“MARY POPPINS” (1964) Review

 

“MARY POPPINS” (1964) Review

Looking at the 1964 movie about a magical nanny, one would be amazed that it took nearly 20 years to make it. I suspect that many did not predict it would become critically acclaimed. But if one is ever interested in the behind-the-scenes production of the film, one would have to read about it . . . or watch the 2013 movie, “SAVING MR. BANKS”. I am here to discuss the actual movie, “MARY POPPINS”

Based upon a selection of short stories written by P.L. Travers, “MARY POPPINS” tells the story of how two Edwardian Age children named Jane and Michael Banks, who request a particular kind of nanny after their latest one quits her job after enduring one too many pranks from the two siblings. Their father, a banker named George Banks, is too busy with his career and projecting the image of an ideal Englishman in order to pay attention to them. Their mother, although slightly more concerned about their welfare, is either caught up in the Suffregette Movement or too busy adhering to their father’s demands. After the departure of their latest nanny, Katie Nanna, Jane and Michael write a letter describing what they want in a new nanny. But Mr. Banks has different ideas – a nanny who is an effective disciplinarian – and tears up their letter.

However, the children’s letter magically reaches a woman named Mary Poppins. She appears at the Banks’ home the following morning to apply (or appoint herself) as Jane and Michael’s new nanny. Despite his initial reservation, Mr. Banks is impressed by Mary Poppins’ firm manner and hires her. With the help of friend named Bert, Mary Poppins introduces the Banks children to a new magical world. In doing so, she also manages to shake up Mr. Banks, his household and his livelihood.

I first saw “MARY POPPINS” as a child and immediately fell in love with it. For years, I have regarded the movie as one of the highlights of my childhood and one of the best films to be released from the Disney Studios. But recent criticism of Mary Poppins as a sugar-coated character of no substance, and of the film as an infantilization of P.L. Travers’ work and vision has led me to wonder if my childhood opinion of “MARY POPPINS” may have been overrated. After all, I had spent years judging the movie from the viewpoint of a child. How would I judge this movie from an adult who has spent the last ten to twenty years viewing movies with a critical eye?

As many have recently pointed out, the Disney Studios made a good number of changes to Travers’ stories. They also left out a great deal. To point out “all” of the changes and deletions would require an essay. And I am not interested in writing such an essay. Were there any aspects of “MARY POPPINS” that I disliked? Honestly? No. But there are aspects of the movie’s production that I wish could have been handled in a slightly different manner.

For quite some time, I never understood why “MARY POPPINS” was shot at the studio’s Burbank lot, instead of at England’s Pinewood Studios, where 1963’s “DR. SYN, ALIAS THE SCARECROW” and “THE THREE LIVES OF THOMASINA” were filmed. Like the two 1963 films, “MARY POPPINS” mainly featured a cast of British actors. Only four cast members were American born – Dick Van Dyke, Ed Wynn, Jane Darwell and Reta Shaw. I feel that if the movie had been shot in Great Britain, its exterior shots of the Banks and Uncle Albert’s neighborhoods and the City of London would have featured a bit more details – add more oomph to the movie’s visual British style. As for Tony Walton’s costume designs, I must admit that I found them rather charming, if not particularly mind blowing. However . . . I could not help but wonder why Mary Poppins’ skirts seemed a tad short for 1909-10 fashions. And I also end up wondering why Winifred Banks’ wardrobe seemed so limited. Unless I am mistaken, actress Glynis Johns wore only three costumes in “MARY POPPINS”. In fact, I suspect she wore one particular costume twice. And Walton designed her costumes either in yellow, powder blue or a combination of both colors. Although I found Johns’ costumes rather charming, they also struck me as a bit limited.

Although the film’s production designs struck me as a bit limited, I cannot help but admire the film’s cinematography and visual style. Edward Colman earned a much deserved nomination for his colorful and sharp photography for the film. Colman’s photography also enhanced Tony Walton’s pthe matte paintings created by Peter Ellenshaw. Since “MARY POPPINS” was filmed on the Disney Studios backlot in Burbank, Walt Disney and director Robert Stevenson not only had to depend upon Carroll Clark and William H. Tuntke’s art direction, but also the visual effects and special effects teams. But “MARY POPPINS” was set in Edwardian London. And since Disney, Stevenson and the film’s crew could not film in Great Britain, the production team had to rely on Ellenshaw’s beautiful and colorful matte paintings to add to the film’s visual look for its setting, as shown in the following images:

 

“MARY POPPINS” may not have been free of any flaws, but it still remains one of my favorite movies of all time. I had earlier pointed out that some critics have pointed out the movie’s failure to be completely faithful to Travers’ stories. Honestly? I do not care. It would have been near impossible for any screenwriter to be completely faithful. Travers did not write a single novel. She wrote a series of short stories and novellas. And since it is impossible for a screenplay to be completely faithful to a novel or stage play, what on earth made these critics believe Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi could have been completely faithful to Travers’ stories and still fashion a single narrative for the film? Ridiculous!

Personally, I am amazed that Walsh and DaGradi managed to wring a single narrative out of so many short stories in the first place. That must have not been an easy task. As the 2013 movie, “SAVING MR. BANKS”, had pointed out, Mary Poppins’ purpose within the Banks’ household was to save George Banks and his relationship with his children. And she did this in the most interesting way. Mary Poppins used her role as the children’s nanny to indirectly affect the family’s patriarch. Instead of utilizing traditional means to care for the children, Mary Poppins exposed Jane and Michael to her world – using magic to clean the nursery, an excursion into a sidewalk chalk drawing of the English countryside, and an afternoon tea party on the ceiling with Mary Poppins’ Uncle Albert. The children’s revelations of their activities naturally shook up Mr. Banks, along with the magical nanny’s subversive and cheerful impact upon the Banks’ household.

Unable to accept Mary Poppins’ impact upon his family and servants, Mr. Banks threatened to fire her. And this is where Mary Poppins, as the film’s trickster, pulled off a pièce de résistance. Before Mr. Banks could fire her, Mary Poppins managed to manipulate him into agreeing to take the children on an outing to his bank. However, the night before this outing, she decides to sing a song to the children about an old beggar woman who sits on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, selling bags of breadcrumbs to passers-by for twopence a bag, so that they can feed the many pigeons that surround her. Between the song and the children spotting the Bird Woman on their way to their father’s bank, Mary Poppins set in motion the chaos that followed and her plan to save Mr. Banks’ relationship with his family. Brilliant.

If the narrative that Walsh and DaGradi had created from Travers’ short stories had struck me as brilliant, the songs written by Robert and Richard Sherman seemed even more so. Aside from the performances, the Sherman Brothers’ songs seemed to be the heart and soul of the film. If someone was to ask me which song was my favorite, I honestly could not answer that question. Aside from two of them, I found most of their songs very memorable . . . even to this day. One of their songs – “Chim Chim Cher-ee” – was nominated for the Best Song Oscar and won. However, I must admit to being surprised that the beautiful and rather haunting “Feed the Birds” failed to garner any kind of nomination or award. Perhaps it was not as fully appreciated back in 1964-65 as it is today.

Both “Jolly Holiday” and “Step in Time” were not only entertaining songs, but they also provided the background for some very entertaining dance numbers. The first featured the very agile Dick Van Dyke and a quartet of animated pigeons. I found this dance sequence both funny and a joy to watch. You have to see it to believe it. As for the second song, it was featured in a show stopping dance routine that involved Van Dyke, Julie Andrews . . . and chimney sweeps. Between the song, the dance routines choreographed by the husband-and-wife team of Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood, and the London rooftops background, the entire sequence is one of the film’s highlights.

Another addition to the magic of “MARY POPPINS” proved to be its cast. The movie featured excellent voice performances in the chalk picture sequence from the likes of J. Pat O’Malley, Marni Nixon, Dallas McKinnon, and Alan Napier. Even Julie Andrews and David Tomlinson also provided voice performances. The supporting and cameo performances featured in this film were marvelous. The movie included excellent performances from Reginald Owen as the cankerous Admiral Boom; Elsa Lancaster as the disgruntled Katie Nanny; Arthur Treacher as the kindly Constable Jones; Arthur Malet as Mr. Dawes Jr., one of the board members of the bank that employed Mr. Banks; Hermione Baddeley and Reta Shaw as Ellen and Mrs. Brill, the Banks’ gregarious maid and cook; and a poignant cameo by Jane Darwell, who was convinced by Disney to make a brief appearance as the Bird Lady.

“MARY POPPINS” marked the second teaming of Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber, who portrayed the magical nanny’s charges, Jane and Michael Banks. It seemed pretty simple to me why Disney had used this pair in three movies. Not only were they were first-rate actors who more than kept up with the likes of Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke and David Tomlinson; they also had a great screen chemistry. In P.L. Travers’ books, Mrs. Banks was an easily intimidated woman who could barely maintain control of her household. In this movie, Mrs. Banks was a woman more occupied by her suffragette activities than her children. And she was portrayed by actress Glynis Johns. The latter gave a marvelous performance as a woman who seemed to hid her inability to protect her children from their father’s neglect with a few sympathetic words and her own brand of neglect.

If I had to select the most complex character in this movie, it would have to be Mr. George Banks of 17 Cherry Tree Lane and the Dawes Tomes Mousley Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. Thanks to actor David Tomlinson in his first appearance in a Disney film, movie audiences were treated to a superb performance. Tomlinson skillfully transformed George Banks from a highly driven and disciplined man who was obsessed with order to an affectionate family man who had found a new lease on life. It almost seems criminal that the actor never received any kind of acting nomination for his performance.

Unlike Tomlinson, Dick Van Dyke did receive a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor, thanks to his performance as Bert, Mary Poppins’ closest friend and jack-of-all-trades. Whenever Van Dyke’s performance in “MARY POPPINS” is mentioned, people seemed to comment on his Cockney accent. Granted, it was not perfect. But I have never considered it to be a travesty. I have noticed that whenever he spoke words with a long vowel, his Cockney accent seemed exaggerated. Otherwise, I had no problems. And if someone like Sean Connery can win an Oscar for portraying an Irish immigrant with a Scots accent, I see no reason why Van Dyke’s portrayal of Bert should only be condemned for a questionable Cockney accent. Besides . . . accent aside, Van Dyke gave a superb performance in so many other ways. He captured Bert’s charm, wit and a slight talent for manipulation with such perfection. Van Dyke was also given the opportunity to portray another character in the film – namely Mr. Banks’ elderly boss, Mr. Dawes Senior of the Dawes Tomes Mousley Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. How often does one find an actor in his late 30s effectively portraying a 90-something year-old man? In my personal experience, very rarely. And to put the cherry on the icing, Van Dyke was never criticized for his British accent, while portraying Mr. Dawes . . . for good reason. Although there have been hints of his talent as a song-and-dance man in his first television series, “THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW”, this movie really provided an opportunity to convey how truly talented he could be.

Julie Andrews managed to capture the big prize for her portrayal of the film’s leading character, Mary Poppins. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress. Whereas many were distracted from Van Dyke’s performance because of his accent, others have lamented on how Andrews’ portrayal of the magical nanny seemed a far cry from her literary version. Granted, the latter was a plain-looking woman, somewhat more pompous and strict. Although Andrews’ Mary Poppins was more beautiful looking and somewhat warmer, she could still be quite sharp-tongued – especially when disciplining Jane and Michael. Andrews also did a great job in conveying Mary Poppins’ no nonsense behavior and massive talent for emotional manipulation. That one scene in which the magical nanny manipulated Mr. Banks into taking his children on an outing to his bank was just a joy to watch. Thanks to her skillful and award winning performance, Andrews managed to convey the reason why Mary Poppins is regarded as a trickster.

What else can I say about “MARY POPPINS”? Over fifty years have passed since the movie’s initial release and it is still – at least to me – a magical movie to watch. Yes, it had a few flaws. What movie did not? But thanks to P.L. Travers’ stories, Robert Stevenson’s marvelous direction, Robert and Richard Sherman’s music, the movie’s visual effects teams and the superb cast led by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke; “MARY POPPINS” remained timeless and magical as ever.

 

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Top Favorite HISTORICAL NOVELS

Below is a current list of my top favorite historical novels: 

 

TOP FAVORITE HISTORICAL NOVELS

1. “North and South” (1982) by John Jakes – This is the first of a trilogy about two wealthy American families – the Hazards of Pennsylvania and the Mains of South Carolina – during the mid-19th century. This superb novel is set during the two decades before the U.S. Civil War.

 

2. “Flashman and the Redskins” (1982) by George MacDonald Fraser – This excellent novel from the Flashman series picks up where the 1971 novel, “Flash For Freedom” left off . . . with British Army officer Harry Flashman stuck in New Orleans in 1849. He eventually joins a wagon train bound for the California gold fields. The story concludes 27 years later, on the Little Bighorn battlefield.

 

3. “The Wheel of Fortune” (1984) by Susan Howatch – This excellent saga tells the story of a wealthy Anglo-Welsh family named the Goodwins between 1913 and the early 1970s.  Filled with family feuds, traumas, insanity, murder and romance; I regard this as the best of Howatch’s family sagas.

 

4. “Love and War” (1984) by John Jakes – The saga of the Hazards and the Mains continues in this story about their experiences during the U.S. Civil War. I regard this as one of the best Civil War novels I have ever read, despite being underappreciated by some critics.

 

5. “Shadow of the Moon” (1956; 1979) by M.M. Kaye – Set against the backdrop of mid-19th century India and the Sepoy Rebellion, this novel tells the story of a young Anglo-Spanish woman named Winter de Ballesteros and her love for British Army officer, Alex Randall.

 

6. “Voodoo Dreams” (1993) by Jewell Parker-Rhodes – The novel is a fictional account of the famous Voodoo priestess, Marie Laveau, in early 19th century New Orleans. Despite a slow start, the novel unveiled a very engrossing tale.

 

7. “Flashman and the Dragon” (1985) by George MacDonald Fraser – This entry in the Flashman series is an account of Harry Flashman’s experiences during the Taiping Rebellion and the March to Pekin in 1860 China. A personal favorite of mine.

 

8. “Centennial” (1974) by James Michner – A superb, multi-generational saga about the history of a small northern Colorado town, between the 1790s and the 1970s. I regard this superb novel as one of Michner’s best.

 

9. “The Bastard” (1974) by John Jakes – The first novel in Jakes’ Kent Family Chronicles series, this story is about Philip “Charbanneau” Kent, the illegitimate offspring of a French actress and a British nobleman during the years leading to the American Revolution. A personal favorite of mine.

 

10. “Flashman in the Great Game” (1975) by George MacDonald – This fifth entry in the Flashman series follows Harry Flashman’s harrowing adventures during the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-58. Another one of Fraser’s best, which features plenty of drama, action and some pretty funny moments. A must read.

 

11. “The Killer Angels” (1974) by Michael Shaara – This Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the Gettysburg Campaign is considered one of the finest Civil War novels ever written. And I heartily agree.

 

12. “Lonesome Dove” (1985) by Larry McMurty – This Pulitzer Prize winning novel tells the story about two former Texas Ranges who lead a cattle drive on a perilous journey from South Texas to Montana in the late 1870s.

Ten Favorite Movie Musicals

Below is a list of my ten favorite movie musicals (seven of them are period pieces) . . . so far: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIE MUSICALS

1. “Mary Poppins” (1964) – Oscar winner Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke starred in Walt Disney’s Oscar winning adaptation of P.L. Travers’ literary series about a magical English nanny. Robert Stevenson directed.

2. “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) – Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds starred in this musical classic about Hollywood’s transition from silent films to talkies. Kelly co-directed with Stanley Donen.

3. “Hello Dolly!” (1969) – Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau starred in this colorful adaptation of David Merrick’s 1964 Broadway hit musical about a matchmaker in late 19th century New York. Gene Kelly directed.

4. “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (1971) – Angela Landsbury and David Tomlinson starred in this entertaining adaptation of Mary Norton’s novels about a woman studying to become a witch, who takes in three London children evacuated to the country during World War II. Robert Stevenson directed.

5. “Grease” (1978) – John Travolta and Olivia Newton-Johns starred in this adaptation of Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s 1971 Broadway play about the lives of high-school students during their senior year in the late 1950s. Randal Kleiser directed.

6. “42nd Street” (1933) – Lloyd Bacon directed this musical about the preparation of a Broadway musical during the Great Depression. Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, Ruby Keeler and George Brent starred.

7. “Dreamgirls” (2006) – Bill Condon wrote and directed this adaptation of the 1981 Broadway musical about the travails of a female singing group from Detroit during the 1960s and 1970s. Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Oscar nominee Eddie Murphy and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson starred.

8. “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” (1967) – Robert Morse starred in this hilarious adaptation of the 1961 Broadway musical about an ambitious New York window washer using a “how-to” book to rise up the corporate ladder of a wicket company. David Swift wrote and directed the film.

9. “1776” (1972) – William Daniels, Howard Da Silva and Ken Howard starred in this entertaining adaptation of the 1969 Broadway musical about the creation and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Peter H. Hunt directed.

10. “The Gay Divorcee” (1934) – Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers starred in this adaptation of the 1932 Broadway musical, “The Gay Divorce” about an American woman who mistakes a song-and-dance man as the professional correspondent, who had been hired to help her get a divorce. Mark Sandrich directed.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” Food Styles

Below are images of culinary dishes created by food stylist/chef, Lisa Heathcote, for the 2010-2015 ITV series, “DOWNTON ABBEY”

 

“DOWNTON ABBEY” FOOD STYLES

List of Historical Fiction Series

Below is a list of popular historical novels that are a part of a series:

LIST OF HISTORICAL FICTION SERIES

1. The Forsyte Saga (1906-1921) by John Galsworthy – Nobel Prize winning author John Galsworthy wrote and published a series of three novels and two interludes about members of an upper middle-class English family between the 1870s and 1920s.

2. Poldark Saga (1945-2002) by Winston Graham – Set between 1783 and 1820 is a series of twelve novels about a former British Army officer and Revolutionary War veteran, his struggles to make a new life and renew his fortunes following his return to Cornwall after the war.

3. The Asian Saga (1962-1993) by James Clavell – This series of six novels centered on Europeans – especially the Struans-Dunross family – in Asia and the impact of both Eastern and Western civilization between the the early 17th century and late 20th century.

4. The Raj Quartet (1966-1975) by Paul Scott – Paul Scott wrote this four novel series about a group of Europeans during the last five years of the British Raj in India.

5. Flashman Papers (1969-2005) by George MacDonald Fraser – Journalist George MacDonald Fraser wrote a series of novels about the exploits of a cowardly British Army officer during the Victorian Age, between 1839 and 1894. The Harry Flashman character was originally a minor character in Thomas Hughes’ 1857 novel, “Tom Brown’s School Days”.

6. Beulah Land Trilogy (1973-1981) by Lonnie Coleman – This three-volume series told the saga of a Savannah belle named Sarah Pennington Kendrick and her years as mistress of a Georgia cotton plantation called Beulah Land, between the early Antebellum Era and the late Gilded Age.

7. The Kent Family Chronicles (1974-1979) by John Jakes – Also known as “the Bicentennial Series”, author John Jakes wrote a series of eight novels to commemorate the United States’ 200th Bicentennial that centered on the experiences of the Kent family from 1770 to 1890.

8. American Civil War Trilogy (1974; 1996-2000) by Michael and Jeff Shaara – Michael Shaara wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “The Killer Angels” in 1974, which was about the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. A few years after his death, his son Jeff wrote both a prequel (set during the first two years of the war) and a sequel (set during the war’s last year); creating a trilogy of the three novels.

9. The Australians Series (1979-1990) by William Stuart Long – Set between the late 18th century and the late 19th (or early 20th) century, this literary series followed the experiences of the Broome family in Australia and other parts of the British Empire.

10. North and South Trilogy (1982-1987) by John Jakes – John Jakes wrote this literary trilogy about the experiences of two families – the Hazards of Pennsylvania and the Mains of South Carolina – between 1842 and 1876.

11. The Savannah Quartet (1983-1989) by Eugenia Price – The four novels that make up this series is centered around a Northerner named Mark Browning who moves to the birthplace of his Savannah-born mother and his relationships with his family, friends and neighbors between 1812 and 1864.

12. Wild Swan Trilogy (1984-1989) by Celeste De Blasis – Set between 1813 and 1894, this literary trilogy focused on a young English immigrant named Alexandria Thaine, her two husbands and her descendants in England and Maryland.

13. Outlander Series (1992-Present) by Diana Gabaldon – This current literary series focuses upon a World War II nurse named Claire Randall, who embarks upon a series of adventures after she travels back in time and fall in love with an 18th century Highland warrior named Jamie Fraser.

TIME MACHINE: Battle of the Somme

 

TIME MACHINE: BATTLE OF THE SOMME

July 1, 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, which proved to be a major offensive during World War I. The battle or offensive was fought between the Allies (British Empire and French armies) and the armies of the German Empire between July 1 and November 18, 1916.

The military plans for the Battle of the Somme began at Chantilly, Oise; in December 1915. The Allies – namely the British, the French, Russians and Italians – discussed and agreed upon a strategy of combined offensives against the Central Powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria – in 1916. Among those plans included an offensive that required the French army to undertake the major part of the Somme offensive, supported on the northern flank by the Fourth Army of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). But when the German Army initiated the Battle of Verdun on the Meuse on February 21, 1916; French commanders diverted many of the divisions intended for the Somme and the Allies changed their plans, allowing the British armies to become the main forces for the Somme offensive.

On July 1, the first day of the Somme offensive, the German Army suffered a serious defeat, when it was forced out of its first position by the French Sixth Army; from Foucaucourt-en-Santerre, south of the Somme to Maricourt on the north bank and by the Fourth Army from Maricourt to the vicinity of the Albert–Bapaume road. The first day on the Somme offensive also proved to be the worst day in history for the British Army, which suffered at least 57,470 casualties – mainly on the front between the Albert–Bapaume road and Gommecourt. Only a few British troops, which compromised a mixture of the pre-war regular army, the Territorial Force and the Kitchener Army, managed to reach the German front line.

The Battle of the Somme was fought over a period of four months and in three phrases. This battle was fought on both sides of the upper reaches of the River Somme in France. It proved to be the largest battle of World War I on the Western Front. More than one million men were wounded, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history.

“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” (1981) Review

flame_trees_of_thika

 

“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” (1981) Review

Some might find this hard to believe, but I used to be an avid viewer of PBS’s “MASTERPIECE THEATER” years ago. Even when I was a child. That is right. Even as a child, I was hooked on period dramas set in Great Britain’s past. One of the productions that I never forgot happened to be one that is rarely, if ever, discussed by period drama fans today – namely the 1981 miniseries, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA”.

“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” is really a biopic – an adaptation of author Elspeth Huxley’s 1959 memoirs of her childhood in Kenya during the last year of the Edwardian Age . . . that last year before the outbreak of World War I. The story begins in 1913 when young Elspeth Grant and her mother Tilly arrive in British East Africa (now known as Kenya) to meet her father, Robin. The latter, who is a British Army veteran, has plans to establish a coffee plantation. The Grants encounter many problems in setting up their new home. With the help of a Boer big game hunter named Piet Roos, they hire a Kikuyu local named Njombo to serve as translator for any new workers. Two of those workers are another local of Masai/Kikuyu descent named Sammy, who serves as the Grants’ headman; and a Swahili cook named Juma. As life begins to improve for the Grants, they acquire new neighbors, who include a recently arrived couple named Hereward and Lettice Palmer, a Scottish-born former nurse named Mrs. Nimmo, a young and inexperienced farmer named Alec Wilson and a very dashing big game hunter named Ian Crawford. However, just as the Grants were learning to adjust to life in British East Africa, World War I begins and they are forced to adjust to a new future all over again.

Overall, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” struck me as a pretty decent production. It is a beautiful series to look at, thanks to Ian Wilson’s cinematography. He did a marvelous job in recapturing the space and scope of Kenya. Yes, the miniseries was filmed on location. My only qualm is that Wilson may have used slightly inferior film stock. The production’s color seemed to have somewhat faded over the past twenty to thirty years. Roy Stannard’s art direction greatly contributed to the miniseries’ look. I can also say the same about Maggie Quigley’s costume designs. They looked attractive when the scene or moment called for borderline glamour. But Quigley remained mindful of her characters’ social standing, age and personalities. I feel that Stannard and Quigley, along with production managers Clifton Brandon and Johnny Goodman did a very good job in recapturing the look and feel of colonial pre-World War I East Africa. Let me clarify . . . colonial East Africa for middle-class Britons.

I might as well be frank. Many years had passed between the first and last times I saw “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA”. It took this recent viewing for me to realize that the production’s narrative was not as consistent as I had originally assumed it was. Let me put it another way . . . I found the narrative for “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” a bit episodic. I tried to think of a continuous story arc featured in the miniseries, but I could only think of one – namely the love affair between Lettice Palmer, the wife of the Grants’ boorish neighbor; and big game hunter Ian Crawford. And this story arc only lasted between Episodes Three and Seven. Otherwise, the viewers experienced vignettes of the Grants’ one year in East Africa. And each vignette only seemed to last one episode. I must admit that I found this slightly disappointing.

There were some vignettes that enjoyed. I certainly enjoyed Episode One, which featured the Grants’ arrival in East Africa and their efforts to recruit help from the locals to establish their farm. I also enjoyed those episodes that featured the Grants and the Palmers’ efforts to kill a leopard; a major safari in which Tilly Grant, the Palmers and Ian Crawford participated in Episode Six; and the impact of World War I upon their lives in the miniseries’ final episode. However, I had some problems with other episodes. I found Episode Two, which featured young Elspeth’s rather strange New Year’s experiences nearly boring. Nearly. I must admit that some of the characters featured in that particular episode struck me as rather interesting. The episode that featured a personal quarrel between the Grants’ translator Njombo and their headman Sammy ended up pissing me off. It pissed me off because its resolution, namely an “Act of God” in the form Tilly, struck me as a typical example of European condescension . . . even in the early 1980s.

The performances for “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” struck me as pretty first-rate. I rather enjoyed Hayley Mills and David Robb’s performances as young Elspeth’s parents, Tilly and Robin Grant. Although both actors came off as likable, they also did an excellent job in portraying Tilly and Robin’s less than admirable qualities . . . including an insidious form of bigotry. What I am trying to say is . . . neither Tilly or Robin came off as overt bigots. But there were moments when their prejudices managed to creep out of the woodwork, thanks to Mills and Robb’s subtle performances. Sharon Maughan and Nicholas Jones were also excellent as the Grants’ neighbors, Lettice and Hereward Palmer. It was easier for me to like the delicate and ladylike Lettice, even though there were times when she came of as self-absorbed. Jones’ Hereward struck me as somewhat friendly at first. But as the series progressed, the actor did a great job in exposing Hereward’s more unpleasant nature, which culminated in the safari featured in Episode Six. Ben Cross gave a charming and slightly virile performance as big game hunter Ian Crawford. But if I must be honest, the character was not exactly one of his more complex and interesting roles. But the one performance that shined above the others came from the then twelve year-old Holly Aird, who portrayed Elspeth Grant, the miniseries’ main character. Not only did Aird give a delightful performance, she also held her own with her much older cast mates. Quite an achievement for someone who was either eleven or twelve at the time.

There were other performances in “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” that I found impressive. Carol MacReady was entertaining as the somewhat narrow-minded Mrs. Nimmo. Mick Chege gave a charming performance as the always cheerful and popular . David Bradley’s portrayal of young neighbor Alec struck me as equally charming. Paul Onsongo gave a solid performance as the Grants’ major domo/cook Juma. However, Onsongo’s last scene proved to be very complex and interesting when Juma discovered that he could not accompany the Grants back to Britain. One of the series’ most interesting performances came from William Morgan Sheppard, who portrayed Boer big game hunter, Piet Roos. The interesting aspect of Sheppard’s performance is that although he conveyed Roos’ more unpleasant and racist side in Episode One, he did an excellent in winning the audience’s sympathy as his character dealt with the more unpleasant Hereward Palmer during the leopard hunt in Episode Five. Another interesting performance came from Steve Mwenesi as the Grants’ headsman, Sammy. Mwenesi did an excellent job in portraying the very complex Sammy. The latter seemed so cool and subtle. Yet, Mwenesi also made audiences aware of Sammy’s emotions by utilizing facial expressions and his eyes.

Overall, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” was an entertaining production that gave audiences a peek into the lives of colonial Britons during the last year of peace before the outbreak of World War I. Realizing that the story deal with members of the British middle-class and the Kikuyu and Swahili locals, the production team ensured that the miniseries was rich in atmospheric details without over-glamorizing the setting and costumes. And although the miniseries’ narrative came off as somewhat episodic, I also managed to enjoy the performances of a first-rate cast led by Hayley Mills, David Robb and an enchanting Holly Aird.