Judge William Lee doesn't live in a castle but he dominates the throne.
Three grand homes. Three big headaches.
It may be difficult for most folks to sympathize with inheritors of castles but the documentary series Crisis at the Castle succeeds at showing us that life on the other side of the moat isn't as easy as it appears. The UK government keeps a list of about 374,000 existing structures there were built before the middle of the 1800s. These buildings are noted for their exceptional architectural or historic interest but that means their owners must contend with rules concerning improvements and remodeling. Annual maintenance costs in the neighborhood of $150,000 can turn pride of ownership of these stately homes into a financial hardship. Three homes and their respective families are profiled on this single DVD, each episode runs one hour.
Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire was built on the riches of the industrial revolution. Mark Dent-Brocklehurst inherited the castle in the 1960s but died during the restoration project. His widow Lady Ashcombe is handing it over to her children Henry and Mollie, both of who intend to move in with their families and restrict public tours of the estate. Additionally, Mollie wants to use the grounds for large outdoor art installations.
Commander Robert Simpson and his wife Helen have owned Burton Court in Herefordshire since the 1960s. To attract visitors, Robert started a soft-fruit farm and Helen a costume and curio museum. Revenues from these two ventures have declined to the point where they can't keep the house going. Their son Edward wants to turn Burton Court into an up market wedding and function venue.
Kelburn Castle in Scotland has been the ancestral home to the Boyle family since the 12th century. The current occupant, Patrick Boyle, 10th Earl of Glasgow, created a country park and opened up the castle for dinners and tours but the business is losing money. He hires an event manager and consults with a real estate developer for ideas on turning things around.
Weddings and corporate event functions invariably become the revenue generating hope for these castles. However, the nuisance of letting strangers hold a party in your home and dealing with complaints from neighbors certainly shows that it's not easy money. Sudeley, with its popular gardens as an established attraction, has the rental routine worked out but the other locations do not employ full hospitality and administrative staff. If it's hard to truly feel for the Dent-Brocklehurst heirs' impatience with visitors complaining about the entry fee, it's easier to understand Edward Simpson's struggle running a business out of a crumbling building.
There is definitely something special about these old buildings, and the desire to maintain them is shared. The public is drawn to these cultural landmarks with a sense of curiosity and heritage. The owners feel it's their duty to keep them running. Witnessing the inner workings of a dilapidated castle is an eye-opener. Crumbling walls, water damage and energy inefficiency are constant concerns. Sue Nunsford-Mills leaves her five-star hotel job to become the event manager at Kelburn Castle but soon discovers she can't promote the business because the castle lacks a commercial kitchen. How do you make a centuries-old castle conform to modern building standards?
The weakness of the show is its lack of a complete narrative arc for each castle. Each episode introduces the keepers of the castle and presents the situation of its upkeep as nearing failure. We hear plans to improve the revenue stream, observe the beginnings of such plans, but then the episode ends with a big cloud of uncertainty looming. Each story feels incomplete and that may have been the reality of the castles' fate at the time of filming but it makes the series somewhat unsatisfying. It almost feels like this was a pilot effort for a longer series and perhaps a future episode would have featured a return visit.
Acorn Media, under their educational DVDs banner Athena Learning, has put together a respectable package. The image is generally acceptable but the picture appears slightly overexposed and colors can look washed out. There is some video compression noise in the brighter parts of the screen, especially noticeable when sky is visible. The stereo audio is passable but I had trouble hearing the voice-over narration, which often sounded underpowered compared to the music. I resorted to watching with the English subtitles turned on most of the time.
A handful of text screens share the "Stories of Stately Homes" not profiled in these three episodes. These brief histories and interesting anecdotes on the current states of four noteworthy estates are the only bonus content featured on the disc. The 12-page viewer's guide supplies nine pages of useful information plus a map. The booklet's contents are a good supplement to the episodes as they explain the further history of the efforts, both private and public, to preserve these historic homes. The tourist-attracting aspects of the gardens of the three featured castles are also highlighted.
Crisis at the Castle is a little unsatisfying because we don't get a proper conclusion to the stories of these estates at a critical juncture. It may be unreasonable to expect full closure on the fate of these buildings but it would have been nice to know the result of the new strategies we hear them discuss. Even the minor addendum on the third episode, a still photo of an exterior wall of Kelburn Castle, is welcome information because it shows whether someone's idea worked out. The information in the booklet is a good textual complement to the more personal touch of the episodes. That's enough documentary value to make this set worth visiting to castle lovers. The better story in the documentary is how difficult it is to mix home, family and business into one giant, money-losing behemoth.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
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