Harnessing Peacocks Review

This is the 1993 small-screen adaptation of Mary Wesley's 1985 novel of the same name. Following the success-de-scandale of Sir Peter Hall's 1992 TV adaptation of Wesley's The Camomile Lawn, further adaptations of her books followed. Described by some as 'Jane Austen with sex' Wesley's novels examine the sexual mire seething beneath the respectable bourgeois facade of rural middle-class England. In Harnessing Peacocks, the protagonist is Hebe (Serena Scott Thomas) a young single mother of a 12-year-old son who, disowned by her wealthy parents, now earns a living as a private cook to posh old ladies in picturesque English villages - supplemented by her work as a prostitute to wealthy old men. She hasn't seen the father of her son since the night of the child's conception but Jim Huxtable (Peter Davison) an antiques dealer comes into the picture when he has some dealings with an old friend/client of Hebe's (Sir John Mills). Whilst coping with the attention from various men she encounters, Hebe has a chance meeting with Jim. It soon becomes apparent they have more in common than either suspect.

At first glance, the opening credits with a plaintive oboe playing beneath them suggest we're in midweek-afternoon-romantic-movie territory. Which we are, to a degree. The plot development and production style belong to every film of that type made around that time. However every character's obsession with sexual references and a completely gratuitous nude scene for Hebe suggest we might be in post-watershed territory. The director, James Cellan Jones, already had 30 years' experience under his belt by the time he made this and I think he may have deliberately aimed for an afternoon-movie aesthetic to subvert the genre. With its roster of distinguished elderly actors in beautifully-appointed country homes, this does at times look like an episode of Midsomer Murders but when the fluffy old ladies start reminiscing in detail about their sexual exploits in their younger days, you do feel like you've wandered into a parallel universe.

The principal cast all do a good job - Peter Davison does his Decent Everyman routine, now well-honed and Tom Beasley as Hebe's son nicely underplays his character. The casting of Hebe makes or breaks this piece and Serena Scott Thomas (Kristin's little sister) has a pretty good stab at it. Blonde (of course), unconventionally pretty and with a terrific body she effortlessly brings to the film the sexual allure and unshowy self-confidence that the character needs. But what does put the kibosh on Andrew Davis's adaptation is the secondary characters. There are far too many of them which results in them often being little more than sketchy caricatures even when you have wonderful actresses like Brenda Bruce in there. Unfortunately most of them are also thoroughly unlikeable people played by actors-who-should-know-better (like Nicholas Le Prevost) barking lines at each other. As if that wasn't bad enough there are also some appalling child actors adding to the mix.

The tone is also quite inconsistent. Although the script emphasises the sexual aspects of the characters' interpersonal relationships it is surprisingly coy. There are no sex scenes at all and all anyone does really is talk about it a lot. But then out of the blue, Hebe has a completely gratuitous and casual full-frontal nude scene. The director even contrives to have her seen from behind standing naked in front of a full-length mirror so we get everything in one shot. I appreciate this illustrates Hebe's ease with her body and her sexuality but it just looks out of place with the rest of the film. But having said that, it's easier to cut one brief scene from the film for overseas markets than it is to make cuts throughout.


The single disc contains just the film which lasts 1h 45m.

Transfer and Sound

The image is in standard TV 4:3 ratio but the picture quality is disappointing. The source material is undamaged but the image is very soft and the colours muted. Although shot entirely on film the transfer seems to have been taken from a video master. Notwithstanding the fact that Network always tries to get the best transfer possible from its source materials the picture quality here is marginally better than VHS. The sound though is fine and this comes from a time when there were still actors around who could enunciate properly.


None at all.


This disc has been available before from another distributor and I imagine it has been suitably re-mastered for this reissue. In which case the previous release must have looked pretty ropey (the feedback on Amazon for it suggests so). Neither fish nor fowl, this is still reasonably entertaining when the main characters are onscreen and Serena Scott Thomas is easy on the eye. However the plethora of minor characters would have been better served with a longer multi-part adaptation.

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out of 10

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