Looking Back At TO THE MANOR BORN Christmas Special 1979 - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At TO THE MANOR BORN Christmas Special 1979

Tony’s in the butler’s pantry. Just ring if you need him.
To The Manor Born was one of the most quintessentially English sit-coms, and it existed in a very peculiar place and time. Running from 1979-1981, it fitted three series into an era where Mrs Thatcher was coming to power and establishing herself in Downing Street, but before her government had put in place any of its more outrageously heinous policies.

To The Manor Born was part romantic comedy, part commentary on the meeting and clashing of the old, established, rural rich that had been the backbone of the Conservative party before Thatcherism, and the sharp, modern, new, commercial rich that were sweeping in to take their place. Audrey Fforbes-Hamilton (Penelope Keith) was a former lady of the manor, ousted after her husband’s death by the incoming king of retail supermarkets, Richard de Vere (the ever-suave Peter Bowles), who took over the manor when he arrived.

The comedy of the show was often gentle, tinged with a PG Wodehouse sense of larks and problems entirely disconnected to the lives of the non-rich or of city dwellers. Bucolic is probably the word for it. The ultimate saw to which the episodes returned time and time again was the difference between class and tradition, as represented by Audrey, and money and solutions, as represented by Richard. Their frequent butting of heads was inconsequential enough to be funny, and sweet, and as the series progressed, to be romantic, with the ultimate result that Richard and Audrey found a way to reconcile their differences, having both realised that they loved each other. (If you really want to, of course, you can see their eventual marriage as a metaphor for old, landed money in the Conservative party finally accepting Thatcher’s middle-class, new money leadership – but let’s not, shall we, it runs the risk of sucking all the fun out of the sit-com).

The 1979 Christmas special actually stands as a pretty good representation of the show as a whole. It’s Audrey’s first Christmas since having been ousted from the manor, and Richard’s first Christmas as the local big dog. That involves participation in several of the Christmas church festivities at Grantleigh. Festivities that have always previously been Audrey’s purview as lady of the manor.

So we see their different approaches, in particular to the provision of the crib for the nativity, which has to be blessed by the rector before Christmas in Grantleigh can be said to have really begun.

The traditional crib has always been provided by the manor, but in her hasty departure from the big house, Audrey left it behind. That means this year it will be Richard who gets to present the ratty old thing to the rector.

Believing that, based on her years of service and involvement with the people of Grantleigh it is HER, rather than the manor, who is expected to provide the crib, Audrey – never happier than when organising a sweat shop – ropes both her friend Marjory (Angela Thorne) and her odd-job man Ned (Michael Bilton) into creating a new crib of their own to present.

Meanwhile, Richard and his eminently much more likeable mother, Mrs Polouvicka (Daphne Heard) have found the old crib and more or less condemned it as too shoddy to produce.

Richard, naturally, being focused always on the happiest solution with the least effort, borrows a mechanically-augmented crib from his Oxford Street store and presents it to the rector.

Along the way though, there are scenes that show the characters of both the protagonists.

Despite being invited up to the big house for the big day, Audrey turns the opportunity down. When Marjory, who has a crush on Richard, says she intends to go, Audrey loses no time in gaslighting and guilting her friend to get her to stay with her instead, potentially costing her the opportunity to get closer to a man she likes.

Meanwhile Richard, pleased with his easy solution, as he is habitually pleased with his throw-money-at-the-problem-until-it-goes-away solutions, is read the gentlest of riot acts by his mother. She regales him with the story of when he was young and poor, and they had an entirely miserable Christmas, making decorations out of orange peel and silver paper, with only carrot stew for Christmas dinner.

For all that, she reminds him, if someone had swept in with store-bought largesse back then, they would have told them to go away. (This of course was in an age when taking charity was seen by some as a source of shame, rather than a necessary part of “getting through Christmas”).

Struck by the lightning bolt of understanding, Richard rushes to the church to withdraw his easy store-supplied solution, and insist that Audrey’s handmade crib be used instead.

Meanwhile, Audrey has been reflecting on the true meaning of Christmas. While Richard’s vulgar mechanical crib is, she insists, still hideous AS a crib, it’s supposed to be the thought that counts – and as a thought, it’s splendid and fine, a man able to supply a solution in a time of ‘crisis’ doing what he can to get the job done.

And vulgar as it is, at least it looks like it’s been made by adults, rather than the handmade job that she, Marjory, and Ned have been able to cobble together (with giant, Godzilla-style sheep and goats from Marjory towering above the Ned-made stable, in which Mary and Joseph, made by Audrey herself, have to stoop to get in the door), which rather looks like it was made by local infants without any instructions as to scale.

Naturally then, the farce unfolds, with both Richard and Audrey demanding that they be allowed to withdraw their crib and let the other take pride of place in Grantleigh church.

With that resolved (we won’t tell you who wins – spoilers!), it’s on to Christmas Day itself. In previous years, the Fforbes-Hamilton family would host giant parties for the family, friends and villagers, with food, drink, and party games (including the saucy “Sardines” – which Audrey reveals nearly revived her moribund marriage one year… until she worked out it was her own husband who had found her hiding in the broom cupboard!)

Richard, being new, knows nobody well enough locally to invite them – except for Audrey and Marjory. Audrey, on her high horse, rejected his invitation and essentially bullied Marjory into staying home with her at the Lodge.

That means Richard and his mother are having a lonely Christmas up at the manor, and Audrey and Marjory are having an equally rotten time at the Lodge.

This time it’s Richard who acts decisively, he and his mother dropping round to the Lodge for a smaller, quieter, but nevertheless more jolly Christmas.

Where Audrey loses us again is that she suggests a game of sardines – and despite knowing that Marjory has a crush on the handsome Mr de Vere, she takes him by the hand to “show him the broom cupboard,” demanding that Marjory and Richard’s mother don’t come after them until they’ve counted to a thousand!

Weirdly, that’s where the 1979 Christmas special ends – neither really on a high nor a point of drama. In fact, it ends on a point of “Wait, what? Was that it?”, though after a full first season of relatively spiky conflict, it does promise a little rapprochement to come in Series 2.

To The Manor Born as a whole was an extremely English and privileged take on the classic black and white Hollywood romantic comedies, pitting two accomplished comic actors against each other in lead roles, and studding the cast with other high-quality performances (Angela Thorne is a mistake to miss or gloss over, certainly, filling a role that in earlier decades would have been Joyce Grenfell’s for the taking).

The 1979 Christmas special has plenty of goodwill about it, and a plot that, while its main conflicts never really pay off, at least reveals these privileged characters as having real-world problems to which the audience can relate, and delivers on festive cheer.

It’s harder to watch in the 21st century than it was in 1979, certainly, because the privilege gap feels like it’s widened significantly since those days, but despite her shoddy treatment of Marjory, the 1979 Christmas special of To The Manor Born gives us enough to wish it well, and leaves us with a hope for future romantic developments between its characters.

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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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