Of all the reliable subject staples frequently used by British sitcom writers in the ‘70s and ‘80s, social standing and class were certainly amongst the most prevalent.
What kind of show would Steptoe and Son have been without rag-and-bone man Harold’s amusing, tragic desperation to acquire new friends appreciative of high culture and the arts, despite his efforts being consistently stymied by his revolting father, who habitually bathes in the dirty kitchen sink of their ramshackle, cluttered house?
Equally bittersweet are Derek ‘Del Boy’ Trotter’s delusions of yuppie grandeur and sophistication in Only Fools and Horses, always and forever doomed to failure. Doesn’t the good-hearted street trader Del realise he is lovable just as he is? That show’s writer, the late John Sullivan (himself a working class lad from South London, and very proud of his heritage), always finds great comedic potential in thrusting the oblivious Del into social situations that he is totally ill-equipped to deal with, and certain episodes are excruciatingly funny, such as the one in which Del manages to acquire an invitation to a lavish, aristocratic black tie dinner, much to the horror of his snooty fellow guests.
Yet while Sullivan often portrays the British upper classes as insufferable snobs or occasionally even well-heeled conmen and women, his working class characters are minor heroes, struggling honourably (well, most of the time) in the face of adversity. It doesn’t really matter that such characters lack grooming and finesse, because they are predominantly good people, despite their quirks and flaws.
Similarly, the sitcom To The Manor Born certainly mines its own version of British class-based comedy, but overall it’s a different proposition to other sitcoms of the same period, most of which seem to focus overtly and rather obviously on class differences, and often pit characters from polar opposites of the social spectrum against one another (these shows are generally very funny, but they often deal in the currency of caricature).
The plot of To The Manor Born is simple yet ingenious: upper class Audrey fforbes-Hamilton (played by Penelope Keith in a virtual reprise of her Margo Leadbetter character from The Good Life) owns, along with her husband Marton, the rural Grantleigh Estate in South West England. However, after Marton dies suddenly, Audrey is informed by the family’s solicitor that her late husband was actually bankrupt, so the beautiful Grantleigh House and its grounds must be sold to settle numerous debts.
The estate is bought by Richard DeVere (Peter Bowles), a self-made, nouveau riche multi-millionaire. The only thing that rankles Audrey more then having to move into the small cottage at the end of Grantleigh House’s drive (this plot device enables her to snoop and seethe at the goings-on in the main building), is the fact that DeVere, having started his business as a modest fruit stall in a market, is now the director of a cheap-and-cheerful supermarket chain. Audrey often condescendingly refers to him as ‘the grocer’.
Inevitably, as the series progresses, romance begins to kindle between the pair, and much of the show’s good-natured tension comes from their love-hate relationship, and also from the mild alarm that Audrey feels as her unquestionable attraction to DeVere grows. By the time this third series aired (there were three in total between 1979 and 1981, with a one-off return in 2007), both characters were well-rounded, and the actors had settled into their roles well.
Audrey is a very proper lady with an obsession for displaying the correct manners and etiquette befitting of one’s social status, and DeVere, despite Audrey’s belief he is a ‘commoner’, is actually a charming, well-spoken and suave man.
Making DeVere a fairly complex character, rather than merely a wealthy oaf, ensures the scripts of the show’s writer, Peter Spence, avoid the aforementioned danger of both caricature and cheap laughs at DeVere’s expense (although interestingly, Spence got the idea for the show after speaking to a bawdy real-life cockney comedian who used his considerable fortune to buy a country house from a widow who could no longer afford its upkeep; she then relocated to another house in the same village, and subsequent awkwardness and hostility prevailed. Life may imitate art, but in this case Spence thankfully focusses on subtlety, too).
While class is indeed the backdrop to much of the narrative, Spence chooses to focus on the smaller details, on the everyday minutiae that signify the slight differences between the pair. Although Audrey would protest, they both have much in common, and the way in which Spence keeps Audrey’s bitterness about her downfall in check, whilst still allowing it to simmer just below her ordered veneer, is admirable.
In a broader context, although the show’s scripts purvey the sort of gentle, accessible humour required to make the show palatable to a prime-time family audience, To The Manor Born nevertheless asks some interesting social questions.
What constitutes class? Is it possible to climb the socio-economic ladder solely through the acquisition of money, or will a bankrupt aristocrat always be few notches higher on the class barometer than a self-made wealthy person from a working class background? Can a form of culture and sophistication also be acquired, or is it hard-wired into one’s lineage, one’s history? (Woody Allen also examines a similar question in Small Time Crooks, with the working class ‘Noo Yawker’ character Frenchy, who is a newly-wealthy, socially aspirational philistine). Perhaps most pertinently, What are the implications of relationship that crosses a perceived social divide, particularly when one party considers matters of class, upbringing and status very important?
To The Manor Born is the kind of old-fashioned, cosy sitcom that the BBC doesn’t really make anymore (although the viewing figures for the 2007 Christmas special were very respectable nonetheless). Phenomenally successful at the time, with audiences regularly topping 17 million, it’s hard to imagine such a slight, agreeable narrative having much commercial viability as a major series today, yet the show still offers many pleasures, most of them coming from Spence’s teasing of the supposed eccentricities of the British upper classes.
So, was To The Manor Born ever groundbreaking? No. Is it nevertheless a comfortable, entertaining – and now nostalgic diversion? Yes, certainly.
There were no extras on the DVD.