded in their views. They should kiss the ground that they walk on. I speak 5 Euiropean languages and travel around Northern Europe by car. You get to see and hear a lot that way. The biggest problem that I had with the last story is what happened to Jackson’s Alfa Romeo? It is a fairly upscale car for Europe. Not an Audi A 8 , but it is a credible car to just leave at the side of the road. It is far from a Skoda or a Fiat Brava. You don’t ignore an Alfa that disappears. It is a substantial loss. It bugged me all through the show. In actuality Reggie was not unusual. At 16 she is an adult, out working and responsible for herself. She lives in a housing estate, a public housing project. If she is going to go any further she has to get her national testing scores up while also staying alive. The fact that her mother is dead does not bring DYFS down on her. Americans have no idea just how tough life is even in the developed nations, unless you are of a fortunate family. It is no wonder that people risk anything just to get here. How many American 16 year olds do you know that are capable of. or would consider giving CPR to a stranger? They probably wouldn’t even call 911 . In actuality , Louise Munroe has a lot harder time in the Police force than displayed. Law enforcement across the pond is still very much a male dominated occupation. Her life is no bouquet of roses.Henning Mankell also refers to it , but also down plays it. A lot of people probably had a hard time with the Scottish burr. I have driven all over the UK, Britian, Wales, Scotland and Scandinavia and heard a number of dialectic speech patterns , and I had trouble with it There were times when I wished that it had sub titles. Two countries separated by a common language. Go figure. Books always do a better job of conveying thoughts and emotions than movies do. Every reader gets a slightly different perception, while viewers get pretty much a homogeneous view. Thanks again for the post Art Frank

  2. Leslie Gilbert Elman

    Thank you Art.

    I agree about the car, and there was a point during the episode when I wondered, “That looked like a brand-new car. Did he just leave it there and forget about it?” Sometimes the attention to detail wasn’t what it could have been. I wonder if the producers are flattered (or intimidated!) to learn that we watch these shows so closely.

    Comments that followed the broadcast of the series in the UK did mention the accents. In particular, they pointed out that the Scottish accents weren’t strictly Edinburgh accents and there were a couple of characters they had trouble understanding. So, you’re definitely not alone in your opinion!

    As for the rest, I enjoy the fact that the most of the characters don’t have ambitions that range far beyond being productive and relatively content.

  3. Terrie Farley Moran

    For me, this episode was the best so far. Since I haven’t read the books I was meeting the characters for the first time in the first two hour movie. Now I know them and, in some ways at least, they are behaving according to (my) plan. (No spoilers here.) I am happy that Jackson Brodie and company will be back. Thanks for the “heads up” on Awake and Page Eight. I wasn’t going to watch Page Eight as I don’t usually like spy dramas, but if we are going to talk about it here, I’ll give the first episode a look. Leslie, I hope you’ll consider me more as a groupie than a stalker. 😉

  4. Leslie Gilbert Elman

    Terrie, Page Eight is a single episode drama. It sounds pretty great, as does the cast. Here’s an [url=]NPR interview[/url] with Bill Nighy, the star.

    See you here next week. 🙂

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