To the Manor Born

Tuesday, December 25, 2007 by

“We’re hearing far too many foreign voices around here,” opined Audrey DeVere, née fforbes-Hamilton. Much of a sentiment for Christmas Day? Probably not.

With Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles undiminished by age, all looked promising for this latest sitcom revival. But, pretty much as soon as Audrey kicked off about automated telephone systems (“What is a hash key?”) all the reasons why this much-loved classic should remain in the past-tense bled onto the screen. Here were long, flatly shot scenes, and actors delivering their lines to the back of the studio (although one dated aspect I did enjoy – the reappearance of the rubbish painting of the Grantleigh Estate by way of a backdrop to the Old Lodge cottage).

And then there was the oddly politicised script – strong stuff for Mince Pie Time. With so many numerous tart remarks about the ruination of rural pursuits, it seemed like an address for the Countryside Alliance would flash up on screen at any moment. Richard even diffused the plot at the end of the hour with the formation of “an independent farmers’ cooperative”, for goodness sake.

But the most uncomfortable aspect about this oddity was Audrey herself. I’d forgotten, this was a character who was pretty beastly all in all – trampling over sweet Marjory’s aspirations and sending the nouveau riche Richard DeVere to Coventry thanks to his lack of breeding. While she always insisted country lore was sacred and should be propagated, she was also a woman who couldn’t be bothered to go a tiny distance to respect other cultures – hence Mrs Polouvicka famously reduced to “Mrs Poo”.

Now, 25 years on, she was pulling the same shtick again, but this time Audrey’s haughty ways were untempered by her situation. The lady of the manor was no longer stuck in reduced circumstances. She had the big house, money, and a husband who – it was implicated – employed immigrant farmhands at less than the minimum wage.

To be frank, it was just plain unsettling how often this one-off production made disgruntled comments about race. Aside from teaching foreign staff about where the “crudités” were kept, there was also the tired old joke regarding attacks on our “lingua franca” (ho ho!), and Mrs DV’s aforementioned remark about “foreign voices”. Should we have laughed at Audrey, or with her? I’m really not sure. In celebrating her 25th wedding anniversary with that Czech supermarket tycoon-turned country gentleman, she was certainly quick to remind him that – when the chips are down – blood and culture would always separate them. As far as she was concerned, Richard counted among his kin Robert Maxwell, a proper rotter.

And so, as the cast assembled on that staircase to wave at the police – aping the moment a quarter of a century on when DeVere wed fforbes-Hamilton – I was left feeling a little puzzled. To the Manor Born was one of the quintessential cosy ‘coms of the ’70s and ’80s. In a new century, though, with not all that much changed about the show, it seems a very rum thing indeed. Perhaps, as the saying goes, the past is another country. Dunno about you, though, but I’m not all that keen on hearing Audrey’s very “foreign” voice around these parts again.


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