Thursday, May 18, 2017

Dark Angel: Mary Ann Cotton’s Teapot of Death

They say poison is a woman’s choice of murder weapon. Mary Ann Cotton is a major reason why. She perfected the practice more than just about anyone who wasn’t Lucrezia Borgia. Criminologists and historians estimate she killed thirteen to twenty-one people with her little tea pot. Maybe one or two died from accidents or natural causes, but either way, death follows closely on Cotton’s heels in Dark Angel (promo here), which airs this Sunday on PBS as part of the current season of Masterpiece.

Frankly, Cotton found herself in the perfect time and place to get away with murder. Common laborers died all the time during the Victorian era from Typhoid, Cholera, or just plain misery and nobody much troubled themselves over it. Yet, Cotton had ambitions to rise above her station. Thanks to her first husband, who genuinely died to ill health (at least according to Gwyneth Hughes’ screenplay), she discovered the wonders of life insurance. After his death, she collects thirty-five pounds. She’ll get used to that sort of transaction.

Generally, the oft-married murderess is referred to as Cotton, but she is first a Mowbray, and then a Ward. She believes she has finally arrived when she marries Robinson, a middle-class widower, but his children rather complicate matters. Then there is Cotton, plus several lovers. Not all of them die, but there is a very low survivor’s rate for those who get close to her. That also includes friends and family.

Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates in Downton Abbey) is quietly ferocious playing against type as the sociopathic Cotton. She is totally sinister, yet she also projects the fear and vulnerability of a (periodically) single woman in a highly class-conscious society. It is her show, but Alun Armstrong helps humanize it with his turn as her decent publican step-father. As for the rest of the ensemble—don’t get too attached.

Director Brian Percival lets the pace flag in the mid-section, but for the most part it is rather fascinating to watch the dramatic-forensic reconstruction of her life and crimes. There is plenty of death and a good bit of sex (she didn’t get all those husbands by accident), but it still represents true crime at its classiest. Recommended for fans of British costume dramas and crime shows, Dark Angel premieres this Sunday (5/21) on PBS.