TV: TO THE MANOR BORN

by Mark McKay (reprinted from LAUGH MAGAZINE #21, 2000)

When romance and comedy are combined it is often at the expense of the latter. To The Manor Born proved a refreshing exception – a delightfully enchanting British sitcom with clever, witty scripts. And despite being set in a bucolic upper class world of hunt balls and gymkhanas, its appeal was universal, evinced by record viewing figures.

The premise was quite literally close to home for jobbing BBC radio scriptwriter Peter Spence, who by the mid-1970s had already penned sketches for Ronnie Barker (Lines From My Grandfather’s Forehead), Kenneth Williams (Oh, Get On With It!) and Roy Hudd (The News Huddlines). Just outside the Somerset village in which he lived, financial woes forced a recently bereaved widow to bid farewell to her stately home, relocating instead to a small lodge on the same estate. Meanwhile an affluent businessman moved into the mansion and proceeded to make extensive alterations before her very eyes.

Though essentially a tragic situation, Spence saw its inherent comic potential and hatched out a situation comedy treatment for radio. It was decided to record a pilot programme and the actors chosen for the lead roles were Penelope Keith and Bernard Braden. Keith was at the time a logical choice to play the snobbish, self-confident lady of the manor, her portrayal of Margo Leadbetter, snooty neighbour of Tom and Barbara Good in BBC-TV’s The Good Life, firmly entrenched in the public mind. Braden, the veteran Canadian radio comedian and TV presenter, played the upstart nouveau-riche American entrepreneur.

The recording was made at the Paris theatre in Lower Regent Street but it was never broadcast. Instead the project was quickly snapped up by television (Miss Keith allegedly being instrumental in effecting this transition) and Spence decided to turn the American parvenu into an Englishman of Eastern European parentage. This change would enable some sexual tension to creep into the stories (apparently it was thought romance with an American was quite impossible).

The first episode begins with the funeral of Marton fforbes-Hamilton, late owner of Grantleigh manor and without an heir to carry on the line. Marton’s demise leaves his widow Audrey (Keith) surprisingly cheerful, until she discovers his earthly departure has left her bankrupt and that consequently the manor house and its thousand-acre estate must be put up for auction. Aghast that four hundred years of heritage is in jeopardy, Audrey sets about raising the necessary capital, defiantly declaiming “We’ve been here through wars, plagues, floods, famine and Labour governments.”

It seems that every foreign nationality is represented at the auction. The sight of gentlemen in Middle Eastern robes and headdresses is all too much for Audrey: “If we’re not careful, we’ll find this place rebuilt stone by stone in Abu Dhabi”.

But in the event, both Audrey and the Arabs are outbid and the property passes into the possession of Richard DeVere, self-made millionaire and chairman of multinational Cavendish Foods. Unhappy that Grantleigh has been bought by “a grocer’, she consoles herself that at least he’s British.

But a rude shock is in store for Mrs. fforbes-Hamilton in the second instalment. Having taken up residence all of two hundred yards away in the Old Lodge, Audrey is visited by Mrs. Polouvicka, an elderly Czechoslovakian woman who introduces herself as Richard’s mother. It transpires that Richard (or Bedrich, as she still knows him) is not English after all – rather half Czech and half Pole. Audrey reflects, ‘Foreigners are all very well in their place, but why does it have to be my place?”

The smooth, hard-headed DeVere was portrayed by 42-year-old Peter Bowles, and proved a refreshing change from the rogues in TV thrillers he’d been used to playing (and to which he was later to return in the series Perfect Scoundrels). In fact Bowles had mistakenly turned down the role of Jerry Leadbetter in The Good Life. Had he accepted, it is unlikely that he would have been chosen as Penelope Keith’s love interest in this very different new series.

DeVere’s domineering mother, Maria Jaroslava Vladimira Martinka Polouvicka (shortened by Audrey to the more succinct “Mrs. Poo”) was played by Daphne Heard. Despite an extensive career in repertory theatre and the Old Vic, she had never attempted a foreign accent before. The “all-purpose, middle-European accent” and mannerisms she adopted were so effective that many viewers thought she was the genuine article.

Location filming took place on the picturesque Cricket St. Thomas estate, where the real-life incident which inspired the show had taken place. The remaining scenes were recorded in London before a studio audience. This method of production provoked a fairly obvious continuity blunder in the first edition, with the set designer’s verdant exteriors at odds with the snow-covered landscapes on film!

In subsequent episodes, Audrey maintained a vigilant and critical eye on the manor. From her vantage point at the Old Lodge, and with the aid of a sharp set of binoculars, very little escaped her notice. She saw abstract sculptures erected on the lawns, modern renovations, ancient trees felled and even DeVere’s purchase of a helicopter, all of which not surprisingly met with her disapproval.

Plans to thwart the new lord of the manor’s schemes were put into action with the help of Audrey’s mousy best friend Marjory (Angela Thorne) and geriatric butler/chauffeur, Brabinger (John Rudling), whose duties were later taken by Old Ned, the farm labourer (Michael Bilton). But in spite of their circumstances, Audrey and Richard shared a mutual admiration and either was liable to change allegiance to save the other’s face.

By the third series, their love-hate relationship had mellowed, but Audrey’s pride would never allow her to marry DeVere while he was squire of Grantleigh. A sensational set of occurrences in the final couple of episodes helped them out of this impasse. Richard finds himself short of capital to finance a refrigeration plant in the Argentine and is forced to sell the manor.

After a mere three years, the great hall is once again the setting for an auction. However, the death of Audrey’s rich Uncle Greville (the black sheep of the family) has left her with enough money to buy back her family house. To celebrate she and Marjory organise a big ‘welcome home’ party, to which Richard and his mother are naturally invited.

Now with no danger of appearing mercenary, Audrey drops the bombshell to the milling guests that she intends to marry Richard. The moment Mrs. Poo had been hoping for had finally arrived. Twenty-four million viewers tuned in to see the much anticipated wedding, which inevitably brought the show to an end.

Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles teamed up once more in the mid-1980s Thames sitcom, Executive Stress. In this series they played a husband and wife both holding senior positions in a publishing firm, but company non-fraternisation rules forced them to keep their marriage secret. Although it ran for three seasons, it failed to make much of an impact with the public.

Early 1997 To The Manor Born returned to its originally intended medium for a ten part radio series. Although now a little older, Penelope Keith and Angela Thorne had little trouble slipping into their old roles, but unfortunately Peter Bowles was not joining them. His part was taken by veteran actor Keith Barron. Peter Spence adapted six of his original TV screenplays and wrote four new stories, even supplying Richard with a rival for Audrey’s affections in the ultimate edition.

Ten years on, the original TV cast (minus those few who had since passed on) made a surprise comeback with a one-off hour-long special which went out on BBC1 on Christmas Day. The storyline centred around Audrey and Richard’s 25th wedding anniversary and a falling out between the two protagonists. A new character was introduced in the form of Audrey’s nephew Adam, played by Alexander Armstrong.

The tremendous success of shows like The Darling Buds Of May and Monarch Of The Glen demonstrated the nation’s appetite for romantic light comedy in pleasant rustic settings has endured. Like those other perennial classics, Fawlty Towers and Dad’s Army, repeats of To The Manor Born seem destined to delight for many more years to come.

Clearly this was a view shared by the people at Warner Holidays, who in 1999 bought the Cricket St. Thomas manor and opened it to the public as a luxury guesthouse. With prices starting at ₤30 per night, even Old Ned could afford to live at Grantleigh manor. Generations of fforbes-Hamiltons must surely be turning in their graves.

 

Television

Starring Penelope Keith (Audrey fforbes-Hamilton), Peter Bowles (Richard DeVere), Angela Thorne (Marjory Frobisher), Daphne Heard (Mrs. Polouvicka)

Scripts by Peter Spence & Christopher Bond (3/7).

Episode titles were not noted on the programmes (or in the Radio Times) and are taken from the eventual DVD releases, with reference to the earlier LP and radio adaptations.

Series 1: BBC1 30 September to 11 November 1979
1  30.9.79  The Funeral (aka Grantleigh)
Audrey fforbes-Hamilton is forced to sell Grantleigh Manor to the nouveau riche Richard DeVere.
2  7.10.79  Audrey Moves Out (aka All New Together)
Now ensconced in the Old Lodge, Audrey reprimands Richard for failing in his estate duties.
3  14.10.79  Richard Skips Church (aka The Rhythms Of The Earth and Sabbath Duties)
Audrey persuades Richard to read the lesson in church.
4  21.10.79  Richard Remodels the Manor (aka Nation’s Heritage)
To thank Audrey for helping him purchase a horse, Richard presents her with a surprise gift.
5  28.10.79  Summer Hunt Ball
DeVere grants permission for the summer hunt ball to be held at the Manor and asks Marjory to organise it.
6  4.11.79  Audrey Goes on Holiday (aka Holidays)
Audrey announces that she is going on holiday to Spain, but secretly stays at home.
7  11.11.79  TV Commercial (aka A Touch Of Class)
The Manor is host to a film crew making a commercial for tonic water. 

Special: BBC1 25 December 1979 (30 mins)
SP 25.12.79  The Christmas Crib
Audrey and Richard have both provided cribs for the church and the rector must choose a winner. 

Series 2: BBC1 5 October to 9 November 1980
1  5.10.80  New Farm Manager
DeVere appoints a new farm manager to help make the estate viable and Ned takes over as Audrey’s butler.
2  12.10.80  Podge Hodge (aka The Spare Room)
Richard is pleasantly surprised when Audrey’s old horsey schoolfriend comes to slay.
3  19.10.80  Missing Art Piece (aka Antique China)
When Richard’s ancient Egyptian vase is stolen, Audrey comes under suspicion.
4  26.10.80  The Tramp
Audrey and Richard discover they’ve both been providing an itinerant farm labourer with food and wages.
5  2.11.80  Hedgerows (aka The Honours List)
The conservancy association protest against DeVere’s planned destruction of his hedgerows.
6  9.11.80  National Health (aka Vive Le Sport)
Audrey suffers back trouble and Richard goes into training for a skiing holiday in Switzerland. 

Series 3: BBC1 18 October to 29 November 1981
1  18.10.81  New Scout Hut
Instead of sponsoring the scout raft race, DeVere donates them a new hut.
2  25.10.81  Station Closing
When Richard hears that Marlbury railway station is due to close, he decides to buy the site for a new supermarket.
3  1.11.81  Horses vs. Cars
While DeVere is now travelling by helicopter, Audrey also has a new mode of transport – a horse from the riding school.
4  8.11.81  Birds vs. Bees
Audrey’s new interest in beekeeping attracts a rare bird to Dingle Bottoms.
5  15.11.81  Cosmetics (aka A Wife’s Prerogative)
Audrey agrees to act as Richard’s wife to help him secure a perfume contract.
6  22.11-81  Business Troubles
Richard faces liquidity problems with his plans to purchase an Argentinian refrigeration plant, so Audrey asks her uncle to help him out.
7  29.11.81  The Wedding
With the death of Audrey’s uncle, Richard is forced to sell Grantleigh. Then Audrey discovers she is the main beneficiary of Uncle Greville’s will. 

Special: BBC1 25 December 2007 (60 mins)
When Richard drops the bombshell that he runs the notorious Farmer Tom company, Audrey storms off and takes up residence in the Old Lodge with Marjory and a badger. Plans for the DeVeres’ 25th wedding anniversary appear to be in jeopardy. 

 

Radio

Starring Penelope Keith (Audrey fforbes-Hamilton), Keith Barron (Richard DeVere), Angela Thorne (Marjory Frobisher)

Scripts by Peter Spence (episodes 3, 5, 8 & 10 are new stories, the remainder are adapted from the TV shows).

R2 25 January to 29 March 1997
1  25-1-97  The Rhythm Of The Earth
Audrey persuades Richard to read the lesson in church.
2  1.2.97  The Grapevine (based on Audrey Goes on Holiday)
Audrey announces that she is going on holiday to Spain, but secretly stays at home.
3  8.2.97  What’s In A Name
Audrey asks Richard for a reference when she applies for a personnel manager job with a food distribution company.
4  15.2.97  Vive Le Sport
Audrey suffers back trouble and Richard goes into training for a skiing holiday in Switzerland.
5  22.2.97  Sons Of The Fathers
Afraid that she may be the last of the fforbes-Hamiltons, Audrey consults the family archive in the hope of finding a long lost relative.
6  1.3.97  A Wife’s Prerogative
Audrey agrees to act as Richard’s wife to help him secure a perfume contract.
7  8.3.97  The Spare Room
Richard is pleasantly surprised when Audrey’s old horsey schoolfriend comes to stay.
8  15.3.97  An Englishman’s Home
Having just installed new security equipment, DeVere refuses to host a public music festival at Grantleigh.
9  22.3.97  The Honours List
The conservancy association protest against DeVere’s planned destruction of his hedgerows.
10  29.3.97  Plenty More Fish
Audrey’s relationship with her new naval boyfriend, Commander Jeremy ffrench-Livesey, faces competition from an unexpected quarter.

Books

To The Manor Born
by Peter Spence (Arrow pbk, St. Martin’s Press hbk 1979)
novelisation of the first TV series with one original story:
Grantleigh
All New Together (extracts)
The Rhythms Of The Earth (extracts)
Nation’s Heritage
Holidays
A Touch Of Class
The Lord Lieutenant’s Gala

To The Manor Born Book 2
by Peter Spence (Arrow pbk 1980)
novelisation of the second TV series with one original story:
The Christmas Crib
The Honours List
The Tramp
Antique China
The Spare Room
The Pilgrims’ Way
Vive Le Sport

Recordings

To The Manor Born
BBC Records LP REB 395 (1980)
soundtrack excerpts from the first TV series:
Grantleigh
All New Together
Sabbath Duties
Nation’s Heritage
Holidays
A Touch Of Class

To The Manor Born
BBC Radio Collection double cassette ZBBC 1958 (1997)
six complete episodes from the radio series:
The Rhythms Of The Earth
The Grapevine
The Honours List
The Spare Room
Vive Le Sport
A Wife’s Prerogative

Videos

To The Manor Born – Series 1 Part I (Episodes 1 to 4)
BBC Video BBCV 5353 (1994), Acorn Video AV0147 (1999) 

To The Manor Born – Series 1 Episodes 5 to 7
Acorn Video AV0148 (1999) 

To The Manor Born – Series 2 Episode I to 3
Acorn Video AV0162 (2000) 

To The Manor Born – Series 2 Episodes 4 to 6
Acorn Video AV0163 (2000) 

To The Manor Born – Series 3 Episodes 1 to 3
Acorn Video AV0179 (2000) 

To The Manor Born – Series 3 Episodes 4 to 7
Acorn Video AV0180 (2000) 

To The Manor Born – Vols. 1 to 6
BBC Video BC 2756, BC 2757, BC 0309, BC 0310,
BC 2000021, BCZ000022 (US only)
featuring all the TV episodes on six videos
(available individually or together as The To The Manor Born Complete Gift Set (BC 2000025) 

DVDs

To The Manor Born – series 1
BBC DVD

To The Manor Born – series 2 (plus the 1979 Christmas special)
BBC DVD

To The Manor Born – series 3
BBC 2DVD
(episode 7 has been edited from the original transmission)

To The Manor Born – 25th Anniversary Special
BBC DVD

* For further information visit the To The Manor Born lnternational Appreciation Society on the worldwide web at homepages.which.net/-roger.still

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