The Camomile Lawn (TV serial)

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The Camomile Lawn
The Camomile Lawn (TV serial).png
Opening title
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original languageEnglish
No. of series1
No. of episodes4 (5 on DVD)
Original network
Original release5 March (1992-03-05) –
2 April 1992 (1992-04-02)

The Camomile Lawn is a television adaptation of the 1984 book of the same name by Mary Wesley, produced by Glenn Wilhide and Sophie Belhetchet at ZED Ltd for Channel 4, directed by Peter Hall. It was adapted from Wesley's novel by Ken Taylor and first broadcast in 1992.

Set just before and during the Second World War, with an aftermath that takes place in the mid 1980s, the action begins at the Cornish country house of Helena Cuthbertson.

The title is drawn from a camomile lawn between the house and the sea cliffs on which some significant events take place.


The production begins in August 1939, when young adults Oliver (Toby Stephens), Calypso (Jennifer Ehle), Polly (Tara Fitzgerald) and her brother Walter are visiting their disorganised Aunt Helena (Felicity Kendal) and her husband Richard Cuthbertson (Paul Eddington) in their house by the sea in Cornwall. Ten-year-old Sophy (Rebecca Hall), the daughter of Richard’s late half sister, lives with them and is delighted with the arrival of her cousins, especially Oliver. The family is often visited by the twin sons of the rector of the parish and by Max and Monika Erstweiler, a Jewish refugee couple from Austria that the rector has taken in, who are missing their only son, Pauli, reported to be in a German concentration camp. The cousins invent 'The Terror Run', a cliff path dash that they race at night by a full moon, and are joined by some of the grown ups, and Sophy is determined to run it, too. However, on a daylight practice run, a coastguard exposes himself to Sophy, with surprising results.

After fighting in the Spanish Civil War, Oliver is depressed and disenchanted, but develops a crush on Calypso. She fends him off, determined to make the most of her beauty and marry a much richer man.

Polly is intelligent and practical, and when the Second World War breaks out in September 1939 she joins the War Office to work for Military intelligence, while her brother Walter joins the Royal Navy, Oliver the army, and the twins the Royal Air Force. Meanwhile, Max and Monika are interned as enemy aliens. Calypso marries Hector Grant, a Scottish landowner and member of parliament, but has many affairs. The Erstweilers are released, and Helena begins an affair with Max, Richard with Monika. Walter is killed at sea, and Calypso has a son, Hamish, shortly after her London house has been hit by a bomb, with Sophy acting as midwife. Pauli Erstweiler is reported to have died in Dachau, but in fact he survives the war.

In 1984, more than forty years on, the survivors meet again at the house in Cornwall for the funeral of Max Erstweiler. He became a well-known violinist and bought the house from Helena after Richard’s death. Most of the cast changes: Rosemary Harris, Jennifer Ehle's mother, plays Calypso in old age,[1] Virginia McKenna the older Polly,[2] Claire Bloom Sophy, and Richard Johnson Oliver, who is now a well-known author. Oliver says he has had two failed marriages to Calypso lookalikes. He and Sophy find they are both single and leave the funeral together, planning to get to know each other.

The house now belongs to Pauli, who plans to redevelop it and replace the camomile lawn with a swimming pool.


Locations and production[edit]

The principal film locations were at Broom Parc House, Veryan, Cornwall, the nearby village of Portloe, and central London.[3]

The younger leading actors, Toby Stephens and Jennifer Ehle, were both playing their first screen roles. The scriptwriter, Ken Taylor, was the father of Matthew Taylor, member of parliament for this part of Cornwall. Ehle's screen career was launched by the television drama, in which she played a role that required multiple nude scenes. "I haven't done any nudity since - and never will again," she later said. "When I took the job, I didn't realize there would be so much of it, but no one forced me to do it. The first time I felt really shocked - then came a whole day of naked scenes. I went home and was physically sick. But it wasn't the time or place to sit down and ask why I'd done it. I'd forgotten that I'd be seen naked in a lot of living rooms."[4]


The Camomile Lawn achieved unprecedented viewing figures for Channel 4, its success not exceeded until Humans was broadcast more than twenty years later.[5]

Musical score[edit]

The theme tune for the adaptation, by Stephen Edwards, is based on Ravel's String Quartet in F major, a piece of music rehearsed in the action by Max (Oliver Cotton) and his colleagues.

Episodes (DVD release)[edit]

# Title Directed by Written by Original air date
1"Episode One"Peter HallKen Taylor5 March 1992 (1992-03-05)
The family gathers at the camomile lawn in Cornwall in the summer of 1939. Oliver returns from the Spanish Civil War and pursues Calypso, who rejects him, saying frankly that she is looking for someone richer. Sophy has a traumatic experience and the family meets the classical musician Max and his wife Monika, Austrian Jewish immigrants.
2"Episode Two"Peter HallKen Taylor12 March 1992 (1992-03-12)
As the Second World War breaks out, Calypso finds a rich husband, much to Oliver's dismay. Sophy is sent away to a boarding school, and Helena begins an affair. Polly finds a job in the War Office. She and Calypso take advantage of their new-found freedom to embark on a series of affairs.
3"Episode Three"Peter HallKen Taylor19 March 1992 (1992-03-19)
Oliver is disappointed when the reality of adult life does not live up to his dreams. Calypso receives a surprise and Helena continues her affair. Sophy tells Walter her terrible secret.
4"Episode Four"Peter HallKen Taylor26 March 1992 (1992-03-26)
Tragedy strikes when a family member is killed in action. Hector is reported missing, and Richard comes to London, disturbing Helena's daily life. Meanwhile, Polly is unable to choose between two men, and Sophy witnesses the barbarities of war for herself first hand.
5"Episode Five"Peter HallKen Taylor2 April 1992 (1992-04-02)
Forty years on, the family gathers at the Camomile Lawn for a funeral, finally resolving Oliver's complicated love life, and Polly and Calypso's relationships with their children.


  1. ^ Dave Kehr, Mother, Daughter Share Role in South Florida Sun-Sentinel dated 12 July 2000, accessed 29 June 2012
  2. ^ Charlotte Cripps, Rebecca Hall: My art belongs to Daddy in The Independent dated 15 July 2004, accessed 29 June 2012
  3. ^ "If you're a fan of The Darling Buds of May..." in Toronto Star dated 21 August 1993, page K.5
  4. ^ "'Wow, there's a lot of sex and swearing': Channel 4's top-rated drama ever, 30 years on". Retrieved 30 March 2022.
  5. ^ John Plunkett, Humans becomes Channel 4's biggest drama hit in 20 years in The Guardian dated 22 June 2015, accessed 23 June 2015

External links[edit]