To The Manor Born - 25th Wedding Anniversary Special Review
Executive Producer Jon Plowman says of this show, "I suspect that there is a little bit in all of us that rather wants the world to be like this and if the world isn't like To The Manor Born then it sort of ought to be." That's a fair summation of To The Manor Born, which was never anything but as cosy and comfortable as a quilt and which was as far away, but better-heeled, as The Good Life before it. One imagines, not having watched the original series in years, that either the sun shone or the snow fell in Grantleigh, that the voice of the unemployed was but a distant grumbling and that the moon rose each night to the sound of glasses clinking and the pouring of decantered wine. It was a show that was perfectly of its time, when a small but very rich part of society fretted about the coming in of new money to a country in which the old had been frittered away on restoring stately homes. Happily, the message of To The Manor Born was that love conquered all.
Indeed, love conquered so much that To The Manor Born couldn't have been the first show that came to mind when the BBC decided to bring back a comedy show from its archives. To The Manor Born ended with Richard and Audrey tossing some Thatcherite boor out of Grantleigh Manor and marrying one another. Albeit that it's separated by twenty-five years, this Christmas special opens in a not dissimilar fashion to how it ended with Audrey and Richard still living at Grantleigh, still married and on the cusp of celebrating their silver anniversary. Of course, due to a revelation as to the ownership of the Farmer Tom company, a supplier of foods to supermarkets who are being blamed for driving local farmers out of business, there is disagreement in the air. On the night that Audrey (Penelope Keith) discovers that Farmer Tom is actually her husband Richard (Peter Bowles) and she storms out, slamming the door behind her.
As she did twenty-five years ago, Audrey leaves the manor for the Lodge. Richard, on the other hand, goes to his mother's grave for advice and then to his nephew (by marriage) Adam fforbes-Hamilton (Alexander Armstrong) for assistance in winning Audrey back. Unfortunately, Richard, for all of his twenty-five years in the manor, has never really endeared himself to the people of Grantleigh as did the fforbes-Hamiltons and he is soon left without staff and, it would seem, friends. But he is determined that his silver wedding anniversary party should go ahead with or without his wife.
This special episode of To The Manor Born was much-heralded in the months before Christmas with the BBC employing its broad spectrum of media outlets to advertise the show. And it was very heavily advertised, although one doubts if such efforts were really necessary. Broadcast on Christmas Day slightly later that evening than Doctor Who, To The Manor Born would have garnered a reasonable audience regardless of the efforts of the marketing department thanks to its audience being incapable of movement. Thanks to a day spent gorging on turkey, sherry trifle and nut cutlets and the need to carefully balance a tin of Cadbury's Roses on one's tummy, movement, even to reaching for a remote control, was out of the question. It was with a full stomach, a glass of wine and a handful of sweeties that this viewer sat down to enjoy To The Manor Born, being one who still thinks of saying, "Bend zee knees!" whenever skiing wriggles its way through my head.
Things, however, did not go well. In her own words, Audrey fforbes-Hamilton was always somewhat ghastly and there was the assumption that without her presence on television over the last quarter-century, a good many points needed to be made about the sorry state of the country. Czech immigrants, technology and, of course, the manner in which multinationals and the government ride roughshod over thoroughly decent farming folk were all part of the Audrey deVere litany of modern evils. Did she mention the ban on hunting? One would be surprised if she didn't. Even before one could wrap up in a copy of The Guardian for comfort, Audrey looked carefully at Richard and saw him for what he was...Czech, new-monied and at the head of a business that was putting British farmers out of business. Almost to the sound of Rule Britannia, Audrey stormed out.
This was an unfortunate beginning for To The Manor Born. It was at its best when Penelope Keith's smile was met with a twinkle in Peter Bowles' eyes and when it was more romance than Daily Mail-inspired rhetoric. For the first fifteen or twenty minutes and with the exception of a chaotic horse trial, it was actually quite an uncomfortable watch as Audrey's woolly-headed politics took over. She attempts to teach English to two young Czechs by instructing them to repeat after her, "The Axminster is under the table!" and lectures neighbouring farmer Archie Pennington-Booth (Michael Cochrane) on the evils of his plan for a rock concert. Finally, she has enough and leaves Richard after telling him, "You are a cheat and a liar. I should have known...you are from Czechoslovakia...Robert Maxwell was from Czechoslovakia!"
Granted, there is often intended to be satire in this, such as with Audrey tells Marjory that, "If someone doesn't do something, out lingua franca will disappear altogether!" but To The Manor Born is all the better when all that nonsense is shooed away in favour of the romance. It may well hark back to the old days of To The Manor Born with Audrey at the Lodge watching Richard through binoculars but it's all the better when Marjory, without ever revealing any suggestion of subterfuge, plans an anniversary party without Aundrey suspecting a thing. Sweet she may be, as is her smiling behind Audrey as Audrey is welcomed to her own party, but one can sympathise with her most, particularly when Audrey and staff completely rearrange her home.
There are other characters, old and new, who are just as welcome, including a brief return for The Rector (Gerald Sim) and a new face in grouchy and outspoken butler Emmeridge (Alan David) but it's Peter Bowles who emerges best. Penelope Keith has simply been given a fairly rotten set of lines, which makes Audrey much less likeable than she was originally (even more so than Margo Ledbetter in The Good Life). Bowles and Thorne are needed to let us see the good in Audrey but the pity about this Christmas special is that, for the first third of it and in moments thereafter, there is very little good in her. Twenty-five years should have mellowed Audrey rather more than it has done.
Although shot in High Definition, To The Manor Born is presented reasonably well on this Standard Definition release, which is up to the usual 2 Entertain standard. Anamorphically presented in 1.78:1, there are no obvious faults in the picture, framing is good and the image is steady but it's only marginally better than it was when presented on the BBC on Christmas Day. The extra bandwidth does allow for a slightly sharper picture but there isn't a good deal in it and certainly peering through the poorly-lit nighttime scenes, it could be better. However, everything else looks as it should be and were it not for everyone looking that bit older, it would hard to tell this apart from the episodes of To The Manor Born of 1981.
The DD2.0 audio track is fine but, like the picture, there's little to get very excited about. There is a noticeable amount of separation between speakers and the dialogue is always clear, even from the Czech immigrants that Audrey complains so vociferously about. Finally and in line with other 2 Entertain releases, there are English subtitles both on the main feature and on the Making Of documentary.
The one extra on the disc is a Making Of (32m09s), which begins with a look back at the original show before carrying on to, well, just about anything that takes their fancy. There is, of course, much on the making of the episode and of coming back together after twenty-five years but the surprise is hearing Penelope Keith rail at how the world has gone to pot over the last twenty-five years in much the same way as Audrey deVere. Otherwise, this doesn't show quite enough of the old show and misses the opportunity to compare one to the other, which is reflected in a cast who don't really know what to say about how their characters have changed since 1981. A lot has happened since then but watching To The Manor Born, you'd never guess.