A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 146 – The Norman Conquests: Table Manners

The Norman Conquests: Table Manners – July 24th, 2010

It has been simply ages since I watched this. Part of the reason is that it’s on VHS and we’re tough on our VCRs and we just never thought to put it in when we had one that was working. But we love it and its companion pieces. This is a peculiar and amusing little piece, or rather set of pieces, and requires a bit of explanation. I mentioned them in a note the other day, but I’ll go over it a bit again here. This is the first in a trilogy of plays which all take place during the same time period, in the same house, with the same six characters, but each is set in one single room. So in tonight’s, we get the entire weekend and the events it contains, but we only see what’s going on in the dining room. The second one starts us back at the beginning of the weekend, but we see it all from in the living room. And the third is all out in the garden.

Now, I was told the proper way to watch these was in the aforementioned order, but I suppose you could watch them out of order. As I said, it’s the same house and the same people and the same situation. But you do get different pieces of the story, watching it in this order. I’ve seen the first one the most, so I know it the best, but I do think it gives a good introduction to the characters and story.

We’ve only got six characters, but Annie is definitely the focus at first. She’s a young single woman living in the country, taking care of her mother and trying (and failing) to get the attention of the incredibly dense local vet, Tom. Annie’s heading off for a relaxing weekend getaway, so her brother, Reg, and his wife, Sarah, arrive to take care of Mother. All the fuss begins when Sarah presses Annie for dirt on the weekend and who she’s going with. Turns out it’s not Tom. It’s Norman. Annie and Reg’s sister Ruth’s husband. So soon Norman shows up as well and of course it’s chaos because Annie’s decided she can’t go now that Sarah knows, but Norman’s not leaving and Tom shows up for dinner too and Ruth shows up the next morning (called in by Sarah) and it’s one big utterly dysfunctional family weekend.

Sounds miserable, doesn’t? It’s all about miserable people arguing and flinging insults at each other, but really, it’s all so ridiculous. There’s humor in every scene, both in the lines as they’re written and in the performances. The three siblings – Annie, Ruth and Reg – all seem to actually get along fairly well when left to themselves, but throw in their spouses and Tom and everyone’s baggage comes out, but so does the humor. Things the siblings can laugh about, like their mother’s extramarital affairs and Annie’s unfortunate bug-infested salad at Christmas, are things that drive Sarah mad. And then there’s Norman.

Norman is a self-described “gigolo trapped in a haystack” who should be able to get three women a day. Let me take a moment to describe Norman as played by Tom Conti: On the short side, spindly, with a heavy beard, shaggy hair and a perpetually hang-dog look. And yet he manages to charm all three women by the end (hence the “conquests” in the title, ha ha). Reg mentions early on that women don’t seem to like Norman. I think the truth of it is, they do like him, because he is a charmer and he’s quite good at pinpointing just the right thing to say to push someone’s buttons (for good or ill, depending on his mood and aim), but then they realize just what he’s doing. He’s a complete scoundrel, but like I said, charming. And he’s the source of a great deal of the best lines and moments in the movie.

It’s over half an hour into Table Manners before we meet Norman himself. He’s mentioned a great deal before that, of course, but all we know is that he started out in the garden and then moved into the living room where he got immensely drunk on homemade wine. He finally appears at breakfast on Sunday. Breakfast is one of our most quoted scenes, with it being too much to ask, and the Puffa Puffa rice, and “IT DOESN’T MATTER!” and Norman’s pajamas (“…and all that they contain”). Now, while these plays did hit Broadway, I’ve found they’re not terribly well-known amongst my friends, so when Andy and I reference them, we’re usually the only ones in the room who have any idea what’s so funny about “Hello there, little chap!” Which is a pity, because these really are excellent.

I do wish I’d seen these on stage, but obviously they’re difficult to put on. It would have to be a three night commitment. And I honestly don’t know if any other cast could live up to the filmed version. Aside from Tom Conti’s spectacular Norman, there’s the rest of the cast. Penelope Keith as Sarah is on the verge of a meltdown with every line. She puts herself in the middle of everyone’s business and makes herself a wreck over it all. I’ve seen Keith in several other things (To the Manor Born and Good Neighbors, to name two of my favorite shows) and she does do a good tightly wound busybody. Richard Briers as her husband Reg is as affable and long-suffering as one could want. He’s off in his own little world much of the time and Briers gets these fantastically happy and wistful looks on his face, only to heave a heavy sigh when the real world comes crashing in. Penelope Wilton as Annie has the perfect mix of frustration, practicality and hope. It’s not an easy part, I would think, being at the same time the level-headed one who’s been taking care of Mother, the one who desperately wants some company but won’t actually come out and say so, and the one who was all set to pop off on holiday with her sister’s husband, and Wilton carries it off quite well. The part of Ruth doesn’t get as many sympathetic moments as the others do, but Fiona Walker does an admirable job playing her at her least sympathetic and then managing to wring out rather a lot of likability from her later on. And then there’s David Troughton (yes, Patrick Troughton’s son) as Tom. He gives an utterly fantastic performance in a part that could so easily have simply been comedic fodder but instead ends up with some wonderful moments of personality.

I’m saying a lot tonight that I could have left for tomorrow or Monday, but I want to make it clear at the outset just how great these are. The jokes make me laugh out loud, and I swear, Norman’s very presence makes me roll my eyes and snicker. The running gag with there not being enough food, the tin of stale crackers, the carrot wine (better than the parsnip), the entire breakfast scene, they’re all fantastic bits in this one, but then there are references to some of them in the other two. Because they’re all the same play, really. They’re all the same movie. I once had a plan to try and intercut them together on the editing deck we had in the Audio Visual office at my high school. But really, they work so well split up like this. And tomorrow I can talk about Reg’s board game and the fake fur rug, so really, there’s still plenty to say.

July 24, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

The Norman Conquests: Table Manners

July 24, 2010

The Norman Conquests: Table Manners

I am so delighted that we own The Norman Conquests. Indeed I am delighted that I met and married my wife because if I had not then I likely would never have discovered this brilliant and peculiar trilogy. It’s so far outside the general purview of the rest of our collection. If you look at all the movies on that list of films still to be reviewed there is a general trend towards fantasy and adventure. We have very little that is as simple and direct as these. They’re so obscure! I mean, yes, I was raised on PBS and BBC so I have a fondness for British television, but before I knew Amanda I had never even heard of these plays. As far as I know they are unavailable on DVD in the US, and may forever continue to be so, but we are lucky enough to have a set of them released by HBO video back in the eighties (stolen from Amanda’s parents if you want the truth.)

What we have, on these primitive video cassette tapes, is basically a very direct adaptation of a series of stage plays. It’s more intimate than watching a play – the cameras get right in with the actors and dolly about the room as well as zooming in on a couple occasions for close reactions shots – but the productions are so simple and sparse that they still have the feel of something being performed on a stage. Part of it is in the very nature of the work. What playwright Alan Ayckbourn has done here, and what is so extraordinary, is a kind of high concept trilogy of light-hearted comedies. Each of the three plays tells the same story and with the same characters and told over the same period of time, but each takes place in a different room of the house where the action is going on. This first one is in the dining room, the second is in the living room, and the third is in the garden outside. So the whole movie takes place on a single set over the course of a single weekend.

It’s a wonderfully clever device that Ayckbourn has created. Each of the plays works on its own, but seen as a whole they’re even better. There are all sorts of clever references to the action taking place in other rooms. For example, at one point in this movie the henpecked but jovial Reg is sent by his wife to check on what is happening in the living room. He asks what excuse he should give – and she tells him to pretend he’s looking for something. Then in the second play during one scene Reg comes into the room, looks around for a second, exclaims “Aha! There it is!” and takes the waste basket. If you hadn’t seen the first film it would seem like a strange non-sequitur, but if you have then it works to reinforce the knowledge that the three plays are taking place simultaneously.

Beyond that clever contrivance there’s the fact that the three plays are genuinely witty and fun, and the characters are just fun to spend time with. The plot is this: Annie is the youngest of three grown children and has been caring for her cantankerous and bedridden mother for ages. As the film starts she is about to leave on a much needed holiday. Her brother Reg and her sister-in-law Sarah have come to care for Mother while she is away for the week-end. What they don’t know, and what Sarah is shocked to discover, is that Annie is planning to spend the weekend in East Grinstead with her sister Ruth’s husband Norman. Sarah quickly averts this potentially embarrassing disaster and insists that Annie stay home with her and Reg instead. But Norman is already there, as is the unflappable but fairly dim Tom, who may or may not be a potential love interest for Annie. Eventually Ruth, too, shows up and all six of them have to endure their company for the remainder of the week end.

Each of the characters is so well defined and so wonderfully performed that you really do feel like you know them. Annie is so pragmatic and long suffering. (Played by Penelope Wilton, who I was amused to later see in both Shaun of the Dead and as Harriet Jones, who becomes the new PM in Doctor Who.) Tom is so daft and thick. Reg is so affable – he’s just a big kid. (I empathise most with his character, and know full well that Amanda despairs that she is married to a thirteen year old boy.) Sarah is all tightly wound and repressed proper British manners. (Penelope Keith is perfectly cast in that role, and was instantly recognisable to me from my childhood love of To The Manor Born.) Ruth is a character that might have descended into caricature, being as she is an emancipated female executive in the 1970s, but is great fun once her character stops being played just for laughs and starts to show that she has some passion about her chosen lifestyle (Fiona Walker also appeared in Doctor Who near the end of the “old” show.) And then, of course, there’s Norman.

I’m not familiar with the works of Tom Conti, but these movies make me want to be. As the strange, gangly, mop-topped and bearded Norman he is truly the driving force behind this movie. For the first entire act he is off-stage as the other characters talk about what a cad he is and what a rogue. You hear him drunkenly singing from the living room. Tom talks about him waving his pajamas about in the garden. It works to build this image of what Norman must be like which is wholly unlike the man you find before you at the start of the second act. And then things get interesting. At the start of this act (breakfast on Sunday morning) everybody is giving Norman the cold shoulder and refusing to speak to him, so Tom Conti has this tour-de-force lengthy monologue that goes on for about ten minutes. It teaches you everything you need to know about Norman as a character, and at the same time provides a wealth of fantastic obscure quotes that Amanda and I use on an almost daily basis.

Norman is loud, outrageous, funny, canny and wholly without shame. He explains to Reg during that breakfast that he thinks of himself as a three-a-day Lothario trapped in the body of a skinny assistant librarian. And by the end of this movie he appears to have successfully seduced not just Annie but the prim and proper Sarah as well.

There are so many fantastic moments in this movie. You’re introduced to this dysfunctional family and you can’t help enjoying it, even when they’re irrationally shouting at each other. I often say at this point in my review that I enjoy this set of characters so much that I can’t wait to see what happens to them next, but of course that’s part of what’s so amazing abut these three movies. I’m looking forward tomorrow to once more seeing what’s happening to these characters at the same time as this one!

July 24, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment