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The Cloning Of Joanna May
cast: Patricia Hodge, Brian Cox, and Siri Neal
director: Philip Saville

156 minutes (15) 1992
Network DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Based upon a novel by Fay Weldon, The Cloning Of Joanna May is the mildly science fictional story of a woman who discovers that she has been cloned. Joanna (Patricia Hodge) is a middle-aged woman who has been estranged from her industrialist ex-husband Carl (Brian Cox) for ten years following her fling with an archaeologist. Despite his feelings of betrayal and her sense of angry abandonment, the couple are still obsessed with each other. After Carl's involvement in the privatisation of a nuclear plant catapults him onto the front pages, Joanna learns that he is seeing the much younger Bethany (Siri Neal), a model and former prostitute who enjoys parading around in silky lingerie and rubbing herself against Carl like a demented tabby cat. Saddened that her ex has moved on, Joanna goes to meet with him and a chilly confrontation rapidly escalates into her admission that she has taken a younger lover and his revelation that he had her cloned. As Joanna tries to track down her clones, Carl sets about murdering Joanna's lover and inviting the clones to his country house in the belief that they will be like younger versions of Joanna; worthy of his love and untainted by betrayal. However, all does not go to plan and the clones prove to be more interested in each other than they are in the ageing, sentimental and yet brutal businessman.

Taking in the award-nominated production of this mini-series, it is easy to be transported back in time. Much like the excellent House Of Cards (1990), The Cloning Of Joanna May speaks of a time before the rise of reality TV and the realisation that young people had stopped watching telly and so required pandering to. Where modern dramas are over-produced and filled with young actors, series such as these were invariably shot in chintzy country houses and peopled with instantly recognisable character actors who were invariably posh and middle-aged. To modern eyes this style of production feels anaemic, low-key and... well... 'beige' is the word that springs to mind. However, despite being made in a style better suited to regional detective series, The Cloning Of Joanna May tries very hard to be glamorous and sexy. This results in a series that lurches uncontrollably between the introverted emotional constipation of cut-glass diction in drawing rooms and the kind of campy excess that has women constantly flashing their stocking tops whilst ersatz Bond villains form sinister plans and rant about the ignorant hysteria of the general public whilst hopping in and out of helicopters. The screenplay is similarly uneven, jamming together naturalistic dialogue with pompous pseudo-Shakespearian monologues and mainstream emotional drama with eerie clones using psychic powers to bump off people they dislike. However, far from a quirk of the production, the conflicted nature of The Cloning Of Joanna May also extends throughout the series' themes, narratives and characters producing a story weirdly at odds with itself.

Nowhere is this dichotomy made clearer than in the character of Carl May. As with many of Weldon's works (including The Life And Loves Of A She-Devil, 1983), the book deals with women trapped by an unfair and cruel patriarchal system from which they have to break free. In the context of the series, Carl provides this system. Described alternately as having "a calculator for a brain" or as a "sentimental psychopath," Carl is a man who treats women as means to an end. In the case of Joanna, his love is not so much attached to a real person as to the image of Joanna as a distant and icy religious icon. When Joanna has an affair, this rocks Carl's world to its very foundations and even after the divorce he takes it upon himself to murder Joanna's lovers as the mere idea of her having sex with another man taints the image of Joanna as an object of veneration (indeed, he even has a hidden portrait of the woman in his office). Carl's desire to create clones of Joanna makes perfect sense as each cloned embryo allows him another chance at falling in love with a version of Joanna who is untainted by betrayal and true to his ideals of what she is.

Indeed, Carl's attraction to the clones has nothing to do with their age or their beauty (though he does have a weirdly a-sexual obsession with "taffeta gowns and black stockings") but their purity. When it transpired that the clones are real women with their own ideas, he is crushed. According to his driver they are typical young women; "at best promiscuous, at worse lesbians." Even when Carl takes an interest in women other than Joanna, he opts for the former model and escort Bethany... a woman as psychopathic as he in that she will do anything to land herself a rich man, including cheerfully condone murder. But Bethany is only 'target practice', a way for Carl to practice his romantic skills so that he might be better equipped for a relationship with a young woman. In many ways, Carl's childishly fetishistic sexuality and his obsessive and controlling emotional life are the series' standout achievements; Carl May is a wonderful blending of Benny Hill and Ernst Stavro Blofeld, he is the ultimate feminist scalp; the insanely powerful man reduced to the status of a child peeking at women in their undies.

The series' titular protagonist is equally conflicted. Supremely beautiful and intelligent as well as spiritual and passionate, Joanna is also supremely forgiving; no matter how many of her lovers Carl murders, she will never report him to the police or stop believing in the love that once bound the couple together. In Joanna's love we have the answer of every knuckle-dragging misogynist who wonders why; if men are so terrible, feminists don't all become lesbians. Carl is deemed to be worthy of love because he is a victim of abusive parents. As a result, there are no crimes he can commit that cannot be washed away by the love of Joanna May. Indeed, the series ends with Carl's technocratic misogyny being turned on its head as a clone of Carl is brought up in a loving environment, thereby cleansing Carl of the taint of abuse and patriarchy, just as Carl wished to cleanse Joanna of her failure to live up to his unrealistic expectations of her. However, while Joanna is full of forgiveness for Carl, she is rather less flexible when it comes to other people.

While the series tries (with only limited success) to present Joanna, her friends, the clones and Carl as basically sympathetic, it puts the boot into pretty much everyone else. Men are presented as being, at best, cowardly pompous fools and, more commonly, brutal thugs who preface the beating of their girlfriends with lines such as "You expect me to watch TV on my own?!" The series then goes on to conflate bisexuality with homosexuality and homosexuality with paedophilia (apparently gay men frequently hang themselves after being caught molesting schoolboys) before engaging in casual racism ("that gypsy girl") and voicing the remarkably misogynistic idea that Bethany is not good enough for a demented control freak such as Carl because she used to be a prostitute.

The result is a series that feels deeply hypocritical. It wants to be able to damn men as brutal oppressors, but it also wants to present them as impotent victims. It champions feminist ideals but returns again and again to images of women lounging around in sexy lingerie. It castigates simple-minded bigots but then uses language that is both racist and homophobic. It presents itself as being about forgiveness but it is incredibly swift to condemn people for the most insignificant of reasons. At every turn, The Cloning Of Joanna May wants to be two incompatible things at once. However, despite the unintentionally hilarious dialogue, the casual bigotry and the weird production values, there are meat on these bones.

While many reviews seem to look upon the book and series as an investigation of the issues of identity raised by cloning, I think that this is completely off-base. There is no examination of identity because the whole point of the clones is to show that regardless of how they might be brought up, women born with the DNA of Joanna May are destined to be beautiful, intelligent and capable. This biological determinism sits quite uncomfortably with the series' desire to deconstruct and ultimately exculpate man's patriarchal urges but, while the answers the series comes up with are far from convincing, the questions themselves are more than enough the sustain a hearly three-hour drama.

On a more practical level, the series is also superbly paced. Saville manages to keep the series free from longueurs and, as a result, the hours whiz by incredibly smoothly held aloft by good performances by a talented cast. Patricia Hodge's performance is almost indistinguishable from her turn in Rumpole Of The Bailey but she has enough about her to carry the piece and her public school priggishness nicely offsets Cox's scenery-chewing turn as a man whose accent aimlessly wanders between the Transvaal and Transylvania. Siri Neal also does very well in a part that requires little of her other than a willingness to dress in a series of tarty outfits and secondary roles feature a number of familiar faces on good form (keep an eye out for The Thick Of It's Malcolm Tucker remade as a floppy-haired archaeologist in a bow tie).

All things considered, The Cloning Of Joanna May is something of a mess, albeit a loveable one. The dialogue and production designs alone give it a campy cult potential on a par with something like Verhoeven's Showgirls (1995), or Russ Meyer's Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (1970).

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