‘To The Manor Born’ at 40

❉ Mark Trevor Owen revisits the tweedy life of Grantleigh Manor…

“Will the sparks of friction that immediately fly between Old Money and New Money blossom into the flames of an opposites-attract romance? Oh, take a wild guess…..”

For a TV situation comedy to work, it needs two things (as well as, y’know, all the other things). The comedy must be funny, and the situation must be understandable.

‘Understandable’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘familiar’ or (to borrow a word from those beloved focus groups) ‘relatable’. From Blackadder to Red Dwarf successful sitcoms have often placed their comedy in situations that the audience won’t personally know.

A slightly less extreme example of this is To The Manor Born, which began 40 years ago this year. The setting of a grand country estate can hardly have been part of the real-life experience for more than a handful of the audience, yet that didn’t stop the show from being a huge hit, with several episodes attracting over 20 million viewers.

The estate in question belongs (briefly) to Audrey fforbes-Hamilton – and if Penelope Keith hadn’t existed to play the part, it would have been necessary to invent her. Audrey has recently become a very merry widow – in the first few minutes of the opening episode, we see her actually jumping for joy at her husband’s funeral. As she tells her mousy friend Marjorie Frobisher (Angela Thorne, having out-of-character fun), she now has everything she wanted – her wastrel husband out of the picture, and the imposing Georgian pile that is Grantleigh Manor in her ownership.

Except, as her family lawyer sensitively points out during the wake, her husband died bankrupt. Audrey has barely recovered from the shock of having to sell Grantleigh and move into the lodge at the end of the drive, than she’s hit by the potentially even greater blow that the place has been bought by the frightfully nouveau riche supermarket magnate, Richard DeVere (Peter Bowles, with the suave turned up to 11).

Will the sparks of friction that immediately fly between Old Money and New Money blossom into the flames of an opposites-attract romance? Oh, take a wild guess…..

It’s the “will they – won’t they – they almost certainly will” plot-line that certainly must account for a lot of the popularity of To The Manor Born, with both Keith and Bowles pitching their performances in an agreeably Noel Coward-esque style. The other key ingredient is that this is a depiction of country living that was declining rapidly in 1979 and is almost gone now – but one which remains how most urban-dwelling people like to imagine it.

Four decades later, To The Manor Born is doubly nostalgic. When it began, it contained a hankering for a lost way of life in the form of the lady of the manor, butlers and tied cottages. Now, it retains all of that but also evokes another lost world; one of sitcoms videotaped in BBC TV Centre with a Ronnie Hazlehurst theme tune, netting 20 million viewers and more.

The double-helping of that longing for lost things explains the undeniable warm fuzzy feelings that watching To The Manor Born now brings. On paper, nearly all the characters are difficult to like. The Old Money are haughty and superior with very little reasons to be that way. The New Money are vulgar in their money-loving. The working-class characters are all forelock-tugging yokels who never object to being ordered around and spoken to as if they were children. Oh, and everybody, rich and poor, is just bonkers about fox-hunting.

Fortunately, these elements are diluted, not just by the nostalgia but by the skills of writer Peter Spence.  He keeps the tone light – this is literally a drawing-room comedy – but never wholly favours any one character’s point of view as being the correct one.  Audrey’s snobbishness, Richard’s tackiness and faithful old retainer Ned’s obsequiousness are all mined for laughs, but they’re good-natured ones. This is not a programme that’s trying to start a class war, although it’s interesting that in an interview on the DVD release, Spence admits that he probably wouldn’t choose to socialise with any of the characters.

After a spectacularly successful conclusion in 1981, To The Manor Born was revived on the radio in the 1990s and returned to TV for a Christmas special in 2007. This was a well-judged piece, getting good reviews and familiarly large audience. Perhaps wisely, however, it remained a one-off. The show now nestles gently in the rolling hills of TV nostalgia, a haven from a modern world that feels very far from the tweedy life at Grantleigh Manor. With its hunting, shooting, fishing and snobbery, it feels as much of a period piece as Downton Abbey. Perhaps it’s a world that few contemporary people would really want to live in. But it’s one which still provides the warm glow fuelling so much of our most treasured television.

❉ Mark Trevor Owen is a writer with work published by BBC Isle of Man, Miwk Publishing and Chinbeard Books. He writes a regular newspaper column in the Isle of Man Examiner and tweets @MarkTrevorOwen

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