In these tough economic times, it’s difficult to imagine a comedy about a new widow losing her home and fortune as the sort of thing that will lift people’s spirits. Yet, To the Manor Born does just that, positioning itself not as an examination of the human toll of economic cycles, but as a romantic comedy between two most unlikely mates.
Audrey Forbes-Hamilton (Penelope Keith) is hardly distraught over the death of her much older husband, coming close to doing a celebratory dance after his funeral. When best friend Marjory (Angela Thorne) acknowledges that Audrey and late husband Martin didn’t always “get along”, Audrey replies, “We do now.”
Audrey’s mourning doesn’t begin until the reception following the funeral, when she is informed by her late husband’s solicitor that her husband had gone bankrupt. Further, he had borrowed extensively against the 400-year-old family estate, which will have to be sold to settle the remaining debts.
Audrey’s despair worsens when she meets the new owner of her precious Grantleigh Manor, a handsome self-made owner of a chain of grocery stores. Lacking proper English pedigree and being of Czech descent, Richard DeVere (Peter Bowles) has no understanding of the traditions that being a Lord of the Manor dictate he oversees. Taking up residence in her new home, a cottage she has purchased that is only 200 yards away from Grantleigh Manor, allows Audrey to spy on Richard and harangue him for his perceived failures as head of the estate.
These actions lay the foundation for one of the BBC’s most successful comedy series. Originally aired from 1979 to 1981, the series followed the developing relationship between Audrey and Richard and was a huge hit both in the United Kingdom and the United States. The series only aired for three seasons for a total of 20 episodes, which have now been gathered into one collection, a six DVD set containing the series, a 1979 Christmas special, the 25th anniversary reunion special, and numerous behind the scenes documentaries and extras. For any fan of British comedies or those who like their humor witty and dry, this DVD set is a must.
Developing romantic or sexual tension between a couple typically works best if that couple seem to be polar opposites (think David and Maddie in Moonlight or Rachel and Ross in Friends). As Audrey notes, she and Richard have money and breeding—he has the money, she has the breeding.
She loathes Richard’s attempts to modernize the estate’s farming system and upgrade the family home, while Richard can’t understand her refusal to accept anything new or different. The clashes between the two come frequently, resulting in a series of manipulative and underhanded strategies waged by both for the purpose of gaining compliance from the other.
Each emerges as victor of these squabbles with equal success, meaning that each also loses equally. For instance, Richard wants Audrey to organize the annual hunter’s ball, which she refuses to do, so he asks Marjory to do it, knowing full-well that Audrey will take the job away from the unorganized Marjory and do it herself.
In another contest of wills, Richard bets Audrey 50 pounds that he can get the new tenant of the cottage to work as his social secretary, laying out for her a plan of “seduction” he will use to sway the new tenant, not realizing that Audrey is the new resident. She happily takes the bet and his money.
Nonetheless, Audrey becomes his de facto social secretary through her own meddling and insistence on adherence to tradition. She readily assumes not only this role, but that of area historian and main gossip.
Trying to prod Richard into stepping into his role without overstepping his place, Audrey tells him, “(Lord of the Manor is) just a name. It doesn’t give the right to the virginity of the gamekeeper’s twin daughters”, then adds drily, “You’re too late, anyway.” Still, Audrey’s stubbornness often doesn’t stem from a desire to benefit herself, but a need to protect the rights and lifestyles of the locals and employees of the manor.
One learns from the DVD extras that Penelope Keith, Audrey’s portrayer, gained notoriety playing Margo, a similarly proper women, in the comedy The Good Life. Yet whereas Margo was the brunt of the jokes (look, the prim Margo fell down in the mud!), Audrey is often the instigator of the humor, with a penchant for mischief and a healthy laugh. It is Audrey’s compassion and sense of humor that allows for the eventual romance between her and Richard.
But To the Manor Born does more than offer up romantic comedy. In scenes showing frightening relevance today, Audrey must adjust to a life without; local stores refuse to offer her credit anymore, the doctor will no longer make housecalls, and her utilities are shut off when she can’t pay the bills. She refuses to take the savings of her one loyal servant, the elderly Brabinger (a wonderfully befuddled John Rudling), slowly selling off her few prized possessions, instead. Still, such concerns are not lasting, as viewers know that Audrey will eventually wind up, somehow, as the Lady of the Manor again.
Financial concerns are a plotline in the 25th anniversary special. It is spoiling nothing to state that Richard and Audrey wind up married at series end, as she forecasts it in the first episode. That the original series contained a completed story, from meeting to marriage, makes the anniversary special unnecessary. Further, the reunion special fails to offer any new insight into the characters, who apparently haven’t changed at all. Once again, one of Richard’s business ventures has threatened the livelihood of the local farmers, causing Audrey to storm out. Has the man learned nothing in 25 years?
Other DVD extras vary in interest. “The Making of” deals primarily with the reunion show, and is too full of self-praise and “It feels just like it was yesterday” sentimentality. The documentary does devote more attention to the plight of the contemporary farmer, though, which is a secondary story to Richard and Audrey’s manipulating their way back to one another.
Fans learn from the various interviews that romance was not a part of the show’s original concept, nor was the show intended to be a look at the class structure of gentile English society. Since the series grew to do both of those, one can’t help but wonder what the show was originally supposed to be about.
Interview segments with Keith and Bowles prove more interesting. Discussing their careers, the actors take the viewer through a history of some of the UK’s biggest hits and a few duds. Keith’s story is particularly intriguing, as she is a rather tall woman and not the type one thinks of a leading lady material. Still, her deadpan delivery catapulted her to national stardom.
The extras DVD also contains radio broadcasts of the series. Those who are visually-oriented will be less interested in these, but those with an interest in radio-storytelling, an art largely dead in the US, should find the segments an interesting throwback to days gone by.
One complaint that must be lodged about the DVD set is the growing trend of forcing viewers to watch the advertisements at the opening of each DVD. Having purchased the set, fans shouldn’t be required to sit through commercials for other BBC programs each time they want to watch an episode of To the Manor Born.
Overall, the DVD set is a worthwhile attention to the collections of those who appreciate sophisticated humor. Those interested solely in the series’ episodes can find them in several other DVD packages available; this set appeals to those fans who have wondered how Audrey and Richard have made out over the years and want to visit old friends. And what fun friends to visit.