Looking Back At TO THE MANOR BORN Christmas Special 2007 - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At TO THE MANOR BORN Christmas Special 2007

Tony’s To The Manor Bored.
There’s been much discussion in recent years over why so much of the most popular comedy comes from a left-wing perspective.

Looking back on the To The Manor born Christmas Special of 2007, at least from the perspective of 2021, the answer might be because it’s difficult for the majority of people to laugh along with people who’ve punched them.

That’s not by any means a broad-strokes rule. PG Wodehouse’s work only tends to include left-wing points of view as either odious or as a lark picked up by one or other of the nobility as a quaint affectation, and still, Wodehouse manages to be peerlessly funny.

To The Manor Born though was always a kind of parallel of what was happening to the wealthy in Britain. Audrey Fforbes-Hamilton, lady of Grantleigh Manor (Penelope Keith, graduating from the suburban snobbery of Margo Leadbetter in The Good Life), began the series by becoming a widow, but also becoming relatively poor, unable to keep up the manor anymore, and forced into the indignity of moving into the Lodge on the estate, while Czech-born, renamed Richard de Vere, a slimeball with a soul and the spirit of new Thatcherite capitalism, came to own the manor. Think of what would happen if Alan Sugar had ever been introduced to suavity or charm, and have him played by Peter Bowles in neither the first nor the last of the ‘loveable cads’ that would make up a sizeable chunk of his career.

They were both aware that money and class were two different things, and by a process of continual, increasingly soft-spiked opposition, they rubbed the edges off each other until – spoiler alert – he lost the manor, she bought it back, and then they married, in an ending that was certainly contrived, but no more so than any classic Hollywood romance.

It’s important to remember two things when thinking about To The Manor Born.

Its whole three-series original run aired between the time Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and the end of her second year in the job. Thatcherism as an ideology was just getting started when the show went off the air, so to The Manor Born was an actively interesting clash between old, rural Conservative values and institutions – the land, the hunt, the church, etc (Audrey) – and new, city, Conservative values and institutions, which, as the show preached, was the way the world was going, and the old would have to either make way for, or come to an accommodation with it.

So firstly, the original To The Manor Born had an interesting social dimension as well as an old Hollywood romance to recommend it.

And secondly, crucially, it went off the air before the events of, for instance, the Miners’ Strike, the poll tax, many of the anti-union regulations and Thatcher’s increasingly strident anti-LGBT+ legislation.

In essence, it aired in an atmosphere before being a Conservative marked you out specifically as a Thatcherite, so it could be funny, and warm, and sweet, because at that point, Mrs Thatcher hadn’t terminally redefined what it meant to be a Conservative in the country as a whole.
Coming back for a one-off Christmas special in 2007 – the time of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister – was an oddish thing to do, prompted by a public desire to catch up with some classic sitcom characters, decades after we left them behind.

This is by no means a phenomenon unique to To The Manor born. It’s why we’ve had shows like Young Hyacinth, First Of The Summer Wine, Rock And Chips, etc – the desire to see more from characters we’ve enjoyed.

But by going forward in time with To The Manor Born, rather than for instance, giving us Young Audrey, the 2007 Christmas special was STILL the story of two different types of Conservative, in a Britain that had had its nose much more than bloodied by the worst excesses of Conservative governance under Thatcher and Major. That means when they came back in 2007, Audrey and Richard de Vere were notably less lovable than they had been in 1981.

Nor does the Christmas special shy away from how self-revolving they are as characters. Audrey Fforbes-Hamilton sees herself as a farmer’s advocate, prepared to take on the big man behind “Farmer Tom” – a conglomerate that’s driving local landholder-farmers out of business by demanding things like “straight carrots, broader broad beans” and the like. These are so painfully akin to the kinds of moral outrages that Boris Johnson, as a journalist, would insist the EEC (and eventually the EU) were “demanding” of British farmers (lying, naturally) as to go beyond the initial comedy of the idea, and land, panting and with most of their humour kicked to death when watched in 2021.

Similarly, when the obvious plot twist that Richard is actually behind Farmer Tom is revealed, it’s handled in SO obvious a way that any it neither shocks nor delights. When Audrey leaves him and moves BACK into the Lodge, now occupied by her lifelong friend Marjory Frobisher (Angela Thorne), it’s difficult to like Audrey for the ‘principled’ stand she takes, especially as she puts upon her friend significantly without either a first or second thought.

As the whole thing devolves into a ‘classic’ To The Manor Born battle, Richard making a stand because Audrey left him, Audrey demanding he change his ways to win her back, the whole thing unfolds with a certain inevitability that, while it stops short of being tedious, can certainly see tedium from where it is.

Ultimately, there is something Wodehousian about the whole conflict, the image-conscious Richard brought comparatively to his knees when Audrey organises a walk-out of the domestic staff, so Richard’s inability to get a good luncheon served at the manor, and his sudden lack of clean shirts, washed and pressed by relatively unseen minions, undoes his grander, more Machiavellian scheme to hold a rock concert on the manor grounds to bring money back into the local area.

It’s essentially reducing Audrey to the status of a Jeeves, annoyed at Bertie Wooster’s new frivolous taste in socks, but in fairness, this kind of gentle, jolly, combat comedy was the essence of the original show too. It just plays rather less well in the post-Thatcher era than it did in 1981.

In the post-Brexit era, there’s a temptation to tell both of them to get in the bin, especially when the ending involves a cynical move on Richard’s part – he’d been promising the locals some income, and he does a complete U-turn on that, while – seemingly with a snap of his fingers – selling his shares in Farmer Tom and establishing a farmers’ co-operative instead. Why anyone - either locally or through their TV screens – trusts anyone who can turn on that kind of dime merely to placate his wife – remains a mystery.

It’s also worth mentioning that the 2007 To The Manor Born Christmas Special has…no mention of Christmas in it. That makes sense, as it’s all about Audrey and Richard celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary. Which likewise makes no sense, as the show ended in 1981, so by 2007, they would have been married 26 years and change. And the reason there’s no mention of Christmas in the show is that their anniversary, which forms the apex of the episode, takes place in October. Certainly, it was BROADCAST at Christmas 2007, but the in-world month is October. It’s also rather fun to see lines still included in the show where Audrey blames Tony Blair for topical problems. Clearly it was filmed when Blair was still Prime Minister and was expected still to be so – but it was broadcast after he’d finally been prised out of the seat by Gordon Brown.

What then is the point of watching the To The Manor Born Christmas Special 2007? If it’s not Christmassy, not overly funny, and has all its jokes tinged a little by decades of Conservative government (both before and after its broadcast)?

Well, firstly there is that nostalgia factor. Try as we might to leave characters where their writers left them, there’s always that nagging desire to go back and take one more look at them. And what we see when we look at the de Veres and their world is more or less what we expect to find – a mostly happy marriage, with Audrey having threatened to walk out regularly over the course of two and a half decades. Richard has matured more into a comfortable old squire in thrall to his wife, and in need of a little shake-up. Marjory is still sadly the perennial unmarried friend, who thinks nothing of rescuing badgers and keeping them in the cupboard under the stairs.

Some of the original magic of To The Manor Born is lost with the passing of some key actors, like Daphne Heard (who played Richard’s no-nonsense Czech mother, and was referred to with typical aristocratic self-ease by Audrey throughout as Mrs Poo), and John Rudling (who played Audrey’s butler, Brabinger). But there are diamond cameos here too, with Alexander Armstrong as a nephew of Audrey’s, flirting shamelessly with Marjory, Welsh stalwart Alan David as Emmeridge, the relatively bolshy, sherry-swilling replacement for Brabinger, and Michael Cochrane as Archie Pennington-Booth, one of the local landlords whose case Audrey is determined to take up, but who has more in common with Richard’s position.

There’s also a certain amount of fish-out-of-water comedy here, especially when Audrey and Marjory decide to go clubbing to see what these ‘rock concerts’ are all about, and get arrested for taking paracetamol to cope with the resulting headaches.

Overall, though, the 2007 Christmas special struggles to reach the heights for which it strives, and the strong opinions and positions of both Mr and Mr de Vere feel out of touch with most viewers – both in 2007, when the show got at best a lukewarm reaction from most critics – and decades after it was broadcast. Certainly in a post-Brexit world, Audrey and Richard as they were in their least-Christmassy-ever 2007 Christmas special - all petty spats, political stances, and easy last-reel solutions - have rather lost their charm.

Hundreds of Christmas TV & Film favourites are available to stream now. Enjoy Britmas with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony  lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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