To the Manor Born

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As I discussed ever so long ago, I love Netflix, and I love it more as time goes by. Not only is it really convenient and easy, but whatever software they use for making recommendations is actually pretty good. Not only does it recommend popular, current stuff I might not have gotten around to adding to my queue without a little prodding, but it also manages to recommend older, more obscure stuff I might never have heard of any other way.

One such example is a television series I recently finished watching, To the Manor Born. It was recommended to me because I had just finished watching a bunch of British period pieces--the various renditions of the life of Elizabeth Tudor, the really fabulous adaptation of Bleak House. I read the blurb of TtMB: recent widow Audrey fforbes-Hamilton (played by Penelope Keith, and no, that is not a typo in fforbes) is forced to sell Grantleigh Manor, the estate where her family has lived for 400 years, when she discovers that her husband's death has left her bankrupt. The estate is purchased by one Mr. Richard De Vere (played by Peter Bowles), a dashing self-made millionaire (he runs a grocery store empire), social climber, and (gasp!) foreigner: although he can pass as English, the truth of the matter is that his parents were refugees who left Czechoslovakia at the beginning of World War II. Although she has to leave the manor, Audrey cannot leave her old way of life, despite the presence of a new landlord.

And I thought it sounded interesting enough and I ordered it.

But then it arrived and I saw on the dvd jacket that the series was made in 1979, and that put a different spin on things. I generally hate American tv from that time: Dallas, Love Boat, Laverne and Shirley--I can't watch that crap, and I didn't watch it when it was current--I hardly watched any prime-time television when I was in high school. And while the little British television I'd seen from that time occasionally seemed better written, the production values were often pretty dreadful.

I nearly returned the disk without watching it, but then I decided, what the hell, I might as well check it out. And I was surprised by two things: one, how much I actually enjoyed it, and two, that anyone could actually hold some of the attitudes Audrey regularly expressed. It was that whole sense of entitlement and privilege--the way she talked to her neighbors and servants! The references to the British class system and the "right" sort of people! It all seemed so outdated and antique. Of course I've read plenty of novels dealing with those very issues--but I can't think of a one of them set before the beginning of the Great War. And yet, I'm sure those attitudes still exist.... The whole thing was quite educational.

Despite the educational content, I wouldn't have kept watching if I hadn't been interested in all the characters, hadn't wanted to see what would happen next. But as I said, I actually enjoyed it--quite a lot, to be honest. I finished the last episode over the weekend. The entire series, which spanned three years, involves a mere 20 30-minute episodes. (And they really are 30 minutes long, not 22.) The fact that a season consists of only six or seven episodes might be one reason the writing was pretty good: they had time to get things right. And it also might be a reason why they didn't invest in better sets or more costumes--why lay out all that money when you won't be using something that many times?

So this is a really careful recommendation: if you like period pieces (it really does feel like one), if you're interested in the British class system, and if you like tv that is "unusual" by the standards of American network fare, watch this. It doesn't suck.

5 Comments

I love Netflix too but my queue is almost to 400, so I'm abusing that somewhat, because I only watch a couple movies a month, so it will take me about 16 years to catch up at this rate--and meanwhile I keep adding more, such as this one you just recommended... (Well, I suppose some of the 400 are entries that my wife has added for her and the kids, but most of them are mine.)

I already have "Bleak House" in my queue and recently just very much enjoyed the 6-hour BBC adaptation of "Vanity Fair," a big ol' British novel that was one of the highlights of my college literary studies. I'll now add "To the Manor Born" as well, even though I may not get to it until I'm retired... But I feel secure knowing that at least it's on a list somewhere.

Netflix is a great way to find out about foreign films that I might like, for me. I've watched a few that were recommended and gone "...bzuh?" but most of them were totally to my tastes, and I never would have known they existed otherwise.

And I love not having to actually go to the rental place to return the videos. I've often joked with my friends that if there was a library-books-by-mail program on the Netflix model, I might never leave the house.

Being from the UK and of a certain age, I got to see "To the Manor Born" on its first outing. What you don't say outright in your recommendation is that it is a comedy - or did you not find it so funny? An important thing to say about it is that it was also a reflection of the Britain of the times - Thatcher had just come to power and she, in many ways, was the heroine of the nouveau rich, those people like Richard De Vere who were buying up the aristocracy. If you liked Penelope Keith in this, you should also see her in "The Good Life" - another BBC series from the same era. Keith plays the same kind of character who has to live next door to a young couple who decide to give up the rat race and be completely self-sustaining... it's also pretty funny (if you're British).

hi Chris--I have almost 400 movies in my queue too, but I watch about two disks a week, so it will only take me three or four years to get through my queue.... Of course, I keep adding stuff, so there are things that may NEVER reach the top. And at one point I had 500 disks in my queue and couldn't add any more, so I did a purge: anything I'd already seen (and just thought it would be interesting to see again), I deleted. Anything with fewer than three stars, unless I had particular knowledge of why I would like it despite its crappy reception from everything else, I deleted. That cleaned out a lot.

Like you, there are movies I'm content not to watch any time soon, comforted to know they're SOMEWHERE in my queue.

If you liked "Vanity Fair" and are interested in "Bleak House," you should also add "The Woman in White," the adaptation of the Wilkie Collins novel.

Hi Revena--yes, Netflix has sent me some stinkers.... but if I'm really unsure about something they're recommending, I try to do a little research on it. That helps weed out the "....bzuh?" moments. (Love that sound, by the way. I'm going to borrow that one.)

Hi Matt--Thanks for your comments. I was really hoping you'd have something to say about TtMB. I did find it funny, though not unroariously so.... And I was more interested in the other stuff, the glimpse into this world I found so foreign.

I just looked up "the Good Life" on Netflix--turns out it was called "Good Neighbors" in the States. But I added all the disks and even moved them fairly close to the top of my queue. (This is why the stuff at the bottom stays at the bottom.) Thanks for the recommendation!

The Brits are experts at television a lot of the time and you bring up the point of the short sharp seasons where quality reigns. I love that about them.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on January 21, 2007 8:54 AM.

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