Today’s Joanna Page – and also, in a blog crossover first, Lambert Gold – is The Cazalets, a mini-series from 2001 based on ‘The Cazalet Chronicles’ by Elizabeth Jane Howard.
Now, you may – or may not – have noticed that in many TV programmes there feature a certain group of people called ‘women’. More often than not, particularly in period dramas, they’re there to serve specific plot functions: to encourage/discourage the hero; to make tea; to bring up the children; and to be decorative and fallen in love with.
However, many noted scholars, intellectuals and TV producers are coming to the conclusion that these secondary characters could have emotions and feelings of their own; they could have their own viewpoints and opinions; they could even, in time, become the heroes – ‘heroines’ perhaps? – of some stories.
It was one such rebel faction, led by actress Joanna Lumley and producer Verity Lambert, who decided in 1998 to adapt ‘The Cazalet Chronicles’ as a mini-series. Convinced that a story of the various women and girls in the Cazalet family during the 30s and 40s could be as interesting as any similar tale about men, they scratched together co-funding from the BBC and WGBH.
An at-times grim tale that shows all the miseries that could befall even well-off women back in the ‘good old days’, the only real problem with the 2001 production is that they never had a chance to finish it.
The Cazalets is a stunning and powerful drama of a large, disparate, privileged family transformed by the tumultuous times in which they live. Based on the popular novels of Elizabeth Jane Howard and adapted by the award-winning screenwriter Douglas Livingstone the story is set between 1937 and 1947, against a backdrop of war and a veneer of British restraint and respectability.
The story begins before the war at “Home Place,” the family’s large estate in Sussex, where all the members are gathered for their annual summer holiday. It becomes a permanent evacuation once World War II breaks out. Three generations of Cazalets – grandparents, parents and children – migrate to the country, together with their pets, servants and problems.
A passionate, poignant and engaging portrayal of life in wartime and post-war Britain, the charm of The Cazalets lies in the richness of its characters and the relevance of its themes.
Is it any good?
Well, yes. It’s very good. It’s got a fantastic cast, including Hugh Bonneville, Stephen Dillane, Anna Chancellor, Paul Rhys and Joanna Page. It’s got great writers: Elizabeth Jane Howard for the books and Douglas Livingstone for the screenplays. It’s lavish and well directed. It’s almost classic BBC period drama at its best.
I say almost, but clearly it’s not, since Howard wrote the books in 1990 so had a feminist perspective. Women and their issues, rather than men and theirs, are the focus.
But for the first half hour of the six hours of The Cazalets, I had a sinking feeling. “Oh, no. Surely not.” That first half hour is incredibly dull and irritating. You’re stuck there, watching some very rich people with posh accents worry about really quite trivial things. It doesn’t take long for you to realise why socialism and communism were quite so popular in Britain during the 1930s as a result.
But about half an hour in, things perk up as you realise that this isn’t quite the classic BBC drama you were expecting. Before the end of the episode, the litany of miseries and indignities that could be thrown at middle-class women of the time has been well and truly hurled.
We have Stephen Dillane as Edward Cazalet, a philander who cheats on his wife Viola (Lesley Manville) with another married woman, Diana (Anna Chancellor). But he’s so messed up, he even tries to feel up his eldest daughter, Louise (John Le Mesurier’s granddaughter Emma Griffiths). Viola may (or may not) be aware of her husband’s affair, but she certainly doesn’t want another baby at her age – but there’s no safe or respectable way to have an abortion and her doctor would have to tell her husband about it if she did.
Hugh Cazalet (Hugh Bonneville) is a nice guy, it seems, and all appears to be good between him and his wife Sybil (Anastasia Hille). Except it transpires that she has cancer. She knows she’s dying. He knows she’s dying. But neither knows the other knows and dare not to mention it to the other.
Rachel (Catherine Russell) always puts others first so has never married. Or is it because she finds the idea of sex revolting? Or is it because she’s hopelessly in love with her best friend Sid (Penny Downie) and dare not speak that love’s name?
Rupert (Paul Rhys) has lost his wife Isobel and has remarried a much younger woman called Zoë (Joanna Page) who has trouble winning over her new step-children, Clarissa and Neville. Things go even less well for her later when she’s near-raped and falls pregnant.
That’s just the first couple of episodes (which aired as one episode in the US). Without spoiling things too much, it should be clear, given that The Cazalets concludes in the middle of the Second World War, that at least one character goes missing or is killed during the remaining episodes, which obviously has its own ramifications.
But The Cazalets is as much about girls and their relationships with their parents as it is about the problems of adults.
Louise’s relationship with her father is permanently soured after his drunken pass at her, and her relationship with her mother is less than perfect. Like Elizabeth Howard, she tries to become an actress, ends up meeting a naval officer and marries him.
Zoë has problems with her own mother, who seems never pleased by her actions, even when Zoë is nursing her after she has heart problems:
And Rachel is pretty much ignored by her parents in favour of her brothers.
All that’s just the tip of the iceberg, though.
The Cazalets is all about change, self-sacrifice and choices, particularly on the part of women. All the women go on clear journeys, whether it’s Zoë becoming less self-centred and more of a mother – and friend of wounded airmen – Louise’s self-discovery and maturation or Rachel’s growing relationship with Sid.
All this is handled very well and warmly. Whether you can enjoy it depends upon whether you can cope with people who talk about those rotters the Hun in fratfully, fratfully posh accents, while living it up in the lap of luxury.
More importantly, it also depends on how well you can handle disappointment. Because The Cazalets just ends. Worse still, it ends on a happy note. I was quite convinced by its abruptness that I was missing an episode or something.
Spoiler alert first: skip ahead to the next section, if you don’t want to be spoilt.
Now given the books are very much about the crap that can happen to women, to end the series with the wedding of Louise (in the books, that goes about as well as Elizabeth Howard’s own marriage) and news of Rupert’s survival (he returns in the books but his marriage needs some severe patching up) puts a happy gloss on what should be sad tales.
The death of Sybil, while obviously deeply affecting, is just the beginning of her daughter Polly (Claudia Renton)’s arc – the otherwise amiable and admirable Hugh ends up relying and putting pressure on her in Sybil’s stead. So ending the story there was probably the best way possible of undermining everything that had gone before.
Nevertheless, what is there is pretty extraordinary and worth watching – if you can get over that bumpy first half hour and the abrupt ending. The acting’s impeccable, the direction first rate, the design’s beautiful and the writing’s fantastic.
Having a female viewpoint on the typical Second World War scenarios makes The Cazalets seem almost like the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead of period dramas. Where you’d normally expect the men to go off and be frightfully stiff upper lipped about things, now you find out how everyone else regards their heroics. The woman crying because her husband is going off to war in no longer undermining the war effort and holding the hero back, but is experiencing a natural human reaction.
The appearance of the stiff upper lip is shown to be simply that: a facade that both men and women hide behind and which they’d like to escape from if they could. Everything that looked just fine from the old point of view has different layers and meanings from this new point of view.
Worth getting if you can. It’s never been released on DVD in this country, but you can get a Region 1 NTSC release for about £13. Definitely worth it.
As always, the show involved a certain nurturing of women talent behind the scenes. Verity Lambert and Joanna Lumley first met in 1991, working on the ITV comedy A Class Act. “We struck up a rapport,” recalls Lambert. “We had the same sense of humour.” It was while on location filming A Rather English Marriage with Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay that Lumley started reading Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novels about the Cazalet family.
“I had been given these four books to read. You spend a lot of time alone in your caravan reading and I just devoured them and I could see that they would walk off the page on to the screen,” recalls Lumley. “In the manner of things like The Forsyte Saga, and Upstairs, Downstairs, you get to know this family and their lives begin to unfold quite unexpectedly – sometimes happily, sometimes tragically, sometimes dramatically – in front of your eyes. There was an extraordinary destructuring of British society that took place around the time of the Second World War. What started off like a Noel Coward play in the bright sunlight streaming across well-lit lawns, clouds darken and suddenly things begin to change.”
Lumley has never produced a television drama before. Such was her enthusiasm for the Cazalet story, however, she took the plunge and investigated buying the rights to the books. “I rang and was told that, predictably, the rights had gone.” When she returned home that night, however, she discovered a message from Lambert on her answering machine. “She explained she had the rights and maybe I’d like to join her in doing it. It was unbelievable that all that happened in a day.” (adapted from PBS.org)
However, it was Lambert who did the lion’s share of producing. Lumley said: “She is the senior prefect and I just walk around behind her carrying a cloth to shine her shoes and listening and watching how she does things. I have been allowed to bunk off on the financial side. I had no idea producers needed to know things such as how many ladders the crew would need in a specific place. So I would say my input, if any, has been purely artistic.”
It took some time before the show reached the screen, however:
(from Verity Lambert: Drama Queen)
So it’s no surprise that although the BBC promised a further two series of six episodes each to adapt the remaining two Cazalet Chronicles, those series never materialised, leaving the show a very odd ending indeed.
“When I read the books I couldn’t put them down. They were so alive. Elizabeth Jane Howard writes with humour and a great deal of warmth but at the same time she’s not afraid to tackle situations which are shocking. Her characters are so rounded and so real. I like the fact they go on an emotional journey. As situations and relationships change so do they,” (from PBS.org)
Spoiler alert, first of all. Don’t read if you want to avoid surprises. Our Joanna plays Zoë Cazalet, newest recruit to the extensive Cazalet family. It’s another posh English accent for JP and while she has less to do in the middle episodes, the first couple of episodes are pretty much hers and she holds her own in the final couple of episodes, too. A definite tour de force.
Zoë’s popular with the men in the Cazalet family because she has “SA” – sex appeal.
Despite being popular with the women as well, she’s ill at ease and doesn’t especially like her new step-children from husband Rupert’s first marriage:
Rupert’s a socialist and a painter. Zoë, who’s the kind of girl who likes to read Vogue and dress nicely, would also quite like to be rich and go skiing with the rest of the family.
But Rupert’s chosen career doesn’t help with that. He even hides the fact he’s been offered a job with the family firm from her so that she doesn’t get annoyed by his turning it down. Unsurprisingly, when she finds out, she is.
Things change for young Zoë when her mother is taken ill: she has to leave to go look after her.
While there, away from the family, she takes to going out of an evening with her mother’s doctor.
One night he forces himself on her.
After fighting him off, she eventually gives in to him, but regrets it in the morning.
Unfortunately, she becomes pregnant. Hating herself for betraying Rupert, she wishes her sick baby, when it’s born, would die – which it does.
Later, she falls pregnant again – happily, this time by Rupert. Soon though, war breaks out and Rupert decides to enlist in the navy.
At first, the phoney war means nothing happens and Rupert is allowed to return home.
But later he’s recalled and Zoë is alone when the child arrives.
Then she’s given the news that Rupert has gone missing at Dunkirk.
She’s left to bring up the baby without her husband,
But after a while, she’s persuaded to contribute to the war effort.
She soon starts reading to and doing odd-jobs for wounded airman Roddy at the local hospital.
Roddy soon falls in love with her.
Particularly after she gives him a kiss, explaining that she can overlook his injuries, just as she wishes others could overlook her beauty.
However, there is good news: Rupert is still alive.
“I seem to have the funniest love scenes. When Paul and I were filming our bedroom scene in The Cazalets his pajama bottoms ripped from the back right round to the front exposing his backside to the entire crew. It took about half an hour before we could resume the scene because the wardrobe department had to get some new pjs for him and, more importantly, because we were laughing so much.”
“She goes on such a journey. She starts out spoilt, selfish and vain. She’s a lot younger than Rupert. She’s at more or less the same age level as Clary. In fact, Clary is probably much more mature than Zoë. They can’t stand each other. Clary can see through her. She also hates the fact that Rupert is a painter. She doesn’t believe that he’ll ever make money out of it. She thinks it’s a passing fad and hopes he hurries up with it, gets a proper job and earns some money. Things completely change by the end. They go through a lot together.”