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Camomile Lawn, The (1992)

Courtesy of Channel Four Television

Main image of Camomile Lawn, The (1992)
Channel 4, tx. 5 - 26/3/1992
4 x 120/65 min episodes, colour
DirectorPeter Hall
Production CompanyZed Productions
ProducersSophie Balhetchet
 Glenn Wilhide
ScriptKen Taylor
Original novelMary Wesley
PhotographyErnest Vincze

Cast: Felicity Kendal (Helena); Paul Eddington (Richard); Oliver Cotton (Max); Jennifer Ehle/Rosemary Harris (Calypso); Tara Fitzgerald/Virginia McKenna (Polly); Toby Stephens/Richard Johnson (Oliver); Rebecca Hall/Claire Bloom (Sophy)

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The lives, loves and sexual escapades of a British family during the Second World War are recalled at a funeral forty years later.

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The Camomile Lawn is a family saga in which World War Two is a catalyst for change in the lives of its characters. Adapted from Mary Wesley's hugely popular semi-autobiographical novel, it is set both during the war and also forty years later at a family funeral.

It begins in an idyllic sun-drenched Cornwall during the summer of 1939, and the eponymous lawn acts a constant olfactory reminder of simpler but perhaps also less fulfilled times. The war in fact here acts as a form of sexual liberation for most of its characters. Calypso goes from naïve virgin to serial adulteress. Polly falls in love with identical twins Paul and David and has their children, but no one knows who fathered which. Even the seemingly ultra-conservative Richard and his wife Helena swap partners with Max and his wife Monica. In a strong and starry cast, Paul Eddington's Richard emerges as one of the fullest and strangest characters in the piece. Initially a figure of fun, he rescues Max and Monica from internment as enemy aliens, proves to be young Sophy's only true friend, and calmly acquiesces to Helena leaving him for Max. He also knows that he has an unhealthy interest in young girls, albeit one that stops short of actual molestation.

The serial's initial notoriety derived from its use of strong language and its uninhibited sex scenes (and for the number of times Jennifer Ehle appeared in the nude), to show how the war swept aside traditional mores and social conventions. In fact, The Camomile Lawn barely mentions rationing or any of the grimness and privations associated with the time. Instead, the protagonists are always beautifully coiffed and attired, never lacking for drink or food, while warfare itself is never shown.

In many ways this points to a certain weakness in writing and execution, with much of the dramatic action taking place off-camera so that many important events are frequently recounted but not actually seen, while a number of plot lines are left dangling. The dislocating use of abrupt cuts to the past and back again serves to clarify plot points. For instance, Nicholas Le Prevost plays both Calypso's husband Hector (who she married for his money but ended up falling in love with despite herself), and also their son in the latter day sequences, presumably to reassure viewers about his father's identity.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Calypso at last (3:45)
2. Straight swap (4:04)
3. Hamish en route (4:06)
Complete episode - Part 1 (17:18)
Part 2 (17:18)
Part 3 (18:52)
Eddington, Paul (1927-1995)
Fitzgerald, Tara (1967-)
Kendal, Felicity (1946-)
McKenna, Virginia (1931-)
Channel 4 Drama