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Orchid House, The (1991)

Main image of Orchid House, The (1991)
Picture Palace Productions for Channel 4, 21/2-14/3/1991
4 x 60 min, colour
DirectorHorace Ové
ProducerMalcolm Craddock
ScriptJim Hawkins
From the novel byPhyllis Shand Allfrey

Cast: Diana Quick (Madam); Nigel Terry (Master); Carmen Du Sautoy (Mamselle); Madge Sinclair (Lally); Kate Buffery (Stella); Elizabeth Hurley (Natalie); Frances Barber (Joan); Peter Straker (Lilipoulala)

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Three young English sisters living in the Caribbean are cared for by their black nurse Lally while their mother awaits the return of her husband from World War One. But the return of 'Master' brings new challenges.

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British made films or serials rarely explore social relations and conditions in the Caribbean. The two most prominent over the last twenty years have been the feature film Water (d. Dick Clement, 1985), a dry black comedy, and the two-part Channel Four drama The Final Passage (1996), which movingly tracked the mass migration to Britain in the 1950s and the pressures which triggered it.

The Orchid House is a powerful addition to this limited catalogue. Its focus on the declining power of the white plantocracy on the island of Dominica between the war years, handled through the prism of an intimate family drama, has great depth while remaining accessible.

The white Master's return from the great European war, shell-shocked and drug-addicted, unleashes massive changes in his household, reflecting broader societal transformations. Symbolically, roles become reversed, as Master becomes a slave to his dealer, the Haitian Mr Lilipoulala. He retreats into himself, and a complex gulf opens up with Madam, his Creole wife. His household is unravelling around him, as daughters Stella, Joan and Natalie flee abroad to escape their limited horizons.

Their return, twenty years later, shows just how much things have moved on. Master remains broken and enslaved, formerly subservient Creole friends are economically in the ascendant, symbolically nursing the ailing whites, while the black peasants are in revolt. The return of the girls offers a meditation on the role of whites in the rapidly changing society, the possibility of redemption for past sins, and actions that might lead to renewal. Stella kills Lilipoulala to free her father. Radical Joan's way of cleansing the past is to make cause with Baptiste, the militant teacher son of their former cook, in order to organise the black peasants to overthrow the social order. Wealthy Natalie believes that her money can both heal her father and save their status.

The gorgeous Caribbean setting and high production values of The Orchid House are a direct result of the biggest budget director Horace Ové has ever had to play with. While it is always wonderful to look at, some sharp editing might have heightened the important story at its heart.

Onykachi Wambu

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Video Clips
1. War is over (4:23)
2. Daddy's coming home (3:56)
3. Reunited (1:29)
4. The visitor (2:51)
Complete episode - 'The Return of The Master' (1:04:21)
Flame Trees of Thika, The (1981)
Anwar, Tariq (1945-)
Ové, Horace (1939-)
Black TV Writers
Channel 4 Drama
Channel 4 at 25