12 February 1993
Copyright of John Fairfax Group Pty Ltd
While the sirens wailed, the bombs dropped and Vera Lynn sang `We'll meet again', five young cousins, their aunt and uncle, and assorted acquaintances were enthusiastically heeding her call - in just about every sexual permutation possible! Welcome to `The Camomile Lawn' (ABC Sunday at 9.30), Sir Peter Hall's five-hour film adaptation of Mary Wesley's best-selling saga of war and peace.
`The Camomile Lawn' is not `Family at War', with that chronicle's earnest, working-class respectability. But neither is it costume soap.
Rather, `The Camomile Lawn' is an intensely-flavored story of lives lived intensely at the point where fear and frivolity meet. A Channel Four/ABC co-production, `The Camomile Lawn' opens in 1939 when the cousins, Oliver, Walter, Polly, Calypso and 10-year-old Sophy gather on the camomile lawn of Uncle Richard and Aunt Helena's house in Cornwall for "the last summer of innocence, youth and freedom before the war closed about them." Forty years later, the family gathers again, for the funeral of a man who played such a part in their "development". But in between, their paths constantly cross and recross in London and in Cornwall.
The casting of `The Camomile Lawn' is as notable for its quirks as its star quality. Among the veterans are Paul Eddington and Felicity Kendall playing dotty, old Richard and opportunistic Helena, with Virginia McKenna, Richard Johnson and Claire Bloom playing cousins in later life.
For the younger generation, Sir Peter turned to the drama schools, where he cast Jennifer Ehle as the beautiful but amoral Calypso. Much later, and sensing a resemblance, he prised out of her that her mother was the admired actress Rosemary Harris, and promptly signed her up to play Calypso 40 years on.
Against his better judgement and bowing to the producers' wishes, Sir Peter cast his own daughter, Rebecca, as Sophy. It was a good choice.
Sophy is a pivotal character and she plays her with touching instinct.
Sir Peter even found the cousins' Cornish pals, The Rectory Twins (Joss and Jeremy Brook) at drama school. Tara Fitzgerald, from `Hear My Song', plays Polly.
`The Camomile Lawn' is a script-writer's script. Ken Taylor is faithful to Mary Wesley's live-for-today spirit, her illuminating candor about the realities of a country at war, and explicit, earthy language (this is not a program for prudes). `The Camomile Lawn' is also plotted with great skill and assurance. Although we come to know intimately all the members of this extended circle, Taylor and Wesley tease out their exact connections, sexual and familial, so that the flow of surprises is constant. Even in the last episode, we are learning something new about the characters.
`The Camomile Lawn' gave me a sense of time and place like few other wartime dramas, through a collection of anecdotes and observations as bizarre as an encounter with a herd of llamas in the English countryside, and as simple as the first air-raid warning after war was declared when everyone rushed outside.
Something this worthwhile has no business being so effortless to watch.