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Friday, July 29, 2016

The Jamaican Steel Band

In Episode 5, "The Summer Hunt Ball," Richard Devere tricks Audrey fforbes-Hamilton into running the manor's annual Summer Hunt Ball. A pavilion is set up adjacent to the manor, and as Audrey instructs decorators, and members of a local Army troop setting up tables, in struts far out Kevin McCloud. He's billed as The Jamaican Steel Band. Quite why he's been invited to participate in what seems a formal aristocratic affair is unexplained. Perhaps there's a rich tradition of fox hunting in Jamaica. Perhaps English hounds, or their owners, find the sound of a Jamaican steel drum soothing. Either way, Audrey assigns him to a place deep inside the manor, as far away from the pavilion, and therefore the center of the fun, as possible.

Exactly where this pavilion is set up is open to question. On the day of our visit, my wife and I walked from the front to the left of the manor, and circled around it. This was a view from behind.

While the rear patio is larger than it appears in the photo, it does not look large enough to support the pavilion. Instead, the ground steps down to meet the gravel path.

This is the view after we passed the house, prepared to turn right, and walk along the side.

The corner in the above photo resembles the corner of the manor in the still from the TV series. And then there's the garden path. I'm guessing that area in back of the house used to be higher, but landscapers cut down the height sometime in the intervening decades, perhaps to flatten the walking path, and add more drama to the rear patio area. Of course, that's only my guess. Any others?

Oh, and if anyone has any theories on why a British Hunt Ball would want to hire a Jamaican Steel Drum player, I'm all ears.

Unlike, that is, Richard Devere, who can't hear anything on the phone, because of the loud music filling the room courtesy of far out Kevin McCloud.

Dragon Dave

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Appreciating Episode 1: Grantleigh

In starting off this blog on the series, I mainly focused upon the exteriors, the actual places in Cricket St. Thomas, England, in which the episodes took place. But some readers may not be familiar with the series, and may never watch any of the episodes. So I thought I'd take a moment to summarize the episodes I've written about so far, and share with you why I like them.

In Episode 1: "Grantleigh," Richard Devere arrives at Grantleigh Manor estate. While he believes he will be shown the manor house, the estate agent, J. J. Anderson, is only offering him a tour of the small house, called The Old Lodge. As he intends to run his multinational grocery empire from his home, he needs a much bigger house. As he looks through the french doors at Grantleigh Manor, he is filled with admiration for the place. He's learned the the present owner, Martin fforbes-Hamilton, has just died. So he tells J. J. Anderson, "You're an estate agent: show me that house!" and marches across the fields.

Inside the manor, Audrey fforbes-Hamilton is holding the reception for her husband's funeral. In addition to hosting her friends, she also looks forward to addressing the estate's employees. She wants to assure them that the estate's grandeur is not in its past, but that she has bold plans for the future. Two key events end up disrupting her plans, however. 

From left: Richard Devere, J. J. Anderson,
Marjory Frobisher, and Audrey fforbes-Hamilton

The first is Richard Devere. He presses J. J. Anderson to introduce him to Audrey, but she's so preoccupied that she doesn't give him much time. He shares with her that he's also recently lost his spouse, but she cuts him off, thinking that, as she doesn't recognize him, he must be involved with the company catering the event.

The second disruption is the family lawyer, Arnold Plunkett. He keeps pressing Audrey for a conversation, and when she finally grants him this, he tells her that the estate is bankrupt. She cannot press forward with any of her plans to maintain and update the estate in keeping with Grantleigh's history and traditions. Instead, her husband's creditors are insisting she sell Grantleigh immediately.

Audrey concocts a plan to save the manor. She contacts all family members, no matter how distant, and begs them to pledge money so she can buy Grantleigh back. With this, she, her friend Marjory, and Arnold attend the auction.

While Arnold Plunkett had believed that the money Audrey raised would prove sufficient, he had not reckoned with the determination of Richard Devere. The grocery empire owner demonstrates that, while history and tradition matter, what rules the world now is money. He easily ups the bidding each time, until finally, the auctioneer's hammer falls, and Richard is the new owner of the manor. 

As Richard tells Audrey later, he had set his mind on Grantleigh, and determined that he would own it. The great estate, which had been in her family for four hundred years, is his now. He also has great plans for the place, but all will reflect his tastes, not hers. All the changes will address his current needs, regardless of how they sweep away history in the process. Marjory attempts to comfort Audrey after Richard leaves, by telling her, "At least he's English." But even that will turn out to be a lie in later episodes.

This episode highlights a number of themes, chief among them being the inevitability of change. It also introduces us to two highly driven people, in Richard and Audrey, who are perfect foils for each other. It shows us how suddenly our perceptions of the world, and our futures, can be overturned in an instant. Perhaps, most importantly, it reminds us that we are never alone: that other people out there love and care for us, and if approached properly, will help us out in times of need. For Audrey was not close to many of those who pledged her money to buy back Grantleigh. We'll meet one of those later in the series. But for now, that's my summary of Episode 1.

What are your thoughts on Episode 1? Did I miss any themes, or special scenes, that you feel deserve special attention?

Dragon Dave

P.S. To review the exterior filming locations for Episode 1, read:

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Modernizing The Manor: Part 2

In Episode Four, "The Nation's Heritage," Richard Devere's desire to modernize (or functionalize, as he put it), met his demands for the moment. Audrey fforbes-Hamilton saw him ripping out a unique, neoclassical fireplace, and replacing it with a modern safe to hold his valuables, as a barbarous act. It's possible to modernize while honoring the past, and that's what Audrey attempted to communicate to him. But Richard owned the manor now, so he could do anything with it he wished. 

I saw a curious aspect of modernizing (or functionalizing) in one of the newer buildings on the Cricket St. Thomas estate. A men's restroom (or Toilet, as they say in England) had been thoroughly modernized, with dark wood paneling and zero-water urinals. Yet the design honored England's past with light fixtures in the shape of Bowler hats. 

For over a century, bowlers formed an essential part of one's attire. Along with other distinctive styles, bowlers defined one's sensibilities and place in society. An individual chose his hat carefully, as each style made a contemporary statement, and carried as much cultural heritage as an Adam fireplace. A man chose his hat carefully, and cared for it as he would a suit, tie, or pair of dress shoes.

In the early 1980s, when To The Manor Born was broadcast, men in England started to move away from such iconic, historic styles of hats. On each of my visits, I've searched department stores for a selection of these elegantly styled hats at reasonable prices. Instead, I've only found nice hats like Bowlers at specialty shops (which, naturally, also came with specialty prices). Today, people would rather spend their money on mass produced low-key bill caps displaying contemporary corporate, sports, or entertainment branding. Bowlers, along with other styles of well-made hats, have been relegated to costumers, not clothiers. So I thought it interesting that the current owners of the manor would modernize the manor to meet today's demands, while making such a nod to the past. 

Each writer tells his story with a message in mind. Peter Spence has stated that his intention for the series paralleled Richard's plans for the manor: to discuss how the old must constantly give way to the new. Yet in Audrey, he found a spokeswoman whose reverence for history, culture, and tradition made us care about the old ways, and wish to preserve them. That's what all great authors do. They show us two sides of any issue, and let us make up our own minds about what's truly important. They create a world in which this constant tension between old and new seems authentic and organic, so that we get caught up in the characters. Consequently, we come to love and respect what their characters care about. 

Dragon Dave

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Modernizing The Manor: Part 1

In Episode Four, "The Nation's Heritage," Audrey fforbes-Hamilton observes a truck parked outside the manor from her drawing room window. When she picks up her binoculars, she sees workmen carrying out an old Adam fireplace. Although she never liked this fireplace, she objects to Richard Devere removing it from the manor she once owned. So she storms out of the old lodge, stomps across the field, and bursts into his office (while he's in conference) to decry his disdain for England's national heritage.

The neoclassical design of fireplace, associated with three brothers of the Adam family, suggests that this particular fireplace was installed in the manor between 1760 and 1795. In 1980, when this episode was made, the fireplace would have been roughly two centuries old. Or, to put it another way, as viewers in America had recently celebrated their nation's bicentennial, Richard was celebrating this Adam fireplace's bicentennial by carting it off to the local landfill. 

It's all too easy to dismiss Audrey's frequent criticisms of Richard as hypocritical. After all, Audrey often disposed of old pieces of her family's heritage. The thing is, Audrey always knew what she was getting rid of. She might not know the current market price for any particular piece, but she knew its history, and what it had meant to previous generations. To Richard, it was just an old fireplace. To Audrey, such a casual dismissal of the past threatened to strip everything from the manor that truly mattered.

Some people see little or no value in anything that does not address their present needs. Others would preserve their heritage, even at the cost of current effectiveness. History can enrich our lives, but preserving it shouldn't prevent us from achieving our best efforts each day. Where should draw the line between preservation and modernization? How best can we address the needs of today, while honoring the sacrifices, achievements, and traditions of previous generations? What do you stand on this issue? And how have such stands positively or negatively impacted your life?

Dragon Dave

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Horatio Nelson & the Bronte Sisters

In Episode 3, Audrey (and Mrs Poo) told Richard the walls of the small parish church were adorned with plaques dedicated to members of the fforbes-Hamilton family. As I'm less acquainted with English history than its literature, the family name that jumped out to me, when my wife and I toured the St Thomas church, was not Nelson, but Bronte. In subsequent research, I've learned that Bronte, in this case, refers to a duchy, which English naval hero Horatio Nelson (and his descendants) was awarded for the pivotal role he played in several battles. So there's apparently no connection with writer Charlotte Bronte, whose novel Jane Eyre I read last year, after visiting her hometown of Haworth back in 2012.

Still, Peter Spence would have visited the St Thomas church regularly, as his in-laws owned the manor house and surrounding estate when he was creating To The Manor Born. He would have studied all the plaques dedicated to the Nelson family. As a writer, he would also have noted the Bronte name, as the novels of the three sisters--Anne, Emily, and Charlotte--are regarded as some of the most important in western literature. 

I don't know what literature English teachers assign to students in English schools, but as Haworth is one of the most visited literary shrines (second only to William Shakespeare's Stratford-upon-Avon), I'm guessing he would have read some of the Bronte sisters' stories in his youth. If he hadn't, it wouldn't surprise me to learn he read their novels before or while he wrote To The Manor Born. Such novels as Wuthering Heights by Emily, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne, and Jane Eyre by Charlotte all speak of the demands placed upon the aristocratic families, and how dealing with those weighty responsibilities shaped the characters of the rich and powerful. What I find even more striking is how those novels resonate today with people across races, religions, and social strata. Here were three women who grew up poor, who never wielded an ounce of real power in their lives, yet their stories dealt so truthfully not only with those (like Richard and Audrey) who wielded power, and those like estate worker Old Ned and the butler Brabinger who worked for them.

Is it reasonable to assume that Horatio Nelson, and the Nelson dukes and duchesses who succeeded him, led Peter Spence to create the rich tapestry of the fforbes-Hamilton family, which Audrey continually cites in To The Manor Born? Is it likely that the repeated mention of the Bronte name helped Spence create more than just an ordinary sitcom, but also a romance that attracted some of the highest viewing figures for any show of its era? Is it likely those plaques inside the St Thomas Church, in their small way, helped him create a saga still beloved around the world, and deemed one of the most important British sitcoms ever?

Well, they couldn't have hurt, could they?

Dragon Dave

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Memorial to Horatio Nelson & Family

After last week's post, my wife mentioned to me that she couldn't read the above inscription. On my computer, I can readily zoom in on any photograph, but some readers may have trouble doing so. So for all of you out there in my wife's shoes, here goes:


I'm sure there's a wealth of historical information out there on Horatio Nelson, as well as the entire Nelson family. I'd like to learn more about his naval exploits, the role he played in Britain's government, and learn more about his family. Perhaps some of my British readers would care to comment, and share with me, and all of you, what they remember learning about Nelson in school, and what they feel others should know about his contributions to the world?

As for me, I'm still a little amazed at discovering such a strong link with such an important man in Audrey fforbes-Hamilton's little country church.

Dragon Dave

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The fforbes-Hamilton Family's Surprising Hero

In the final scene of Episode 3, "The Rhythms of the Earth," the following Sunday morning service ends, and Richard leaves the church with Marjory Frobisher. The Vicar thanks him for reading the Bible lesson, and Marjory gushes that Richard read it beautifully. Then Audrey arrives, confused that the service is over. "Ah," the Vicar replies, "there's always one on the day the clocks go forward."

Poor old Ned. While fixing Audrey's clock, he forgot to adjust for the spring time change!

With a grin, Richard suggests that this is the first Sunday in the long history of the church in which a fforbes-Hamilton hasn't attended a service. Nonplussed, Audrey counters, "If you look at the walls inside our little church, I'm sure you'll find that lots of fforbes-Hamiltons were there this morning."

As my wife and I toured St Thomas Church, we saw several plaques dedicated to one family. With apologies to Audrey, it wasn't the fforbes-Hamilton family that adorned the sanctuary walls. Instead, it was the prestigious family of Horatio Nelson.

Horatio Nelson was an eighteenth century naval officer whose tactics and strategies helped defend England during the Napoleonic Wars. He is regarded as single-handedly saving Britain time and again. Perhaps, had he been less bold or brilliant, Britain might be part of France today.

His statue adorns a pillar that towers above London's Trafalgar Square, and he is still celebrated for his inspiration and leadership. 

I'm not an expert on English history, but I've visited Trafalgar Square twice now. I'm guessing that, by the height of the pillar atop which they've placed him, the English regard Horatio Nelson as one of their greatest military heroes. 

I don't know about you, but I never would have expected to find the name of Horatio Nelson, let alone those of his descendants, gracing a small, country church in Cricket St. Thomas. 

But then, sometimes you find the greatest treasures in the most unlikely places.

Dragon Dave