Posted: 03/06/2011


The Norman Conquests

by Elaine Hegwood Bowen

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The Norman Conquests is a hodgepodge of acts of betrayal and emotions surrounding two married couples and one man’s sister, along with her unclaimed suitor.

Passions flare and tempers rise when the three couples cross paths at a country house one weekend. It all begins with the arrival of Reg (Richard Briers) and his wife, Sarah, played by Penelope Keith. They have come to give Reg’s younger sister, Annie, played by Penelope Wilton, a few days’ break from caring for their bedridden mother. However, Annie confides that she’s seeing someone—not Tom, the single young vet who’s pursuing her, but her brother-in-law Norman, played by Tom Conti. Norman is a character to be examined and studied and misunderstood all at the same time.

Appalled, Sarah informs Norman’s wife, Ruth, and all hell breaks loose. But the hell doesn’t break loose immediately and the events around the dinner and breakfast tables create great fodder and conversation between the six guests. As seen on PBS, The Norman Conquests is a tale of love, lust and confusion seen from three sides on a three-disc set available March 1 from Acorn Media.

In one episode, Annie is seemingly a shy woman who is looking forward to her brother and sister-in-law giving her a break from taking care of her sick mother. But his sister-in-law discovers that Annie was planning on going away to a resort town with the man who is married to Annie’s sister, Norman. Norman, it will be soon be discovered, is a womanizer who really doesn’t care much who he takes to the hotel—as long as it’s not his boring wife, Ruth.

But Ruth doesn’t show up at the house initially, and Annie and Sarah have an intimate talk about what Sarah feels are Annie’s weaknesses, only to find out that Annie isn’t so meek and humble after all. Although Tom seems as shy as Annie, he isn’t as quick on his actions as Annie would like; therefore she was gullible and fell under Norman’s spell. Since her plans have fallen through, Annie is now charged with trying to get Tom to pay attention to her and maybe ask her out on a date.

During the first dinner break, the soup and salad are both scarce, but Annie does the best that she can. However, Sarah is at a pressure point, ready to burst open, especially when the guests don’t sit in an alternate “boy-girl” arrangement. Sarah has urged everyone to keep conversation to a minimum, so that her stress level is managed, but after a while, no one can keep their cool. Finally, when Sarah makes Ruth feels that her not being a mom is a bad thing, everything goes haywire and Norman’s philandering ways are known by all. At breakfast the next morning, which begins another episode, Norman is shunned and forced to trade jokes and barbs with himself. During other episodes, the six adults try to behave as adults, while also trading insults with each other.

All in all, The Norman Conquests is a study in dysfunction, from every angle, as each person is allowed time to tell their side of the situation. Adapted from the hit plays of Alan Ayckbourn, and designed to be watched in any order, The Norman Conquests views the same course of events from three different vantage points. From Saturday evening to Monday morning, the action unfolds around the kitchen table, outside in the garden, and in the family room—each segment a masterful performance by a marvelous ensemble cast. For more information about The Norman Conquests, visit

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago.

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