As I mentioned last week, today I have an extra-special, super-sized post, all about Norman and his reel librarian conquests. A library colleague, one who knows that I research librarian portrayals in film, recommended The Norman Conquests , a 1977 British TV mini-series, and kindly lent me her DVD copy.
The Norman Conquests — not to be confused with the historical Norman Conquest of England in 1066! — was adapted from the trilogy of plays written in 1973 by Alan Ayckbourn. Each play depicts the same six characters over the same weekend at a family home in the country, but from different perspectives and in different parts of the house. Norman, played by Tom Conti, is the title character — and reel librarian!
Setting the stage:
The three “episodes” of the trilogy include:
- “Table Manners,” set in the dining room
- “Living Together,” set in the living room
- “Round and Round the Garden,” set in the garden
The plays were written to be self-contained and watched in any order. Content from some scenes overlap from the different plays, and several times, a character’s exit from one play mirrors an entrance in another play.
There are six main characters, including three siblings, whose lives and loved ones intertwine:
- Norman (played by Tom Conti)
- Ruth, Norman’s wife (played by Fiona Walker)
- Reg, Ruth’s brother (played by Richard Briers)
- Sarah, Reg’s wife (played by Penelope Keith)
- Annie, Reg’s and Ruth’s sister (played by Penelope Wilton)
- Tom, Annie’s neighbor (played by David Troughton)
What’s the main plot? The back of the DVD sums it up as, “Passions flare and tempers rise when three couples cross paths at a country house one weekend.” Reg and Sarah come visit his sister, Annie, who confesses she’s been having an affair with her brother-in-law, Norman, and plans to go away for the weekend with him. Then Norman arrives, followed a day later by his wife, Ruth. Awkward… especially since Annie’s neighbor, Tom, is also interested in Annie!
‘Table Manners’ episode:
This was the first of the three episodes that I watched. We don’t see Norman until over a half-hour into the episode, but we hear about Norman and his characteristics (and exploits) almost from the beginning, when Annie confesses their affair to her sister-in-law, Sarah:
Annie: You know Norman… Norman doesn’t bother about secret signals at all. It was just wham, thump, and there we both were on the rug.
Sarah: Which rug?
Annie: The brown nylon fur one in the lounge.
Sarah: I blame Norman. That is absolutely typical. A brown fur rug.
During dinner on Saturday, we hear Norman’s voice for the first time, as he drunkenly sings from the living room, “Girls were made to love and kiss.”
We don’t get a look at Norman until Sunday morning, decked out in pajamas (the pajamas which we heard he had been “waving about” in the garden the day before). Quite the memorable first impression of a reel librarian!
Norman, Reg, Sarah, and Annie spent an awkward breakfast together — mostly Norman acting up and telling uncomfortable truths dressed up as “jokes” — and afterward, Norman reveals something personal and revealing to his brother-in-law, Reg.
Reg, it’s not fair. A man of my type of temperament should really — ideally — be square-jawed, broad-shouldered, blue twinkling eyes, chuckle in his voice, a spring in his stride. He should get through three women a day without even ruffling his hair. That is what I am like inside. That’s my appetite. That’s me. I am a three-a-day man. There is enough of me in here to give, you know? Not just sex. I am talking about everything. Trouble is I was born in the wrong damn body. Look at me. A gigolo trapped in a haystack. Tragedy of my life.
Let me repeat that. A gigolo and an assistant librarian.
It’s like Norman himself is providing a definition for his Naughty Librarian character type!
There are a couple of references to librarianship in this episode. One is that we learn that Norman told his wife that he would be going away for the weekend to a librarian conference (when he really was going to take Annie away to a hotel).
The other library reference is a conversation late in the episode between Ruth and Sarah:
I always feel with Norman I’ve got him on loan from somewhere, like one of his library books. I’ll get a card one day informing me he’s overdue, and there’s a fine to pay on him.
‘Living Together’ episode:
This episode is chock full of library references! It starts off with Reg and Sarah in the living room, along with Norman, sulking in the corner with his suitcase (because we know the weekend tryst between he and Annie has been called off). Interestingly, as you can see in the shot below of Norman with his suitcase, books are scattered about a bookcase shelf behind him… perhaps an external representation of Norman’s inner frustrations?
We also get an immediate reference to the “librarian conference” Norman used as excuse, when Reg asks Norman about it and Norman replies it’s been cancelled “due to lack of interest.” Reg’s response? “Funny lot, these librarians.”
Norman later argues with Sarah about “stealing” Annie away:
Norman: I was not stealing her. I was going to borrow her for a weekend.
Sarah: You make her sound like one of your library books.
Norman: Well, she was borrowing me, too. It was a friendly loan, mutual.
Norman also explains his “librarian conference” excuse to Annie:
Annie: I didn’t know assistant librarians had conferences.
Norman: Oh, everybody has conferences.
And toward the end of the episode, on Monday morning, Norman plans to call in sick to the library:
Ruth: I’m amazed they keep you on.
Norman: I’m a very good librarian, that’s why. I know where all the dirty bits are in all the books.
This episode also reveals Norman’s romantic — and literary — side, as he bemoans the fate of his weekend tryst with Annie.
The course of true love shattered not by the furies, not by the fates, but by Mother’s bleeding pills?! ‘Dear Juliet, my shoelace has come undone. I cannot join you in the tomb. Love, Romeo.’
Ruth — who slaps Norman after she catches him kissing Annie in the living room — also reveals Norman’s inner romantic when she describes how he proposed to her:
He’s always been an expert at timing, whatever else. He proposed to me in a crowded lift. It was total blackmail. He sounded so appealing he won the heart of everyone round us. Had I been heartless enough to refuse him, they’d have probably dropped me down the lift shaft… I remember that was the first time I really felt like throttling Norman.
Ruth also shines a light on Norman’s “Naughty Librarian” character traits, when she states that Norman would “be much happier if you were perfectly free, flitting from woman to woman as the mood takes you.”
‘Round and Round the Garden’ episode:
This episode ends with a bang — literally! — but I won’t give too much away. More is revealed in this episode about Norman’s central character trait, his inner desire to be desired, and the inherent friction between lust and romantic idealism. Here are two speeches Norman gives that illustrate this conflict:
Where’s the romance? Where has the romance gone? Destroyed by the cynics and liberationists. Woe betide the man who dares to pay a woman a compliment today. He bends to kiss her hand and — wham! — a karate chop on the back of the neck, and she’s off with his wallet. No, forget the flowers, the soft word, the chocolates. Rather, woo her with a self-defense manual in one hand and a family-planning leaflet in the other.
It is on such a night as this, the old base instincts of primitive man, the hunter, come flooding to the surface. You long to be away, free, filled with the urge to rape, pillage, and conquer. Filled with the lust for conquests tonight.
Also revealing more of his “Naughty Librarian” characterization? On Sunday night, Reg and Tom are playing a game in the garden, and Norman comes out wearing shorts! While Reg and Tom are arguing, Norman scores a kiss from Annie… and it rapidly escalates from there!
We also find out more about this “librarian conference” Norman has lied about:
Norman: Yes. Yes. It’s the International Association of Assistant Librarians’ annual conference.
Tom: Jolly good.
Norman: Ah, it’s very exciting.
Toward the end of the episode, Norman — once again — links together the library and his personal life:
Ruth: I know you and your rests. Your mind just doesn’t associate beds with sleep at all. I don’t know when you do sleep. It certainly isn’t with me.
Norman: I was brought up to believe that it was very insulting to sleep with your wife. Or any lady. A gentleman stays eagerly awake on one elbow. He sleeps at his work. That is what work is for. Why do you think they have the “silence” notices in my library? So as not to disturb me in my little nook behind the biography shelves, L to P.
Ruth: They’ll sack you.
Norman: They daren’t. I’ve reorganized the main index. When I die, the secret dies with me.
What we talk about when we talk about Norman:
Even when Norman is not onscreen, someone is talking about him. Here is a round-up of both criticisms and compliments about Norman throughout the episodes:
- Whatever did she see in him? (Sarah talking about Ruth and Norman, in “Table Manners”)
- He’s a laugh, you know, Norman. Goes on and on. Don’t know what he’s talking about. Makes me laugh. I don’t care. I like him. Not many women like him. I don’t know why. Sarah can’t bear him. Won’t have him in the house. Nor will his wife. (Reg to Tom, in “Table Manners”)
- You’re a nice bloke, but I think you must be the last person in the world I ever want to have breakfast with again. (Reg to Norman, in “Table Manners”)
- You do talk rubbish. (Annie to Norman, in “Table Manners”)
- I’m a kept man. A married ponce. (Norman to his wife, Ruth, in “Table Manners”)
- I don’t hate you. I can’t say I like you very much most of the time. (Sarah to Norman, in “Table Manners”
- No point in making a gesture unless he has an appreciative crowd to applaud him. (Ruth, in “Living Together”)
- You are odious, deceitful, conceited, self-centered, selfish, inconsiderate, and shallow. (Ruth to Norman, in “Living Together”)
- Why did you let him drive? You know what he’s like! You knew he was Norman, didn’t you? (Reg to Ruth, in “Round and Round the Garden”)
- He just can’t bear not being the center of attention. (Ruth about Norman, in “Round and Round the Garden”)
- You’re foul. (Annie to Norman, in “Round and Round the Garden”)
- Oh, Norman, you’re so stupid. (Annie to Norman, in “Round and Round the Garden”)
- You’re a good chap, you know, Norman. A really good chap. I’m sorry you’re having to dash away to your conference. It’s a pity you’re not staying because you brighten up the place a bit. (Tom to Norman, in “Living Together”)
- I think we underestimate Norman. (Sarah, in “Living Together”)
- I seem to remember you could do a lot with one hand. (Annie to Norman, describing their one-night stand, in “Living Together”)
- I think I must be rather fond of him. It’s a bit like owning an unmanageable oversized dog, being married to Norman. He’s not very well house-trained. He needs continual exercising — mental and physical. And it’s sensible to lock him up if you have visitors. Otherwise, he mauls them. (Ruth to Sarah, in “Round and Round the Garden”)
- I have the Midas touch. (Norman referring to himself, in “Round and Round the Garden”)
As I’ve demonstrated above, Norman’s desire to be desired (dressed up in a “I could have made you happy” refrain) drives a lot of the trilogy’s plot. He is quite possibly the most fully realized Naughty Librarian character type in all cinema. Let’s check off the Naughty Librarian traits:
- Sexually charged male librarian (usually focused on sex, which is certainly true in Norman’s case)
- Usually unsuccessful professionally (Norman jokes about sleeping on the job; Ruth complains about having to earn a salary for them to live on; everyone is surprised that “assistant librarians” have conferences to go to)
- Middle-aged (one could argue that Norman is experiencing a “mid-life crisis”)
- Depicted as generally unattractive (Norman is described as a “sheepdog” in one scene and “an unmanageable oversized dog” in another)
- Usually viewed as creepy, sexually deviant, or wimpy (Norman is seen as unmanly and a “kept man; reveals he fainted during a documentary about childbirth; also gets punched and slapped in the face by multiple characters)
I found myself thinking throughout the episodes that Norman was very similar in character to Peter Sellers in Only Two Can Play, who plays John Lewis, an assistant librarian who feels unfulfilled in career, in life, and in love; in that 1962 film, John seeks a promotion, as well as possible love affairs. Sound familiar?!
The Norman Conquests ends up a Class II film, in which the protagonist or other major characters are librarians, but the librarian’s occupation does not directly affect the plot. Norman being a librarian isn’t the catalyst or reason for the plot; rather, his profession juxtaposed with his libido is played for laughs. Isn’t it hilarious that this wimpy, sheepdog-like librarian feels like a gigolo on the inside?!
Tom Conti as the title character Norman does an excellent job of being both annoying AND charming at the same time. One almost feels sorry for this man, as Conti reveals Norman’s inner turmoil and sexual frustration — mostly through a myriad of engaging facial expressions:
The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. And that is critical in a story like this; with a limited pool of actors, the weakest link would rise immediately to the top. I am quite glad I watched The Norman Conquests, and I can appreciate the writer’s skill in crafting a tale that manages to go over the same events from different perspectives — but still manages to pack in surprises along the way! Each episode reveals something you didn’t know before and deepens your understanding of what you had seen before.
The main caveat is that it does take time to watch the entire miniseries, as each episode is 90 minutes. But the series definitely merits multiple viewings — if you have the patience for Norman’s antics! — and I have to admit, I have continued to think about Norman and his conquests long after I finished watching the miniseries.
I have a feeling Norman would be quite pleased to learn that I’m still thinking about him… 😉
Have you watched The Norman Conquests, either in film or play format? Please leave a comment and share your experiences!
- The Norman Conquests (TV movies). Dir. Herbert Wise. Perf. Tom Conti, Richard Briers, Penelope Keith, David Troughton, Fiona Walker, Penelope Wilton. Thames Television, 1977.