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.

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July 24, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , ,

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