Just when you thought Penelope Keith couldn’t play a posher character than Margot Leadbetter …roll up Audrey Fforbes-Hamilton!
There are two types of comedy that Britain has always done fantastically well: gentle yet witty comedy (think Open All Hours) and class-based humour (The Good Life, Rising Damp, Fawlty Towers). To the Manor Born covers both bases; warmly funny script peppered with acerbic lines (especially for the character of Audrey) with the emphasis hugely on social class - from the genuine aristocracy of the Fforbes-Hamiltons, through the nouveau riche outsiders, right down to the working class of the hired help.
In the show’s opening episode we see the funeral of Marton Fforbes-Hamilton taking place. We are introduced to Audrey (the elegant Keith) – a grieving widow, but also one with the not-so-sad realisation that she will now be in control of the Grantleigh Estate, which has been in her family’s hands for over 400 years. In learning this we also discover that Audrey was distantly related to Marton, hence her being able to say that the estate belongs to her family.
Her new status doesn’t last long; when Audrey later meets with her solicitor she is told that not only was her husband bankrupt, but that her beloved manor needs to be sold to cover his debts. Ouch. After trying and failing to buy back Grantleigh when it is put up for auction, Audrey moves into the lodge, at the end of the drive and from here is able to keep a close eye on the manor’s new owner, Richard DeVere (the suave Peter Bowles). A faithful servant to the Fforbes-Hamilton family, butler Brabinger (John Rudling) moves with her and continues to ‘buttle’ for her (is that a word? It should be.)
She has two other constant companions; her beagle Bertie and her best friend Marjory Frobisher (yep, posh too). Marjory (Angela Thorne, who had also appeared in a couple of episodes of The Good Life) is the jolly hockey sticks type of eternal schoolgirl, straightforward and loyal with a tendency to confuse things as she rushes about from good cause to good cause. Marjory is worried about her friend’s financial status – Audrey has no income and money is tight, but she is unwilling to look for employment. She maintains that the only job she should have is running the Grantleigh estate, although she does give time to various public services which also includes her being a local magistrate. Marjory also develops a crush on Richard – which is entirely understandable given how good that man’s moustache looks all the time…
From his name, accent and demeanour, Audrey automatically assumes that DeVere is a member of the gentry so when she meets his mother Mrs Polouvicka (now there’s a clue that his heritage originates from somewhere other than the Home Counties) she is astounded to realise that this is not the case. Born to a Czechoslovakian mother and a Polish father, Richard moved to the UK in 1939.
His humble beginnings on an East End fruit stall gave him the foundations to build what is now his empire; the Cavendish Foods chain of supermarkets. He has also been recently widowed, something which could potentially bond him and Audrey, but Audrey can’t see Richard for anything more than a very well-off grocer and dismisses what friendship they could have.
Most of their early relationship is antagonistic; Audrey resents Richard living in what she will always see as her home and Richard gets irate with Audrey’s snobbery with her perceptions of his ‘new money’ . His mother (Daphne Heard), whose hard-to-pronounce name is quickly shortened to Mrs Poo (children everywhere dream of having a neighbour called that), sees the potential in their relationship and is constantly on at her son to propose. Richard brushes her off, but when you look past the pairs’ argumentativeness you can see that there is definitely an underlying attraction. To the Manor Born was broadcast from 1979 to 1981. 3 series and 21 episodes followed the sparky relationship that developed between the lead characters, with the two final ones answering the question that all the viewers were asking: ‘When will they get together?’
As signs of romance between Audrey and Richard begin to appear it’s easy to presume that they’ll eventually realise they are in love, Richard will propose and Audrey will suddenly have it all; not only will she have a wonderful new husband, but she’ll also get to move back in to Grantleigh. Lovely, but hardly a great step forward for feminism. Ooh, hang on though - in a stylishly beautiful twist it works out slightly differently to that. Richard is experiencing money troubles at Cavendish; his Board of Directors are unwilling to sign off money to him to buy a new Argentinian plant so he decides to sell the manor to raise the finances needed himself. The fate of the manor hangs in the balance – who is going to get their hands on it this time? However, thanks to a rich uncle suddenly dying, Audrey is left enough money to buy back the house herself (everybody should have a rich old uncle stashed somewhere). With the Grantleigh Estate now back in the hands of its rightful owner, there’s one loose end to tie up, and Audrey sorts that one out too, by asking Richard to marry her (girl power!). He’s surprised, but says yes, and the last episode contains their wedding. Mrs Poo is obviously delighted.
The idea for To the Manor Born came about when BBC Radio comedy writer Peter Spence was invited to submit programme ideas that could feature Penelope Keith after her wonderfully funny performance in The Good Life. Using Margo as a template Spence combined her with a story he had once been told about somebody who had bought a country pile, and at the house party got talking to the previous occupant of the house, who’d had to move as they couldn’t afford to keep the larger house on. Audrey was born from this, and whilst a radio pilot was made, the BBC saw more future in adapting it for television with the help of a script associate, Christopher Bond.
Fleshing out the cast was a couple of British sitcom stalwarts: the Rector of Grantleigh was played by Gerald Sim, a man who must have had ‘only plays men of the cloth’ emblazoned across the top of his CV. The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Love Hurts, Keeping up Appearances; you name it, he’s strapped a dog collar on and waved a bible around the set. Michael Bilton played Ned, Audrey’s handyman who steps up (fairly unsuccessfully it has to be said) to become Audrey’s butler when Brabinger is taken ill in the second series. It’s hard to find a programme between 1955 and the early 90s which doesn’t feature Bilton; Quatermass II, The Saint, The Avengers, The Prisoner, One Foot in the Grave, Grace and Favour, Waiting for God – he’s been in them all. Even an advert for Yellow Pages.
To the Manor Born proved really popular for the BBC, giving them consistently high ratings throughout its run and the last episode of the first series gained an audience of 23.95 million. If you didn’t count live events this was the largest audience for any television programme in the UK in the 1970s.
In 2007 a To the Manor Born Christmas special brought Keith, Bowles, Thorne and Sim back together, along with some new characters, to celebrate Audrey and Richard’s 25th wedding anniversary. A happy and long-lasting sitcom marriage? That’s a beautiful thing.