The Norman Conquests
The British writer Alan Ayckbourn likes to challenge himself. When he sat down to write a trilogy, it wasn’t a continuous narrative. Ayckbourn’s three stories overlap. Each takes place in a different part of the same house over the same weekend involving the same characters. People walk out of one story and into another, but each story is self-contained. You can see any one of them, and understand it. But if you see all three, they reinforce each other. And (here’s the kicker) you can see them in any order.
Ayckbourn wrote The Norman Conquests in 1973, relatively early in a long and productive career that continues to this day, but these youthful works still fascinate, if only for their sheer audacity. It also helps that the episodes comprising Conquests are all very funny, but with a streak of melancholy that runs through many of the greatest comedies.
In 1977, Thames TV adapted The Norman Conquests for television with an impeccable British cast. PBS broadcast the series in America the following year to broad acclaim. Now, after a wildly successful revival in London and on Broadway anchored by Jessica Hynes (co-creater and co-star of Spaced with Simon Pegg), Acorn Media is reissuing those earlier versions on DVD.
Studio: Acorn Media Group
Film Length: app. 305 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 4:3
Audio: English DD 2.0 mono
Subtitles: English SDH
Disc Format: 3 DVD-5
Package: Keepcase w/slipcover
Insert: Acorn promotional
Original Airdates: Oct. 5, 12 , 19, 1977 (U.K.); June 14, 21, 28, 1978 (U.S).
DVD Release Date: Mar. 1, 2011
Norman: Are you happy then?
Sarah: Yes – mostly. Occasionally. Now and then. I don’t know. I don’t have time to think about it.
The title does not refer to the invasion of England by William the Conqueror in 1066, but to the amorous adventures of one Norman (Tom Conti), a bearded assistant librarian with a wild mane of hair and no obvious reason for women to be attracted to him. Still, there’s something about Norman. As he explains:
Norman is married to Ruth (Fiona Walker), a sharp-tongued financial executive who’s fed up with him, but he’s having a haphazard affair with her younger sister, Annie (Penelope Wilton). The older brother of the two sisters, Reg (Richard Biers), is oblivious to all this, because he lives in his own world, to the eternal frustration of his prim wife, Sarah (Penelope Keith). Sarah views men as overgrown children who need to be bossed around – a case in point being Tom (David Troughton), a local veterinarian who’s obviously smitten with Annie but is too dim-witted to do anything about it. When Sarah learns of Norman’s adulterous interest, she becomes all the more determined to prod Tom into declaring his affections for Annie.
Everything comes to a boil at the large country house where Reg, Ruth and Annie grew up. Only Annie lives there now, tending to the bedridden mother who is never seen but whose presence is keenly felt by all. Reg and Sarah come for a July weekend to give Annie a break so that she can get away for a holiday. What they don’t know is that Annie is planning to get away with Norman. When Sarah discovers what’s going on, she telephones Ruth to get there immediately and deal with Norman. And, of course, Tom is always dropping by, ostensibly to check on Annie’s cat, but maybe for other reasons. When it comes to Tom, who knows what he’s thinking? As Ruth observes, Tom’s brain is like a vast government bureaucracy where no one will accept responsibility for an unfiled message received from outside.
Three men, three women. Three siblings, three outsiders. Three couples, none of them happy. It’s easy to overlook the precision of Ayckbourn’s dramatic geometry in the various comings and goings, arguments, insults and pratfalls. Ayckbourn is a crowd-pleaser, and he doesn’t hesitate to milk laughs from simple devices like a chair that’s too short, or home-made wine that’s vile (but potent), or drunken snores occurring at just the right moment, or someone who’s too thick to comprehend a knock-knock joke, or a farcical miscue that prompts a man to hurl himself at the wrong woman. But Ayckbourn is never lazy. His characters aren’t stick figures uttering punchlines, but real people with feelings. No matter how ridiculous their actions, they arise from genuine emotion, often of loneliness and frustration. Underneath the hilarity, there’s a constant sense of sadness. “I only wanted to make you happy!” Norman keeps saying to one person after another, in a group where no one is.
Table Manners is set in the dining room, where meals generally degenerate into arguments. Living Together takes place in the living room, the scene of Norman’s and Annie’s first romantic encounter. Round and Round the Garden finds various family members wandering in and out of the ill-tended backyard, where Tom keeps trying to coax the family cat out of a tree. Essentially the same story is told in each episode, but from different perspectives and with different information.
For example, Table Manners opens when Sarah arrives on Saturday evening and finds Annie in the dining room. Annie is having second thoughts about her getaway with Norman and confesses all to Sarah, who is appalled. The reason Annie is having second thoughts is because, just before Table Manners begins, she’s had an unsettling encounter with Norman in the opening scene of Round and Round the Garden, when he shows up unexpectedly instead of meeting Annie in town as planned.
After Annie and Sarah talk, Sarah walks out of Table Manners and into Round and Round the Garden, where she cheerfully informs Norman that Annie has decided to stay home for the weekend. By this point, Norman has been joined by Sarah’s husband (and Annie’s brother), Reg, and the three of them leave the garden together and enter the living room, where they proceed to begin Living Together.
Why not write it in a straight line, you may ask? Well, for one thing, it would be six hours long. More importantly, Ayckbourn wanted to consider – and prompt viewers to consider – the life of a character after he or she leaves a scene. Each of the three episodes is a straight line and sufficient on its own. But as the lines criss-cross, both the story and the characters become more complicated and interesting. (And funnier – some jokes are split between episodes.)
With respect to the viewing order, Ayckbourn must have gotten tired of being asked for an authoritative answer, because he ultimately wrote a tongue-in-cheek “guide” that, for the recent Broadway revival, was printed in colorful letters on the wall of the theater lobby. After a paragraph of double-talk, it concluded with the simple instruction:
In short, do try and see all three plays first, or, if you really can’t manage this, last.
As if to confirm that there’s no right way to do things, the DVD set orders the three episodes differently than the original broadcasts. Here’s a comparison:
U.K. and U.S. Broadcast Order
DVD presentation order
| Table Manners || Table Manners |
| Living Together || Round and Round the Garden |
| Round and Round the Garden || Living Together |
I first saw them in an order not listed above, and of course that’s the best one.
As one might expect, given the era in which it was created, the 4:3 image derives from broadcast-quality video tape. Considering the source, the image is quite good. An occasional horizontal flicker or rolling bar is the only obvious analog artifact, and otherwise the image is stable. Detail is as good as NTSC broadcast video permits, and certainly good enough to convey a sense of the decaying country house in which the action is set. Colors are relatively weak, but this has as much to do with the production design as the video source. As one character puts it, everything in the house is a shade of brown.
The audio is mono presented as DD 2.0 at 192kbps. This is the most common method for presenting mono soundtracks on DVD, but I continue to believe that DD 1.0 at the same bitrate is preferable (and the people at Criterion appear to agree with me). In any case, because the sound is identical in the front left and right, playing the two tracks through any kind of ProLogic decoder will collapse the two channels toward the center, where they belong. Voices are clear, as are essential sound effects, like the clatter of coffee cups and cutlery or the rustle of magazines being read. It’s a serviceable track that was almost certainly recorded in its entirety on a soundstage.
Alan Ayckbourn Biography. A very short sketch that barely scratches the surface. For more extensive information, go to http://www.alanayckbourn.net.
The Norman Conquests Background. Again, this is merely a sample of the available material, and the interested reader should consult the materials at the website listed above.
Previews. Disc 1 opens with a general trailer for Acorn Media features, followed by trailers for A Bit of a Do and Doc Martin. These can be skipped via the menu button.
Like most great comedies for stage and screen, The Norman Conquests was meant to be seen with an audience, and it loses something in the privacy of a home theater. When the cast for the recent revival were working in a rehearsal room, they became petrified, because the director (one of the most eminent theater directors working today) insisted that everything be played with a straight face, and the actors couldn’t imagine the laughs. As soon as they got in front of an audience, the laughter came in waves, non-stop, night after night. It’s the collective reaction to the complete seriousness with which these six characters take their absurd situations, tinged with the awkward realization that, in one way or another, they’re not so far from us. That’s the genius of Alan Ayckbourn.
Equipment used for this review:
Denon 955 DVD player
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Acoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub