As time goes by


Last night while watching television, I found myself confronted with one of thorny decisions that require careful analysis and deliberation…before flipping a coin: should I watch A Walk in the Sun (1945), a favorite war film of mine directed by Lewis Milestone and featuring an all-star cast in Dana Andrews, Richard Conte, and Lloyd Bridges? Or should I check out the Silver Anniversary Special of To the Manor Born—a Britcom currently in heavy rotation on Georgia Public Television?

Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles from To the Manor Born

I went with Manor, even though I was a teensy bit perturbed that the special’s hour length pre-empted the only comedy that I regularly watch on GPTV, the Britcom warhorse (in its 37th year on television) Last of the Summer Wine. I guess curiosity must have been the main factor because I’ve never been a huge fan of Manor (seen on the Beeb from 1979-81) even though I am very fond of the show’s leading lady, Penelope Keith. My dim memory banks inform me that Manor showed up on our West Virginia Public Television station (I believe it was Channel 9 in Beckley) about a year after its final series was shown in the UK and though at the time I thought WSWP was running it just because of the success of Good Neighbors (b.k.a. The Good Life in its native country), I later learned that Manor was a phenomenally popular show across the pond. Its final episode (“Back to the Manor,” November 29, 1981) garnered a viewing audience of 23.95 million (comparable to the final episodes of such American TV series as The Fugitive or M*A*S*H), a record not shattered until the final installment of Only Fools and Horses (“Sleepless in Peckham,” December 25, 2003—with 27.5 million tuned in).

The concept of Manor focused on oh-so-proper Audrey fforbes-Hamilton (Keith), an unrepentant snob of a woman who’s positively giddy that her husband Martin has gone to his rich reward because she is now in sole charge of stately Grantleigh Manor—gaining control of the huge estate has been her lifelong dream. But a snag in her plans for estate domination occurs when her solicitor informs her of Martin’s enormous debts, and that selling Grantleigh is the only option available to paying off his creditors. Grantleigh is purchased by a wealthy businessman named Richard DeVere (Peter Bowles), who is CEO of a multinational company called Cavendish Foods, and when Audrey learns that DeVere isn’t even British (he’s from Czechoslovakia, and his real name is Bedrich Polouvicka) she vows to take back what she considers her birthright by hook or by crook. Audrey and Richard begin a sort of love-hate affair with one another, much to the consternation of her best friend (and Ethel to her Lucy) Marjory Frobisher (Angela Thorne), who has designs on DeVere herself, and DeVere’s mother Maria (Daphne Heard), who’s forever kvetching at her son to settle down and get married. The other regular characters on Manor include Audrey’s loyal retainer Brabinger (John Rudling), the village rector (Gerald Sim), and Ned (Michael Bilton), one of the workers on the estate.

Bowles and Daphne Heard

My mother was a big fan of To the Manor Born (though not so much that she bothered to watch the box set of the series when I purchased it for as a gift several Christmases back) and I planned to purchase her a copy of the Silver Anniversary show until she told me to go ahead and sell the box set on eBay. The special’s plot involves Audrey and Richard planning their 25th wedding anniversary celebration (though it should be pointed out that twenty-six years have lapsed between the final first-run episode [1981] and the special [2007])—both of them are putting together a “surprise party” for one another. But the nuptials celebration comes to a screeching halt when Richard reveals to Audrey that the corporate behemoth known as Farmer Ted—a food conglomerate who’s forcing the local farmers into bankruptcy—is a company of his own invention; she leaves him and moves in with Marjory (who bought the Old Lodge, the residence at which Audrey lived in the original series), leaving him to cope (badly) on his own. After a few misadventures (one of which has the two women arrested at a rave) Audrey and Richard reconcile and the “surprise” celebration goes on as planned.

Older…and still funny.

The Silver Anniversary Special reunites four of the original Manor cast members—Keith, Bowles, Thorne and Sim—and though they all look a lot puffier and wrinklier (with the exception of Sim, who looks as if he hasn’t aged at all) they all do a bang-up job at reprising their characters with spirit and verve. One of the reasons I never particularly cared for Manor is because I never completely bought into the Audrey-Richard romance (it always seemed a bit forced), but the special shows that Richard has resigned himself to his fate and his character is prone to the same kind of remarks that the late Paul Eddington would throw at Keith in their roles of Jerry and Margo Ledbetter on The Good Life. (Plus, Bowles the actor doesn’t seem to fret too much about vanity, and seems undisturbed that the top of his scalp is thinning out faster than the crowd at a Paris Hilton film festival.) The special even offers a nice tribute to deceased players John Rudling (Brabinger) and Daphne Heard (Maria) by showing them on prominent display in framed photos in the DeVeres’ living room (I didn’t see a photo of Michael Bilton, so I don’t know if he got a nod or not). The special didn’t bring anything new to the comedy table but that doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t enjoyable; it comes off in the end with the same substance as an extended episode of As Time Goes By—though I did think the DeVeres’ new butler, a sarcastic gentleman who answers to “Emmeridge,” was a hoot. (He’s played by Alan David, a sitcom veteran who’s probably better known as the mad Welsh neighbor of Boycie and Marlene’s in the Only Fools and Horses follow-up, The Green Green Grass.)

manor1I mentioned at the beginning of this post how this To the Manor Born reunion interrupted the normally scheduled outing of Last of the Summer Wine, but this recent article announces that the future may not be all that rosy for the veteran Britcom (which is currently enjoying its thirtieth series on the air). The BBC, according to the article, has been on a purge lately of shows that “appeal to older generations.” The previously mentioned The Green Green Grass has received a pink slip, as has After You’ve Gone (a very amusing comedy with Nicholas Lyndhurst and Celia Imrie) and Not Going Out. A BBC spokeswoman stated that a decision on Summer Wine would be made (without an acknowledgement of the irony) later this summer.

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