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RETURNING TO THE MANOR AFTER 26 YEARS

After a gap of 26 years the BBC are bringing  To The Manor Born back for a one off, hour long Christmas Special.  It will be shown on BBC1 at 9:30 pm on Christmas Day 2007.  Location filming was undertaken at Cricket St. Thomas in Somerset during October and interior sets shot at Shepperton Studios in November 2007.  The plot is still very much Top Seceret.


Gareth Gwenlan (Director) with Angela Thorne and Alexander Armstrong on steps

TV Crew setting up lighting, sound etc.
Scene being shot in the hall at Cricket St. Thomas.
 
 
 ONE FROM THE ARCHIVES
Birth of To The Manor Born
 
The following article comes from the magazine 'WRITERS MONTHLY' published in March 1987. In it Peter Spence the creator and writer of To The Manor Born talks about the evolution of the series which has fascinated millions of television viewers all over the world. 
 Peter Spence is a gifted and talented writer. He was born in 1944 and was educated at the Bromsgrove School, Worcestershire and became a reporter on the Birmingham Post and Mail at 18. At the same time, he joined the Territorial Army and did 'A' levels at night school. 
 He put himself through Nottingham University (paid for from his newspaper writing in the vacations) and emerged with a Politics and American Studies degree in 1968. This is the year in which he became a professional writer, and as he says, "never got a proper job."
 
 Among his many credits, he's written for the Edinburgh Fringe, Crackerjack, Not the Nine O'Clock News, and of course, To The Manor Born. But he's also written for radio (Roy Castle Show and Windsor Davies Presents, to name just two of his programmes) as well as an article on the psychology of Understanding Human Behaviour. He obviously uses his knowledge to great effect.
 
  
ANNOYING THINGS SHOW-BUSINESS WRITERS GET SAID TO THEM AT COCKTAIL PARTIES: 
  
"Oh you must meet some interesting people." 
  
"You could write a situation comedy out of what goes on in our house". 
  
We must keep our mouths shut or you will write everything we say down and put it on television". 
None of these really require much in the way of an answer except perhaps an inane smile. 
 
However, there is one question which 
keeps coming up which does require a very precise answer. 

"Exactly how long does it take to write a comedy series?" 
 
Of course, how long anything takes to write ranks with the weight of the manuscript and the grade of the pencil it was written with as an indicator of artistic merit. I can't see that it matters, but it keeps coming up. In my case the question refers to To The Manor Born generally held to be the only show I have ever written which continues to stalk me wherever I go. It is quite old now; there is nothing as old as an old television show (except perhaps its writer). Nevertheless its name lives on.

  Let us take the lifetime of the show to be from the moment the first diagnosable germ of the idea infected the brain to the moment the last show was edited together, and work it out. Already that if considerably longer than the actual writing time, and can be a span of months and years, but that doesn't mean that every minute of that time was spent piecing together that jigsaw of storylines, characters, and dialogue. However, all that time the idea was alive and well and bubbling away on the back-burner.  You'd think the end of the writing would be easy to pinpoint; the moment when it is readied for transmission. But even after that, I have been known to phone through for cuts where the meaning of a piece of dialogue has changed in the light of subsequent, which is probably a case of a writer overstaying his welcome. Identifying a show's original inception, though, is far harder. 
 
  If ever a show dispelled any illusions about an idea arriving fully formed on its first script, To The Manor Born is it. I can trace its evolution back to the early seventies when I was a gag writer at BBC radio -a blackout merchant. The star of one of the shows I was involved in was a well known cockney comedian who had just bought a large manor house in a Thames valley village. In a rehearsal break he was telling us of a housewarming party to which he invited the widow who used to live in that house, but who could no longer afford to keep it up, and had moved to a smaller place in the village.His hilarious account of this grand lady, and of the chilling conversation he had with her at the party, was a perfect description of the character who later became Audrey fforbes-Hamilton.A mental note of it would have registered like this: "Sit-com -big manor house bought by nouveau riche -displaced Lady Muck lives next door."Cut to big country manor house three years later.  This was Cricket St. Thomas, near Chard, in Somerset, better known as Grantleigh Manor, where the series was to be filmed years later. 
 
  It was 1973, I was in that little church where the snowbound funeral of Audrey's husband was to open the first show.  Only I was getting married, and the other principal combatant in the ceremony was the daughter of the big house.  I was the town boy, but beguiled by the Arcadian idyll of the country, I left London and moved into a seventeenth century, thatched, farmhouse with its own acreage for the first few years of marriage, which - give or take the odd cow and sheep to look after - must be every writer's dream. But I hated it.  Writers block.  Nothing.  Maybe I wasn't getting the country squire bit right.  So the Town boy traded his denim jacket for Lovat worsteds and plus-fours andswaggered around with an ashplant, learning the names of all the vegetation, and striking bucolic poses over five-barred gates. Still nothing.  This went on for three-and-a-half years, while I desperately tried to write London-based joke-shows by remote control. I chewed the ends of pencils and looked out of the window watching the country life go by - the odd horse (tow or three in rush hours) tractors, shooting parties, ponies and traps, foxhunts in full cry, Sloanes and townsfolk coming down for their country week-ends in t he BMW's and Audrey fforbes-Hamiltons in abundance all lording it over each other.  But I still couldn't think of anything to write about.  I longed for the town - even the suburbs.  Even communting was more inspirational that this.  Oh to come home to the smells of cooking coming from somebody else's kitchen, to be summoned from nextdoor's telephone, to have that eerie night-time silence broken occasionally.  Even if it is only by somebody hammering on the door to tell me that I have left my car lights on.  I yearned for the Metropolis. So I moved back into the thick of show business, and took any job I could get; club acts, television and radio shows, the odd documentary and educational programme. 

  It was in this period that I first saw The Good Life by John Esmonde and Bob Larby, a show which established Margot Leadbetter as a television institution, and suddenly the light entertainment trade was in search of "vehicles" for Penelope Keith. It was the radio hierarchy who asked me to come up with something for her.  It was in response to this suggestion that I connected up a earlier thought with a later experience.  Margot was the putative Lady Muck I had heard about in her Thames valley exile, and also one of those green wellied-dreadnoughts I had seen in such numbers in my creative doldrums in the sticks.  My thought was, what would Margot be like if she actually was all she pretended to be?  The answer was, of course, Audrey fforbes-Hamilton.  I had my situation and lead character.I then started building the situation round her.  Having her usurped by a cockney comedian, while humiliating to her sense of superiority, I knew was wrong.  Then I wondered what would happen if the manor was bought by a wealthy American, who had seen it while he was in this country looking for his roots, and then discovered he was in fact descended from the fforbes-Hamiltons. This was the version that Penelope Keith starred in for a radio pilot in about 1976. That show was never broadcast because television got interested in the idea on the strength of the star's enthusiasm for it, and commissioned the seriesI knew that the American angle had not really worked because it was too hackneyed and obvious.  I contemplated having her displaced by pop stars, Arabs, French, Dutch, leisure park operators - almost anybody who seemed to be buying up old England at the time, and anything which would offend Audrey's upper-class possessive territorial instincts. Of course all these were in danger of becoming stereotypes but that wasn't the real problem.   Up against a character as forceful as Audrey they would present no contest, and if she was to have no difficulty lording it over them, it would have been a war of uneven sides. The kind of war I needed for the comedy could not be a walkover, so I had to plant somebody as her antagonist who was a s strong as she was. We also needed somebody who was on the face of it perfectly in order as the custodian of her beloved manor, and even credible as a potential prospect fo a dynastic remarriage.  So what about somebody who appeared to be the perfect English gentleman, only who wasn't?  The idea of Richard DeVere-the urbane, wealthy, and tough millionaire, born Bedrich Polouvicki in Bratislava, Czechoslavakia - was probably another year in coming. 
 
   Writing the first series I came upon a problem which must have bothered dramatists since dot.  It put me in mind of the lines of the lyricist, Harry Ruby: 
 
 "I run my fingers through my hair 
 And pace about and curse my luck 
 As I imagine what Baudelaire 
 And Shelley did when they were stuck." 
 
  Here was the problem.  If a principal character is successful pretending to be something he is not, how do we know what he actually is? In other words, if Richard DeVere is successfully passing himself off as an Englishman, how could Audrey find him objectionable? If, on the other hand he is constantly giving himself away, then he is not successful.  In that case we lose the comedy of her trying to knock him into shape, who to us (the audience) DeVere is already patently in shape.  She was also a spectator to another spectator to another quandry.  The story was about two main characters who lived alone, having a real potential of nil.  So I came up with the idea of having a mother-in-residence: DeVere now had a person to talk to and confide in.  For the same reason, I came up with the idea of Marjory and Brabinger.  After that, everything fell into place. 
From the beginning to the end of the series, Richard DeVere never betrayed the trace of an accent, a mannerism, a lapse of taste, or committed a breach of English etiquette.  Yet we never lost sight of this background.  How?  The trick was the mother.  I had almost finished the series before I realised that we had needed DeVere's mother from the beginning and had to back up through the entire series.  Mrs Poulouvicka was always flitting in and out of the action with her appalling English and old Czechoslovakian sayings, to remind the audience why Audrey was putting up such a fight against such a civilised and considerate man, who in all that time did not put a foot wrong. Once DeVere's mother was fully enshrined in the series, (wonderfully played by Daphne Heard), I knew we had a situation we could get a lot of comedy out of which hadn't been possible before.  She was the key to why the situation worked, and she only appeared in the series a matter of weeks before the first recording. 
  
  This is the story of the show from the writer's point of view; it was lucky because it had a lot of other things going for it as well, not just in the acting and production departments, but also with its timeliness in respect of the political climate of the country and the ascendancy of women.In piecing together a show for the light entertainment market, a personal social and political statement on the part of the writer has to be on the bottom of the list of ingredients. If there had been one in this case, it would have been that the economic and social structure of England was in the process of being turned on its head.  "He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek."  In both Audrey and Richard DeVere, we had protagonists of two almost indefensible positions, yet the viler I tried to make them in pursuit of their naked ambitions, the more the great British public liked them.  They took them, and their underlying romance, to their hearts, and interpreted the show as an indication that old feudal England was standing firm, and that everything in the garden was lovely.  Ironically, the actual facts presented in the show were saying precisely the opposite. 
  
  Another question the writer of material which purports to represent real life is often asked at parties is: "Where do you get your ideas from?"  What they want is the source of inspiration to be identified.  If accused of taking an episode, story, incident, speech pattern, line, or even manner of dress, from the person I am talking to, I would deny it vigorously.  Then I realised that this was totally wrong, and that people are indeed flattered to find their characteristics paraded on t he television.  Now I have no compunction in saying that they themselves were, are, and will always continue to be my inspiration.  Odd that, but they seem to go away much happier. 
But I digress.  Sorry, what was the question again? 
"Oh yes.  How long does it take to write a comedy series?".  Well, not that I was working on it exclusively all the time, but about ten years. 

copyright Peter Spence 1987
 
 
 
Well It looks as if we have won a Britcoms award with this web site, and I must say that all of us at the Manor are deeply honoured. Thank you to all the nice people at BRITCOMS.COM
 
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 Copyright TTMBIAS 1999.                                                                             Issued 10 November 1999