Flame Trees of Thika (1981)

In the first half of the 20th century, Britain’s East African colony of Kenya attracted the feckless, the ambitious and reckless in equal numbers. Cheap labor, the promise of an aristocratic lifestyle on a middle-class income, and a refreshing disdain for social convention tempted Europeans to try their luck as coffee farmers, big game hunters, or founders of the modern tourist industry. In the face of resistant African social customs, extremes of climate, incurable tropical diseases, and rural isolation, dreams of glory and wealth frequently faltered and died. In the process of disillusion, however, these Europeans often found themselves overwhelmed by Africa, falling in love with both its landscape and its people.

European women, perhaps because Africa allowed them to escape more restrictive social conventions, proved particularly vulnerable to the lure of Africa. Karen Blixen, better known as author Isak Dinesen, Beryl Markham, and Elspeth Huxley all wrote lyrical accounts of their lives in Kenya, and Alexandra Fuller’s two recent memoirs of a more contemporary, decolonized Africa suggest that the continent’s almost erotic appeal for Western women has not abated.

Talented filmmakers have proven equally susceptible. Sidney Pollack turned Dinesen’s 1938 memoir, Out of Africa (1985) into a beautifully acted but terminally weepy Academy Award winner, and erstwhile wunderkind of British television, Verity Lambert, produced Huxley’s Flame Trees of Thika as a seven-part mini-series in 1981. The latter has now been released on a two-DVD set by those expert purveyors of TV nostalgia, A&E Home Video.

Flame Trees chronicles the efforts of the Grant family to establish a coffee farm in the unpromising Kenyan bush in 1913. Hayley Mills (as Tilly Grant) joins stiff upper-lip, mini-series staple David Robb (as Robin Grant) and Holly Aird (as Elspeth Grant, the author as a child) in portraying these casual imperialists, who take for granted their right to exploit, even although no one knows a thing about Africa, or coffee. As the series progresses, the ambiguities of the Grants’ position in Africa loom. They claim to be “without a penny,” while African servants pamper them; they worry about paying their workers, while serving full-scale afternoon teas from a silver service.

As the DVD offers only the barest of extras (a text biography of Huxley, a bibliography of her copious writings), it stands and falls on the quality of the original series. Unfortunately, the series is nearly 25 years old, and shows every minute of it. The acting is languorous and stylized, while the filming, under the direction of British director Roy Ward Baker, oscillates uneasily between Masterpiece Theater lushness and National Geographic-style ethno-voyeurism.

The glowing nostalgia portrayed in The Flame Trees of Thika for a society of such fierce inequality is now both disturbing and alienating. More complex performances might have alleviated some of this discomfort by highlighting tensions felt by the British in their waning African empire, as Huxley does in her memoir. As with many TV and film adaptations of memoir, however, this drama concentrates on reproducing the facts of the story and ignores its spirit. Mills, Robb and Aird deliver their lines articulately, and look perfectly comfortable in their elegant (and exceptionally clean) period clothes, but all portray their characters exactly the same at beginning and end of the series. There’s no learning or development on their part. The same stasis afflicts the stock African actors and characters.

Juma (Paul Osongo), the cook and domestic major domo, is the family’s first servant, who proves his irrational loyalty by expecting to return to Europe with them. The farm’s “head man,” Sammy tries to “cross” between one racial group and another. Needed but unloved, his aspiration to merge modern European society and Kenyan culture is mocked by both his employers and fellow villagers. Steve Mwenesi portrays Sammy with stoicism bordering on the catatonic, which does nothing to enliven his representation of the very real struggle of educated Kenyans to gain social and economic equality.

One explanation for the perfunctory attention to performance might lie in the director’s obvious love affair with his location, which he expresses at great length and with minimal flair. Every walk Elspeth takes turns into a nature exploration of the most didactic kind, full of not-quite-close-enough close-ups and pseudo-dramas where Elspeth and Sammy confront, for example, a lion, or a herd of elephants.

While it would be absurdly ahistorical to expect a memoir published in 1959, and translated to television in 1981, to reflect contemporary perceptions (post)colonial Africa, the exoticism of this mini-series raises the ongoing question of the place of Africa in the Western imagination. In Flames Trees Africa functions as a fantasy land, a tabula rasa designed to teach European adventurers to be more resilient, more enterprising, and more successful individualists. Africa is a spark to the imagination rather than an inhabited continent with millennia of history and cultures.

Who exactly, then, will be interested in this DVD? The normalizing of racial inequality it offers through its flattened picture of colonial life would seem to negate educational value, even given the dearth of rite-of-passage stories for girls and young women. Niche cable channels offer far more evocative visual odysseys of Africa, powered by extraordinary advances in location filming and digital editing over the last twenty years. This reissue appears a cynical attempt to feed a particular late 20th century brand of nostalgia. This nostalgia is unrelated to either the subject matter or the quality of the drama. Instead, it is refers to the initial experience of watching the artifact itself, a phrase captured by the “much loved” epithet appended to advertising for the series. The Flame Trees of Thika offers audiences their own viewing histories, the rites of passage of their own lives. Content is irrelevant.