Wessex Tales (1973– )
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The Withered Arm 

In the early 19th century, a young married woman is stricken with a mysterious malady and searching for a cure leads her in to mysteries and tragedy.


Desmond Davis (uncredited)


Thomas Hardy (short story), Rhys Adrian (adapted by)


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Episode complete credited cast:
Billie Whitelaw ... Rhoda
Yvonne Antrobus Yvonne Antrobus ... Gertrude
Edward Hardwicke ... Farmer John Lodge
William Relton William Relton ... Jamie
Paul Hardwick ... Hangman
Esmond Knight ... Conjuror Trendle
Hugh Morton Hugh Morton ... Doctor
Virginia Snyders Virginia Snyders ... Housekeeper
John Welsh ... Dairyman
Valerie Holliman Valerie Holliman ... Beth
Merelina Kendall ... Meg


In the early 19th century, a young married woman is stricken with a mysterious malady and searching for a cure leads her in to mysteries and tragedy.

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Release Date:

7 November 1973 (UK) See more »

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Aspect Ratio:

1.33 : 1
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Did You Know?


Rhoda: They've just been saying down in Barton that your father brings his young wife home from Anglebury tomorrow,' the woman observed. 'I shall want to send you for a few things to market, and you'll be pretty sure to meet 'em.
Jamie: Yes, Mother,'Is Father married then?
Rhoda: Yes... You can give her a look, and tell me what she's like, if you do see her.
Jamie: Yes, Mother.
Rhoda: If she's dark or fair, and if she's tall - as tall as I. And if she seems like a woman who has ever worked for a living, or one that has been ...
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User Reviews

An admirable stab at a very difficult writer.
28 May 2001 | by the red duchessSee all my reviews

Thomas Hardy is a tough one for the heritage fetishists. While undoubtedly a major 19th century novelist, he offers few of the pleasures sought in period dramas - costumes are rustic and functional; characters are uncharismatic and inarticulate rather than witty. There is none of the romance and comedy of Austen, the vivid caricatures of Dickens or the thrilling plots of Stevenson. Indeed, you might almost call them anti-pleasure: from the beginning, the characters set a course towards decline and unhappiness or death, a course relentlessly plotted by nature.

Where other novelists exult in the elegance of the ballroom or the teeming vitality of the Victorian city, Hardy privileges the mundane routine of everyday farming life. The main characters in his works are Nature, the Seasons, the intractable workings of Fate - difficult essences to give concrete realisation on screen. Further, his schematic, deterministic plots, which have a complex philosophical force in the novel, can seem merely contrived in a film. The elements that save the novels - the intricate tableaux of nature, the structuring narrative into rites - are similarly elusive. Only 'Jude' has seemed in any way satisfactory, although the speedy contraction of harrowing events eventually became bathetic.

This 1973 BBC adaptation is one of the more successful efforts, probably because it is based on a short story, and so suffers less in excision. The story concerns the new wife of the local farmer-landlord, who is stared at by a strange youth on her way to her husband's home after the wedding. Her husband advises her to ignore the boy, but it soon transpires that he is his abandoned, illegitimate son by a milkmaid Rhoda (played with unyielding severity by Beckett's favourite actress, Billie Whitelaw), and probably not the only one in the county. Rhoda resents the newcomer, and one night dreams of defending herself against her by searing her arms. The wife befriends Rhoda by showing an interest in her son, and shows her the horrible scar on her arm that no doctor can remove. Rhoda reluctantly suggests a local witchdoctor.

The pleasure of this adaptation lies in its refusal to provide easy pleasure. What has been called Hardy's 'magnificent gloominess' is amply realised, with deeply unhappy characters and horrific events matched by a focus on the monotony and bleakness of such a life. If it can't match Hardy's emphasis on Nature and Fate, at least those forces are powerfully present, while the supernatural plot only literalises the often paganistic impulse behind Hardy's seemingly realistic narratives.

The idea of the sins of the husband being visited on the wife, and that of men on women in general, is strongly expressed, but the sense of enigma is even stronger, that something beyond appearances seemingly structuring our best efforts. Obtrusive period detail is at a minimum, with the emphasis on atmosphere and mystery - the climax, though expected, is agreeably dread-ful.

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