This Emmy-nominated television adaptation of Tony Award-winning playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy is a comedy of confusion and a look at the slightly absurd, thoroughly dysfunctional interactions of a family during a chaotic weekend in the country. The Norman Conquests, which originally aired in the US on PBS stations, is three full-length features covering the events of the weekend from three different angles. Or rather, from three different parts of the house. The three parts were intended to be watched in any order, but if you’d like to watch them in the order in which they aired in the late-‘70s, it was Table Manners, Living Together and then Round and Round the Garden.
The DVD set puts them in this order: Table Manners, Round and Round the Garden and Living Together. Watching Table Manners first, you are introduced to Annie (Penelope Wilton, Downton Abbey), a young woman who is planning to leave for a holiday weekend once her brother and sister-in-law arrive to care for her ailing mother. Reg (Richard Briers, Monarch of the Glen, GoodNeighbors) and his wife, Sarah (Penelope Keith, To the Manor Born), arrive to take over, both assuming that Annie is finally going away with Tom (David Troughton, Fingersmith, New Tricks), the neighboring vet who everyone—Tom included—believes to be her romantic interest.
The problem is that, of course, Annie’s not going on holiday with Tom, but has arranged a clandestine rendezvous with Norman (Oscar-nominee Tom Conti, Shirley Valentine, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence). That would be well and fine, except for the fact that Norman is married to Reg and Annie’s sister, Ruth (Fiona Walker, I, Claudius). To complicate matters, it’s at this point that both Tom and Norman show up. Tom is there apparently because he’s a bit of a clueless clod. Norman appears because he fancies himself a romantic and can’t wait to see Annie at the train station. Annie, whether out of anxiety or guilt it’s unclear, tells Sarah that it’s really Norman taking her away, that they’ve been seeing each other since sleeping together the previous Christmas. Sarah, ever the upstanding, uptight, controlling, “proper” woman, is indignant. She calls Ruth. Annie decides to back out of the holiday, so the group is hilariously and uncomfortably forced together for the duration.
All the scenes in Table Manners take place in the dining area, with the time and day announced at the beginning of each scene. Characters come and go, as viewers are aware other things are going on in other parts of the house, but all the dialogue and action is confined to the one room. Restricting the setting like this is a device of pure genius, as it heightens the tension, fuels the confusion and makes for brilliant comedic commentary on personal relationships. Table Manners seems to focus mainly on Sarah, as well as the more “approved” relationships and, once Ruth is there, the group as a whole.
Round and Round the Garden (the second disc in this set, despite being the third part to be broadcast), focuses more on the men, and on the romantic concerns. It also has the most obvious comedy, both in the verbal exchanges and the physical interactions, perhaps because there’s slightly more space, even though director Herbert Wise still keeps the set tight and the close-ups intense.
Living Together takes place in the parlor. Here, the siblings have the bulk of their conversations. It’s also this section where more of Ruth and Norman’s odd pairing is addressed. She’s career-obsessed, cold and a bit vain. All of that is demonstrated by her caustic, cutting remarks and her refusal to wear her glasses. The latter provides subsequent humor thanks to the resulting myopia, but this vanity is probably more of a refusal to see her husband’s behavior than actual concern about her looks. Norman just wants to be loved. He thinks that the way to achieve that is to make everyone else as happy as he wishes he could be.
That’s really the point of The Norman Conquests. At the end of the day (or the end of the weekend, as it were), all of these people just want to be happy. Norman thinks he is the one that can make that happen, and the others, to some extent, believe it, as well. Conti is perfectly cast as the lovable, exasperating, clownish and charming master of manipulation. At various times over the course of the weekend, Norman manages to enchant and seduce every one of the people around him, hence the collection’s title. His fondest wish, he tells each of his companions, is that they let him make them happy. By the end of the weekend, though things have worked out entirely differently than anyone expected at the start, it seems as though Norman may have gotten his wish.
In addition to the three plays, The Norman Conquests, includes background on the original trilogy and a biography of Alan Ayckbourn.