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Some are born great, others achieve greatness
on 15 December 2005
'To the Manor Born' is one of the better Brit-coms, witty and intelligent without being over-the-top or inaccessible. It has an oh-so-British tone to it, deliberately so, as it looks with grace and humour at the clash of cultures in modern Britain, the clash between tradition and modernity (finding out that neither is always what it seems), as well as the clash between social classes. All of this is done in such a light-hearted manor, er, manner, that one scarcely realises the biting and insightful satire that runs alongside the comedic situations.
The series begins as Audrey fforbes-Hamilton, a straight-backed, upper-crust woman of breeding who revels in her situation, is celebrating the funeral of her husband (yes, celebrating). Meanwhile, Richard Devere, wealthy (read, nouveau riche) financial officer heading a multinational conglomerate of food stores, arrives in the village in search of a classic gentleman's period home in the English countryside. As Audrey's husband was not one to keep up with the bills, she discovers that she is in fact bankrupt, and is forced to sell the manor. Richard Devere buys it at auction; Audrey is a surprising twist retains the estate's hunting lodge down the road, and the stage is set for the tensions between new homeowner and historical lady of the manor.
Supplementing the main characters are Audrey's best friend Marjorie, who variously has designs on Richard Devere, but these are almost always thwarted; Richard's mother, Mrs. Pu (Poluviska, actually, but the name is reduced for ease by Audrey); Ned, the traditional grounds-keeper who helps keep the traditions alive with Audrey; and finally, Brabinger, the quintessential English butler, who relocates to the old lodge with his mistress Audrey, and always has a few suprises up his sleeve.
There are twenty-one episodes in all, filmed and broadcast over a two-year period in 1979-1981. These run from the start of Audrey's losing the manor through to her regaining the manor, along with the hand of Richard in marriage, but not by the means often expected throughout the series. Throughout the episodes, Audrey is constantly introduced to 'ordinary life', from having to rely on the National Health for her doctor rather than private-pay, personal service, to having difficulties in shopping in supermarkets (Devere's, as it turns out) and not being able to entertain as she once did, or go on holiday (this makes for perhaps the best episode of the lot, save for the first and final episodes). Meanwhile, Devere gets lessons in being lord of the manor by the ever-present Audrey, who counsels him on everything from horse-purchasing to community responsibilities. Despite his wealth, Audrey says, 'he is still at the bottom of it all a grocer.' This is a biting commentary -- the upper-class disdain for the working class is an undercurrent here, and the entitled/en-nobled folk in Parliament used to insult both Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher, who were both children of shopkeepers, by using the term 'grocer' to describe them.
From the threadbare carpets to the when-we-were-in-India knick-knacks to the church clock that never worked properly, this is a wonderfully crafted comedy trip through a slice of British culture that is both past and future. These are not 'issues' episodes -- 'To the Manor Born' educates by stealth. One might be completely unaware of having been taught ways of acting and being. Grantley Manor is a perfect backdrop (shot in a town with the very English-sounding name of Cricket St. Thomas), and the actors are perfectly selected. Penelope Keith as Audrey fforbes-Hamilton has the kind of mannerisms and deadpan delivery befitting a displaced socialite; Peter Bowles has the blustering presence as a self-assured businessman flustered in his new environment. Old Ned (played by Michael Bilton) and Brabinger (John Rudling) are perfected cast in both physical type and acting ability. Angela Thorne as Marjorie Frobisher, the life-long friend of Audrey, always in her shadow, is great as the 'straight man' against whom Audrey's humour unfolds.