A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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!

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

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