Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger has read The Chronicles of Narnia, which fully prepares him to comprehend the 400 years of British tradition skewered in this beloved sitcom.
"In that case, I'll be brief. I'm fed up to the back teeth with the way you keep rushing over here with some little quibble about the way I'm running this estate. I know for a fact that you have no real quarrel with the way I'm doing it, so why do you keep finding fault? I'll tell you why: firstly, because you want to prove to everybody that you're still Dame High and Mighty around here and secondly, because you rather enjoy coming over here…to see me."—Richard De Vere
To the Manor Born is one of the most beloved British sitcoms of all time. When its final episode aired in 1981, 24 million Britons tuned in, which made it the number one most watched episode in British television history. (The record stood until 1996.) It would be difficult to overestimate the show's popularity or its closeness to the English heart.
Of course, the question we're asking about this Region 1 release of the complete series is: How does To the Manor Born play for American viewers who have never previously seen the programme?
Facts of the Case
Lady Audrey fforbes-Hamilton (Penelope Keith, The Good Life) is secretly elated when her husband dies, giving her unfettered control of Grantleigh Estate and its thousand acres. She confides in her old chum Marjory Frobisher (Angela Thorne, Ballet Shoes) that she wasn't keen on the former lord of the manor.
Audrey's elation is short-lived, however: Grantleigh Estate is in dire financial straits. Though the fforbes-Hamiltons have inhabited the manor for 400 years, Audrey must put it to auction. The auction is won by Richard De Vere (Peter Bowles, Lytton's Diary), a self-made millionaire in the foodstuffs trade. Though he hails from London, his mother is Czechoslovakian. New money with a foreign heritage? This simply will not do.
Audrey leaves Grantleigh, hops into her Rolls, and takes residence in the old carriage house a hundred feet away from the manor. Rather than idle around eating crisps on the sofa, Audrey insinuates herself into the daily affairs of Grantleigh Estate. Despite her best efforts to paint him otherwise, Richard De Vere is not the prat she'd assumed he would be. Audrey soon takes a fancy to De Vere…but she's not one to let emotion stand in the way of 400 years' worth of tradition.
To the Manor Born is a classic situational romantic comedy. By classic, I of course mean predictable. Strong female lead in close proximity to a strong male lead who frustrates her…I wonder if they'll fall in love? There is no certainty that To the Manor Born will slavishly follow the formula. It could break away and tread new ground at any time. But it does follow the formula, it doesn't break away, and it is predictable.
And no one seems to mind.
This series thrives on two characters with real chemistry, who are also interesting alone. Beloved English actress Penelope Keith has the slightly awkward yet dominating physical presence of Mary Woronov, along with her maverick sex appeal. Keith's inherent charisma glorifies the British upper crust in the same way that Mary Tyler Moore's fresh-faced appeal ignites American imaginations. Keith plays unlikable, snobby characters that we paradoxically fall in love with. She is firmly matched in Peter Bowles, a dashing man who carries the world in the furrow of his brow but who radiates genteel grace. When the two share the screen, sparks fly, but we never grow fatigued watching the emotional mayhem.
To the Manor Born piles layers onto this seemingly simple formula, mostly political ones. The nuances of British politics and class are foreign to American viewers, so I intuitively grasped the socioeconomic innuendo in Audrey's words and actions without understanding the core.
Even without my full realization of these themes, the writing stood out as particularly incisive. Death, taxes, class, foreigners, and sex are skewered with abandon in Audrey's words. She is audaciously arrogant, completely full of her own importance, and tears into everyone around her: "If I can't keep the manor, I want it to go to one of us. 'England for the English,' as we used to say about India." Richard gets his own barbs in, which makes To the Manor Born deliciously wicked at times. Almost every episode has a line or a situation that will bring a smile to your face.
Though it admirably incorporates heavy themes and sharp banter, To the Manor Born is a rather simple "girl meets boy and waits three seasons to hook up with him" story. If you've seen Who's the Boss? or Frasier or Friends, you're aware of the weariness that can accompany this extended romantic tease. At some point, we know with certainty that certain people will hook up, and we no longer care if and when the kiss of true love will come. To its credit, To the Manor Born avoids emotional burnout. The trick seems to be relative realism. Manufactured situations keep Audrey and Richard apart, but the situations are never too wacky or over the top. Decorum and honesty keep us engaged—at least, it kept 24 million English engaged.
It isn't groundbreaking, but To the Manor Born is a solid romantic sitcom with two strong leads and a host of colorful supporting characters. When you factor in the multilayered skewering of British social mores and a steady dose of sharp humor, it isn't hard to understand why To the Manor Born is so popular.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Have you ever shown a treasured series from your formative years to a neophyte from a subsequent generation, then been stung when they were completely unimpressed? Maybe your young friend doesn't find K.I.T.T. as awesome as you do, or he laughs with derision when B.A. Baracus pities the fool. To the Manor Born is as good as people say; I can see its quality and intuit its social ramifications. But the truth is, I'm a generation and a continent removed from To the Manor Born's intended audience, and its luster isn't as bright.
I laughed a lot in the first episodes. The dialogue is witty and the observations pointed. But the series soon settled into a comfortable rut. This comfortable rut is precisely what endeared it to so many, but it chafed when I tried it on. Keith and Bowles never lost their captivating personalities, but the characters and situations became routine. In the intervening decades I have seen similar themes play out time and time again. At this stage, the television magic of To the Manor Born feels more like "tried-and-true hocus-pocus." I could see where the show was going, and I wasn't enchanted with the ride that took me there.
To be fair, if I fully grasped the subtleties of British class and politics I might have gotten more out of To the Manor Born. Anglophiles will have a better foundation to appreciate the series. My week-long trip to London and years of reading British fantasy novels are scant preparation for three seasons' worth of class-based humor.
Mark Lewisohn writes on the BBC Comedy Guide website that "the TV production came across as twee to some viewers," which basically means that To the Manor Born was fluff. Though I wish it were otherwise, To the Manor Born did strike me as twee. For example, one episode shows Audrey struggling without her motorcar, so she adopts horseback as her means of transportation. I can see how a Lady arguing a parking ticket for her horse (and insulting the policeman's mental capacity) is funny, but I also didn't buy her sudden conversion to a conservationist standpoint. All oil-consuming modes of transportation are evil? She doesn't really believe that, nor do I. It is simply a convenient vehicle for Audrey's signature audacity.
When I said that To the Manor Born's luster wasn't bright, I meant it literally as well as figuratively. Prints of television series from the '70s are generally in poor condition, but this transfer is particularly dingy. Colors are faded and dull, and there is rampant grain. The brightest and most saturated colors come when something moves rapidly in front of a light source, which causes garish streaks of red, green, or purple light. In short, the video quality is not becoming. The audio fares better. It is mostly clear, occasionally muffled, and lacking in dynamic range. Nonetheless the audio accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish. I particularly enjoyed the opening theme song, which is a disco riff superimposed over a slideshow of stuffy British icons.
Although I wasn't completely taken with the series, there's no fault in BBC Home Video's presentation of the DVD boxed set. We're given the entire set of episodes, the Christmas special, and four radio episodes that are nearly as good as the television episodes. Two television spots featuring the lead actors give an idea of the weight To the Manor Born carries on its native soil.
Though To the Manor Born's plot seems threadbare to hardened television veterans, the series leads retain style and verve 25 years later. If you appreciate British humor, you'll probably enjoy the verbal sparring that characterizes these scripts. Within its romantic sitcom genre, To the Manor Born is a rock-solid entry that may enchant new viewers. If you've become even slightly jaded, or if you prefer modern spins on the genre, you're in for a long (but not completely uninvolving) journey.
The court cannot pass sentence on sentimentality. Lady fforbes-Hamilton and Lord De Vere are free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• All 20 Episodes Plus the 1979 Christmas Special
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