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Flame Trees of Thika, The (1981)

Main image of Flame Trees of Thika, The (1981)
Euston Films/Consolidated Productions for ITV, 1/9-13/10/1981
7 x 60 min, colour
DirectorRoy Ward Baker
Executive ProducerVerity Lambert
ProducersJohn Hawkesworth
 Christopher Neame
ScreenplayJohn Hawkesworth
From the novel byElspeth Huxley
PhotographyIan Wilson

Cast: Hayley Mills (Tilly Grant); David Robb (Robin Grant); Holly Aird (Elspeth Grant); Nicholas Jones (Hereward Palmer); Sharon Mughan (Lettice Palmer); John Nettleton (Major Grant); Ben Cross (Ian Crawfurd); Steve Mwenesi (Sammy); M'Zee Pembe (Chief Kupanya)

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The Grant family buy a coffee plantation in Kenya, but end up with more difficulties than they had expected. Despite their struggle to master the land and its natives, they are forced to return to England upon the outbreak of World War I.

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The Flame Trees of Thika was an early attempt by Euston Films to create a filmed product primarily for the US market, and thus became something of a model for future co-production. The series was very much in the tradition of the other British dramas that had been so successfully shown in the US under the overall title of Masterpiece Theatre, being an adaptation of Elspeth Huxley's memoir, which featured an Edwardian/Georgian family of the type made popular in the earlier Upstairs Downstairs (ITV, 1971-1975), but transposed to a far corner of the empire in Kenya. Fascinatingly, the series anticipates the many television and film works that were soon to be made concerning Britain's colonial past, such as Gandhi (d. Richard Attenborough, 1982), Heat and Dust (d. James Ivory, 1983) and The Jewel in the Crown (ITV, 1984), although it remains unusual for its African rather than Indian setting.

The Flame Trees of Thika certainly does not offer the same kind of reflective insight into the colonial experience as the earlier drama Staying On (ITV, tx. 28/12/1980), but there are moments, amidst the spectacular scenery and wildlife, that at least begin to illustrate certain paradoxes. The malevolent Boer farmer, Mr Roos, represents the unacceptable face of racism, while at the same time the Grant family have their house built by the natives but seem to think they are the ones giving out favours. They also import their heavy and inappropriate Victorian furniture into the new house, an act whichprovides a handy visual metaphor for colonial hubris. But there is no real sense that the series is anything other than a literal record of the family's African sojourn, rather than an attempt to dramatise and comment upon its historical context. Unfortunately, even the narrative aspects are undermined by some weak performances, with only Holly Aird (in a wonderful first role) making the viewer care about the outcome. But for all its faults, The Flame Trees of Thika is a significant production, as it saw the beginning of Euston's attempt to move away from its usual London crime stories and towards a more prestigious transatlantic product such as Reilly, Ace of Spies (ITV, 1983), and, in the hands of the stalwart director Roy Ward Baker and veteran writer John Hawkesworth, the viewer was guaranteed a comfortable, if unchallenging experience.

John Williams

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Video Clips
Jewel in the Crown, The (1984)
Orchid House, The (1991)
Baker, Roy Ward (1916-2010)
Hawkesworth, John (1920-2003)
Lambert, Verity (1935-2007)
Euston Films