To the Manor Born is a BBC television sitcom that first aired on BBC1 from 1979 to 1981. A special edition appeared in 2007. Starring Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles, the first 20 episodes and the 2007 special were written by Peter Spence, the creator, while the final episode in 1981 was written by Christopher Bond, the script associate. The title is a play on the phrase "to the manner born," from Shakespeare's Hamlet ("Though I am a native here and to the manner born, it is a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance.")
In To the Manor Born, Penelope Keith, who was known for her role as Margo Leadbetter in the suburban sitcom The Good Life, plays Audrey fforbes-Hamilton, an upper-class woman who, upon the death of her husband, has to move out of her beloved manor house to the estate's old lodge. She manages, however, to keep her butler, and her much loved Rolls-Royce 20/25 motorcar. The manor is then bought by Richard DeVere (played by Peter Bowles), a nouveau riche millionaire supermarket owner originally from Czechoslovakia. DeVere and fforbes-Hamilton have a love-hate relationship which is eventually resolved in the final episode in 1981, in which they marry. In the 2007 special, they celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.
The programme proved popular and it received high audience figures for many of its episodes, especially the series 1 final episode, the most watched British television programme (excluding live events) of the 1970s. In 2004, To the Manor Born came 21st in Britain's Best Sitcom, a public poll to find Britain's favourite situation comedy.
Peter Spence first thought of the idea behind To the Manor Born in the early 1970s when he was working for BBC Radio as a gag writer. One of the programmes that Spence wrote for featured a Cockney comedian, who had recently bought a manor house in an English country village. When holding a housewarming party, the comedian invited the previous occupant, a widow who could not afford to keep the house up and had moved to a smaller house in the village. The comedian's account of the lady, and the conversation he had with her, Spence later described as a "perfect description" of Audrey.
A few years later, following the success of The Good Life, Spence was asked by BBC Radio to come up with an idea for a programme to feature Keith. Thinking of Keith's character in The Good Life, Spence had the idea of an upper-class version of Margo Leadbetter and, from the account from the comedian, came up with Audrey fforbes-Hamilton. Instead of a Cockney comedian as the new owner of the manor, Spence decided on an American who sees the manor while in England looking for his roots. The American later discovers he is descended from the fforbes-Hamiltons. This was made into a radio pilot in 1976 with Bernard Braden as the American, but was never broadcast because of the interest to make it into a TV series.
When writing the TV series, Christopher Bond was brought in as the script associate and helped to adapt the series from radio to television. The American character was changed, and the idea of a character who appeared to be an English gentleman but turns out not to be, was thought of. It was then decided that this character needed someone who could reveal his real background, and his mother was created, although it was not until Spence had nearly finished the first series that she was written in from the beginning. The characters of Brabinger and Marjory followed soon after. The first episode aired on 30 September 1979, a year after Keith had played Margo Leadbetter for the last time in The Good Life.
To the Manor Born was filmed on location in Cricket St Thomas, Somerset, and in studio one, BBC Television Centre, London. The Manor, Cricket House, was at the time of the original series owned by the father-in-law of Peter Spence, the show's creator and writer. Some interior scenes were also filmed inside Cricket House. The Old Lodge, which on screen was at the end of the Manor's drive, is in fact about one mile away and called West Lodge. A false gatepost was installed to help the illusion that the two are close together. The 2007 special was, like the original series, filmed on location in Cricket St Thomas in Somerset. This filming took place for about a week starting on 28 October 2007. The studio footage was filmed in front of a live audience at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire on 25 November 2007.
All the episodes were directed by Gareth Gwenlan, who also produced the original series. The 2007 special was co-produced by Gwenlan and Justin Davies.
During the filming, many cars were used; but the BBC continued to use the same vintage Rolls Royce motorcar through the entire series, including the opening titles for the show. The Rolls Royce (BMG443) has also been used in other BBC programmes such as Dad's Army.
The cast is led by Penelope Keith as Audrey fforbes-Hamilton and Peter Bowles as Richard. The other main cast members in the original series are Angela Thorne (playing Audrey's old friend Marjory), Daphne Heard (Richard's mother, Mrs. Polouvicka), John Rudling (Brabinger the butler), Michael Bilton (Ned, the odd-job man) and Gerald Sim (the Rector). Rudling was absent in the 1979 Christmas special and for much of the second series due to his ill health; his character was temporarily replaced as butler by Ned. Rudling died in 1983. Angela Thorne had worked with Keith before when she had played Lady "George" Truscott in a 1977 episode of The Good Life. Michael Bilton played Basil Makepeace, a main character in the first four series of the sitcom Waiting for God in the 1990s before his death in 1993.
Peter Bowles had been asked some years earlier to play Jerry Leadbetter, the husband of Keith's Margo, in The Good Life. Owing to prior commitments, Bowles turned down the role, but had he played Jerry, it is unlikely he would have been offered the part of Richard; as Bowles later said, "there's no way I could have played Penelope Keith's screen husband in two separate sitcoms". However, in 1987 Bowles replaced Geoffrey Palmer as Keith's onscreen husband in the ITV sitcom Executive Stress.
The series also features many recurring characters, who are either estate workers or members of Audrey's social circle. Celia Imrie, who makes two appearances as Polly, later became known for her work with Victoria Wood, including a lead role in Dinnerladies, as well as lead roles in Kingdom and After You've Gone.
The 2007 Christmas special features four of the original cast members: Penelope Keith, Peter Bowles, Angela Thorne, and Gerald Sim. New characters include Alexander Armstrong as Adam fforbes-Hamilton, Audrey's nephew-by-marriage and godson; Alan David as Emmeridge, Audrey and Richard's outspoken butler; and Michael Cochrane as Archie Pennington-Booth, a neighbouring landowner. While the Rector makes only a brief appearance, the other three original characters are main characters throughout and are credited in the opening credits.
To the Manor Born is set in the fictional village of Grantleigh, in Somerset near the fictional town of Marlbury. The series begins with the funeral of Marton (sic) fforbes-Hamilton, the Lord of the Manor. Audrey, his widow (and apparently also his cousin), is far from distraught, as she now has control of the Grantleigh estate, which her family the fforbes-Hamiltons have controlled for 400 years. Her joy is short-lived though, as her solicitor Arnold Plunkett informs her that Marton was bankrupt and that the manor will have to be sold to pay off the debts. Audrey tries to buy back the manor at auction, but is outbid. The new Lord of the Manor is Richard DeVere, a recently widowed self-made millionaire who started his career on an East End fruit barrow and founded the "Cavendish Foods" supermarket chain, who to Audrey is simply a "grocer". DeVere brings his domineering mother, who is soon nicknamed by Audrey 'Mrs. Poo', her full name being Maria Jaroslava Vladimira Martinka Polouvicka.She reveals to Audrey, who does not like foreigners, that she and her son came to Britain in 1939 from Czechoslovakia, and that Richard, whose real name is Bedrich Polouvicka, is half-Polish (on his late father Lazlo's side) and half-Czechoslovakian. Mrs. Polouvicka tries hard to fit into British country life, but her accent often leads to many mispronunciations and she frequently comes out with sayings from her "old Czechoslovakia" (even though Czechoslovakia is not so old for her; she was 15 years old when the country was created in 1919). From early on in the series, she encourages her son to propose to Audrey.
Audrey moves into the "Old Lodge", at the end of the drive, where she can see most of what goes on at the manor. Living with her is her elderly and loyal butler, Brabinger, who has worked for the fforbes-Hamiltons his whole life, and her beagle Bertie. Audrey's supportive best friend, and a frequent visitor, is the well-meaning Marjory Frobisher, who quickly develops a crush on DeVere. Marjory, who was at school with Audrey, is still a schoolgirl at heart and a committed countryside campaigner. Marjory has no organisational ability, which leads to her being nicknamed "Muddlesome Marj" by some. Despite Marjory's encouragement, Audrey refuses to get a job, saying her only job could be running the Grantleigh estate and doing other public service, which includes her being a magistrate. This means that money is a constant problem. During the second series, Brabinger is away ill; and Ned, whose tied cottage is being renovated by Richard, takes over as butler to Audrey. Ned, a gardener and "outside man", has worked on the estate all his life and finds working indoors difficult to get used to. Other estate staff include the estate foreman Mr. Miller, the estate manager Mr. Spalding and the cook Mrs. Beecham. Another character, Polly, originally works at the local "Cavendish Foods" store and then at the doctors' surgery, while Linda Cartwright works in the stables and as a domestic.
The postman, Mr. Purvis, appears in two episodes.
Other characters include the local rector, who is not unhappy when Audrey loses the manor, hoping that it will prevent the dominating Audrey from having a say in the running of the Church and local causes. The rector favours Richard, who is frequently generous when it comes to donations to church funds. The village shop is run by Mrs. Patterson, the local gossip who also favours Richard and does not get on with Audrey. The typically English Brigadier Lemington, of the Somerset Rifles, is another local landowner and friend of Audrey's and the Master of Foxhounds and, like Audrey and Marjory, has an interest in nature conservation. Arnold Plunkett and his wife Dorothy are friends of Audrey's, while Arnold is also the family solicitor. Grantleigh's local estate agent is J.J. Anderson, of "Anderson and Fish", who appears at manor parties.
During the course of the three series, Audrey and Richard grow closer. Hostile to each other at the start, they grew to understand and accept each other, as both try to adapt to each other's ways. The last two 1981 episodes show Richard having problems at Cavendish. With his board of directors refusing to let Richard buy a refrigerated plant in Argentina, he seriously considers selling the manor to raise the money to buy the plant himself. Trying to help Richard, Audrey asks her uncle, a well-respected and connected member of the financial community, to lend Richard a hand. Thanks to him, things begin to go Richard's way. Unfortunately, Audrey's uncle dies before the deals are signed. Richard decides to sell the manor to pay for the refrigerated plant. By a twist of fate, Audrey inherits her uncle's fortune and buys the manor back. Now back home and on her own turf, Audrey asks Richard to marry her. Taken aback, Richard says yes and they are married in the final episode, broadcast on 15 October.
Based on facts presented in the series, the characters of Audrey fforbes-Hamilton and her first husband Marton fforbes-Hamilton appear to have been distant relations who married each other. Grantleigh Manor has belonged to the fforbes-Hamiltons for "400 years" (series one, episode one, and repeated references in numerous other episodes), and Audrey makes repeated references to having grown up on there (series two, episode five, among others).
2007 Christmas special
As Richard and Audrey plan to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary, each planning a surprise party for the other, Richard confesses to Audrey that he owns "Farmer Tom", a company that has been putting the neighbouring estates out of business. Audrey leaves him. Richard visits his mother's grave to develop a plan to win Audrey back. He decides to allow a rock concert to be held on the estate. When the licence application is up before the Magistrates' Court, Richard changes his mind. The following day, their anniversary, Marjory leads Audrey to a surprise party organised by Richard.
New characters in the 2007 Christmas special include Emmeridge, the outspoken butler replacing Brabinger; Adam fforbes-Hamilton, Marton's nephew and Audrey's godson, who has recently moved to Grantleigh to learn how to run an estate; and Archie Pennington-Booth, a neighbouring landowner driven to bankruptcy by "Farmer Tom". Marjory lives in the Old Lodge, and she develops a crush on Adam. A small acknowledgement of Bertie and Brabinger appears in the special, consisting of a photo of Brabinger and a small beagle statuette on a side table. Richard's mother, aka "Mrs. Poo," is acknowledged by a marble headstone in the church graveyard and a framed photograph on the mantel of the manor's sitting room.