Archive Gems - To The Manor Born

Here we look back at a series which saw Penelope Keith build on her popularity as
Margo Leadbetter in The Good Life and had always been created with her in mind.

What is probably not so widely known is that it was originally written for radio years
before The Good Life and 11 years before the series finally emerged on television

The original premise

The pilot had essentially the same premise as the final television version in that Audrey Fforbes-Hamilton, whose family had been the ‘caretakers’ of the Grantleigh estate for generations, was suddenly widowed. Her new-found freedom as Lady of the Manor could now go unrestrained, although she had overseen the running of the estate for years as a matter of family duty. However, when it comes to the day of the funeral, her family solicitor informs her that the estate is bankrupt, that her creditors are foreclosing and that she will have to sell her beloved Grantleigh and move into the estate lodge.

Although she tries to get the various branches of the family to chip in and save the estate for themselves - and especially herself - the family is out-bid at the auction. The buyer turns out to be a businessman. Audrey is horrified at the thought of Grantleigh going to someone who isn’t listed in a copy of ‘Who’s Who’, but consoles herself with the fact that ‘at least he’s English’, unlike some of the other bidders. Then it transpires that he’s actually American...

The radio series was to have starred popular Canadian actor, writer and presenter Bernard Braden of On The Braden Beat and Braden’s Week alongside Keith, and although the pilot was actually made with both of them, it was never broadcast. The idea languished in the doldrums for a number of years before its creator, Peter Spence, turned it into a novel. It was then that things started to move forward.

Penelope Keith had just finished in The Good Life at the end of 1977, although a Christmas special and a special recorded in front of an invited audience including members of the Royal Family kept it going for almost another year in the public eye. During the rest of the time, Keith was busy with other appearances, especially in the theatre. However, a new tv project for each of the four Good Life actors was in preparation.

Moving on to pastures new ...

Richard Briers was given The Other One, a series about two sales reps where, against type, he was playing the smarmy, unscrupulous part of the pair; his co-star was Michael Gambon. Felicity Kendall went into Solo, a comedy by popular writer Carla Lane, creator of The Liver Birds and Butterflies, about thirty-something Gemma Palmer who evicts her cheating boyfriend from her flat and gives up her job for a fresh start. Considering Richard and Felicity were the Goods in The Good Life and supposedly 'the stars', good luck did not smile on them; neither series made it past two seasons.

Paul Eddington, who played Keith’s husband Jerry Leadbetter in The Good Life, got the best deal of the four actors in longevity stakes. Yes, Minister lasted for three seasons culminating in a Christmas special which elected his character, the Rt. Hon. Jim Hacker MP, from his position in the British Government as the Minister in charge at the Department of Administrative Affairs to the high office of Prime Minister. The sequel series, Yes,Prime Minister, lasted a further two seasons, and arguably, of all the four stars, his series is the best remembered, certainly rivalling To The Manor Born.

Changes for television

Resurrected in 1979 by original creator Peter Spence under the supervision and guidance of fellow writer - and on the series, script editor - Christopher Bond, the pilot changed very little from that original radio show made in the 60’s. The biggest change was probably to the businessman character.

In the new series, the businessman, now called Richard DeVere, was a self-made millionaire and owner of the grocery empire that was Cavendish Foods plc. He had recently lost his own wife, and was looking for a house in the country to run his business from and to provide a home for his elderly mother. Looking over the old lodge at the end of the manor drive, he glances out of the French windows, is immediately drawn to Grantleigh Manor as a house, and goes over to have a look, even though it isn’t even on the market at the time. He encounters Audrey and pays his respects, this being the day of her husband Marton’s funeral, before returning to London. When the auction day arrives, he bids for the house and becomes the new Lord of the Manor. Audrey is as happy as can be expected; she has paid off her creditors and the estate has gone to someone English. The auctioneer, however, queries the signature on the cheque, that of Bedrich Polouvicka. Audrey is mortified; her new ‘English’ lord is a Czech immigrant, who only uses the name Richard DeVere because he feels it’s more English!

The first series set the tone for the whole run, although the attitudes of Richard to Audrey, and especially Audrey to Richard mellow as time goes by. In Audrey’s case, this is initially just to stop her best school-friend and chum, Marjory Frobisher, from trying to seduce Richard. Scatty, very much the giggly schoolgirl type, but with a heart of gold and always willing to muck in and help out with the various estate activities, Marjory was an excellent comic foil for both the leads, especially when she was trying to make a play for the 'dreamy' Richard. Actress Angela Thorne, who would go on to other comedies such as Three Up, Two Down and Farrington Of The F.O, had already starred opposite Penelope Keith in The Good Life in one episode playing a similar, if more upmarket version of the Marjory character; a titled lady herself in fact, Lady Truscott.

Richard, of course, played one off against the other when he worked out what was going on, although he didn’t have any inclinations toward either of them at the start, despite the match-making of his elderly mother who Audrey would always refer to as ‘Mrs. Poo’; initially she couldn’t belittle herself to say the full name and the shortened version eventually became the norm , though as an affectionate nickname when Audrey came to know the old woman. Character actress Daphne Heard, seen in various supporting roles including the 1969 series Wild, Wild Woman ( similar to popular British sitcom The Rag Trade ), was extremely likeable as the dotty Czech mother, always wanting her ‘Bedrich’ to settle down and marry someone else ‘like that nice Audrey’. Her meddlesome match-making was never malicious, but only ever done out of a desire to see her son happily married again.

Recasting the leading man

DeVere himself was re-cast from the radio pilot; Braden had returned to Canada by this time. The actor chosen was Peter Bowles, a popular actor who often played the smooth and sadistic villain in guest roles on shows like The Avengers. This must have seemed a bit of a gamble in casting, as prior to this time, he had never appeared in tv comedy; subsequently he appeared in The Bounder & the comedy-drama Perfect Scoundrels amongst others, including around the same time as To The Manor Born, the ITV comedy Only When I Laugh.

It is also worth mentioning that he was the original choice to play Jerry Leadbetter in The Good Life, and would therefore never have been chosen for To The Manor Born; both Jerry and Margo in another comedy, even as different characters, wouldn’t have worked. As it happened, he refused the part of Jerry, as he believed he wouldn’t be free to record the show as he was appearing in a play. However, also starring in that play was Richard Briers! How was he able to do both, Bowles wanted to know when he heard. Simple, Briers told him. They were recording The Good Life on a Sunday when there wasn’t a performance of the play, which was the then-new comedy by Alan Ayckbourn, Absent Friends. That's showbusiness!

As the suave, sophisticated businessman, Bowles was excellent, and provided an excellent straight-man and foil to the comedy characters around him. DeVere was always at odds with Audrey, believing that his way of doing things was best for the estate, until she manages to prove to him that the time-honoured ways of doing things often have practical reasons. He wanted to drag Grantleigh kicking and screaming into the 20th century, but she insisted on clinging to the past, and often what she believed in was the only way the estate could realistically be managed.


After the initial hostilities between Richard and Audrey had subsided, the relationship between them grew much warmer, although as each could still irritate the other with their different ways of thinking, a warm start to an episode could leave one or both rather disgruntled by the end. One-upmanship was the name of the game throughout.

This manifested itself in varying ways, such as Audrey accusing Richard of cheating at the game of ‘poohsticks’ when she’s caught off guard to his catching her out on her supposed foreign holiday trip, when actually she’s been sunning herself on the Costa del Grantleigh; she feels she must be ‘seen’ to take a holiday, even if she doesn’t actually go abroad. And so the game between them went on throughout the series.

The first series ended on just such a matter of one-upmanship. DeVere was asked to take part in a tv advert for Fauntleroy’s Old English Tonic - “the little aristocrat” - only because the ignorant film crew haven’t realised he isn’t English. Unfortunately, they want a butler to serve him the drink, which Richard hasn’t got. Audrey’s elderly butler, Brabinger, appears with a message from Audrey and is hired on the spot by the director, mistakenly believing him to be Richard’s butler. After filming, Brabinger arrives back at the lodge, rather the worse for drink - used to steady his nerves before the cameras! - and spills the beans to his mistress. When the director turns up, asking to borrow Audrey's vintage Rolls-Royce, she puts him straight on a few things - including the fact that Brabinger is her butler! The show concludes with Audrey arriving at the manor for dinner with Richard while his mother is watching television. The ad comes on, and his mother is excited at the thought of 'her Bedrich, the film star!' But the camera pans away from the manor to the lodge and Audrey appears instead, with Brabinger serving the drink to her. In this instance, Audrey has won and Richard sees the funny side - although his mother is rather less than pleased...

This series was followed by a Christmas special, centering on the providing of the crib to the church. DeVere provides a gaudy, flashing, motorised contraption playing ‘Jingle Bells’, while Audrey enlists the help of gardener Ned and Marjory in order to make her own; the old one provided by ‘the manor’ or as Audrey puts it ‘not by the manor, by me!’ is rather the worse for wear. The competition between them is resolved by the Rector, who votes for DeVere’s. But Audrey gets the last laugh, when Ned volunteers the use of his circuit breaker to replace the missing gadget in DeVere’s. Needless to say, it blows all the lights in the church, and ‘Jingle Bells’ has never been the same since!

'Very good, Missus Forbes ...'

The absence from the Christmas special of Brabinger, played by John Rudling, gave Ned the gardener and estate hand more prominence. Played by veteran actor Michael Bilton, he was a small, stubborn ‘salt of the earth, tug of the forelock’ man, who found it hard to adjust to filling in for Brabinger. Brabinger was supposed to be visiting his niece; in reality, John Rudling was ill for the special and the majority of the second series, and when he reappeared it was rather obvious that this had been the case as he’d lost a lot of weight. Rudling, like Bilton, was a veteran and again, both were regular supporting actors, Rudling having appeared in shows such as Porridge with Ronnie Barker and Bilton in, for example, Doctor Who and Waiting For God.

The second series saw DeVere try and stamp more of his commercial skill onto the running of the estate, by bringing in a farm manager, Spalding ( played by Ben Aris ), in the first episode. But the time-honoured ways stand up to this, and they are forced to acknowledge that the old ways really work best when it comes to farming the estate.

After this, Richard starts to become more at one with the estate, and his relationship with Audrey softens still further as a result, especially when Audrey briefly returns to stay at the manor as a guest - albeit under false pretences; she's supposed to be her old school friend, Diana 'Podge' Hodge, who DeVere was putting up for her when she came to visit. 'Podge' allegedly was a 20 stone divorcee and Audrey felt safe trusting Richard with her, until she turns up looking slimmer and even more desirable - and certainly more lusty! - than Audrey. What goes on at the manor when Richard brings 'Podge' tea and finds Audrey there instead, we are never told - of course...

She also mellows a lot during this season towards him, including helping out cataloguing his antique china collection, and both find out they - and other landowners - have a common problem in smelly Arthur Smith, the tramp, who purports to be working for everybody, but in fact does no work for anyone and is poaching to boot. Although, at the end of the season, she is still not above trying to gain his sympathy by claiming to be ill with a bad back when she has, in fact, fully recovered. But then, is there a woman in the world who wouldn't do that when a handsome man brings flowers and chocolates to her sick bed? ( To all the female readers of this article, I throw myself on your mercy! )

The final series builds the relationship between the two up to an inevitable conclusion; where the series began with a love-hate relationship between them, it comes full circle to a love-love one. Before it reaches that climax, De Vere tries some rather sneaky tactics of his own, and in many ways, after the previous series giving Audrey the last word, this series evens things up a bit, even though it shows a decline in De Vere's business fortunes. He cons her into being an unwitting participent in a photo shoot for a new product and becomes a VIP on the railway for one day after closing the local station at Marlbury in order to buy it for a new distribution depot; he was supposed to save the station! He flatten Audrey's flowers with the downthrust of the rotors on his new helicopter, which he is learning to fly and gives his mother apoplexy - especially when she sees the tall, blonde and decidely female instructor - and his interest in bird-watching, helped by Marjory, almost ruins Audrey's attempt to supplement her income by selling honey from her bees when a rare bee-eater bird appears on the estate and the "twitchers" come from miles around to see it. In this case, she manages to turn the tables by selling them honey purporting to be from her bees; in fact, she quickly runs out of her own and re-labels jars of De Vere's Cavendish honey, making a nice profit!

The imminent pairing between the two of them is shown in a double-take episode building the rest of the series’ story arc, where viewers believed that this was the closest they would see Audrey and Richard. To secure a perfume contract for Cavendish, Richard buckles somewhat during negotiations with the French owner of the company, played by Rula Lenska, and in order to avoid having to rebuff her slightly amorous advances, he says he’s married. When she wishes to visit him - and Mrs. DeVere! - at Grantleigh, he can’t refuse for fear of loosing the contract. He initially asks Marjory to help out as Mrs. DeVere, but of course, Audrey finds out and reasons that only one person could play the wife of the lord of the manor, someone who has done it before - herself! Everything passes off well, although they each make hilarious mistakes about each other, and each believes they’ve pulled off the ‘husband and wife’ act until the owner brings them down to earth with a bump; she had suspected, and known nearly all along. But she still signs the contract and tells them they should think about marriage; they were made for each other.

The arc continues with a potential boardroom shake-up at Cavendish and a plot by board members Gayforth and Lumsden to oust him as head of the company. Richard is forced to choose between financing the refrigeration plant the company needs, and maintaining his hold on the company’s reins, or ditching it and staying at Grantleigh. He chooses the former, which means he has to sell the estate and move out. This is when Audrey realises how much he has come to mean to the estate - and to her. At that moment, her great uncle Greville Hartley comes to the rescue, and manages to secure backing in the boardroom. Richard is secure, but the sale still has to go through when Greville, a randy old codger, dies suddenly and the backing falls through. A new lord - or lady - at the manor looks inevitable.

So the last episode arrives, and brings everything full circle. The estate is auctioned off - in the same room, by the same auctioneer, but with Richard and his mother being put through the agony of selling instead of Audrey. Richard spies Brabinger bidding at the back of the room and the exchange between them shows off some of the humour that typified the series’ writing in general - ‘Come on, Brabinger, it can’t be you’ ‘I do have a few savings, sir’ Of course, he was bidding for Audrey; Greville may have died, but he had a soft spot for Audrey. When she has a ‘housewarming’ party a few weeks later, Richard is invited and he and Audrey leave the guests for a walk around the grounds. It is here that Audrey proposes to him; as she says ‘I would never have married you while you had the manor’ and this typifies her strong, stubborn character as exemplified by her quote in the very first episode ‘”England for the English” as we used to say about India!’ Even here though, there is room for a moment of humour; Audrey won’t let Richard kiss her, as the ground on which they are standing as she proposes is where her late husband Marton is buried, although as she points out ‘he was always putting his foot in it.’

That touch of class

The use of location filming helped to give the series its stately feel; it is likely that, even with the excellent scripts written by Spence - apart from the last episode which was written by editor Christopher Bond - a totally studio-bound series might well never have made it past its first series. Some work as that type of production, but To The Manor Born wasn’t one of them. The extensive film work, shot around the estate of Cricket St. Thomas in Somerset, gave the series a lot of authentic colour that certainly helped boost that look, and probably the performances of the cast to boot. Grantleigh Manor itself was actually the estate house, Cricket House.

The life in the country

Other supporting characters who lent their weight to the series including retired Brigadier Lemington, the Rector, vicar of the Grantleigh parish, and Mrs. Patterson, the postmistress and storekeeper, played respectively by Anthony Sharp, Gerald Sim and Daphne Oxenford.

The Brigadier was always a bit of a ‘my duty’ man, who would put the needs of the estate usually before his own, although like most of the characters when they were around Audrey he would give way to what she thought was best, albeit reluctantly.

The Rector was undeniably pleased by Audrey’s change of position in society, as it meant, amongst other things that he could choose the hymns for his Sunday service again. He welcomed DeVere, not so much because he liked him ,which he did, but for the generous contributions to the Church roof / organ / any other appeal the Rector was running at a particular time, something which didn’t happen under the Fforbes-Hamilton regime. He certainly wasn’t pleased, unlike the Brigadier who took it in his stride, when Audrey returned to her roots at the series’ conclusion.

Mrs. Patterson had a very abrasive personality, and would favour certain customers above others, depending mainly on how well they could pay their bill. All three characters contributed magnificently to the slightly-backward country estate that Grantleigh was supposed to be and all the actors turned in excellently believable performances.

Sharp had played various supporting roles, including a vicar in the popular Steptoe and Son. Gerald Sim, while having many comedy performances to his name, had also played superbly sinister villains in shows like The Avengers. Daphne Oxenford had also played many smaller supporting roles over the years in a variety of series including Yanks, Go Home and film roles including All Creatures Great And Small.

A very British success

This last episode was watched in the UK by 24 million viewers, the highest audience ever for a programme in the country until it was beaten in 1996 by the Christmas edition of Only Fools And Horses. The series had been immensely popular throughout its three year run, regularly pulling in high audiences and sometimes over 20 million viewers in its Sunday night slot.

After it finished, the stars went their separate ways. Keith went into Sweet Sixteen and Executive Stress, Bowles finished the last series of Only When I Laugh and continued as a rogue in The Bounder. Angela Thorne went from being a supporting actress to a star in her own right with, as previously mentioned, Three Up, Two Down with Michael Elphick and Farrington Of The F.O. None of these new shows, save Three Up, Two Down for Thorne were as successful for the respective actors as To The Manor Born had been, though.

Full circle

It was not, however, the end of the series. Sixteen years after if finished on television - aside from occasional re-runs - and almost thirty years since it first been recorded as that radio pilot, To The Manor Born finally aired on BBC radio. BBC Radio 2 broadcast ten episodes, six adapted by writer Peter Spence from his original television scripts and four were written especially for the medium based on the tv series’ situations. Keith and Thorne appeared again in their respective roles, and proved that time was no obstacle to a good comedy partnership and performance. Peter Bowles did not, however, appear, and veteran comedy actor Keith Barron, best known for the sitcom Duty Free, played the role of Richard DeVere instead.

It has not been until recently that To The Manor Born has started to appear on video in the UK; one volume was released in the early 90’s on BBC Video of the first four episodes, but nothing else followed until 1999 when Acorn Media started to release the series ( at the time of writing, series 2 has just been released in the UK on two tapes ). Various repeat runs in the UK have also been shown, with one in the early 90’s of selected episodes, and more recently in 1999 the whole series in a weekday afternoon slot. Other runs have also appeared on satellite channel UK Gold where it is often shown.

There is little doubt that To The Manor Born, no matter how long it may have taken to finally get made and whatever the changes made, would have been a winner, at least in the UK. Anything with the differences in class in this in this country usually does well in the ratings; maybe that is just the British fascination with the class structure. But without the excellent scripts, settings and performances from the actors, both supporting and leading, it is unlikely to have done as well as it did for as long as it did. It had a charm to the antagonistic relationship between Audrey and Richard which wouldn’t have worked in other situations; in those, it would simply have gone from one massive argument to another with much in the way of repetitive humour along the way. To The Manor Born was never like that. The characters, with all their foibles, had too much charm to them, even if that may now seem a little clichéd. Overall, in my opinion, what the series had, and was, can be summed up by paraphrasing that commercial for Fauntleroy’s Old English Tonic; To The Manor Born - the little aristocrat.

Episode Guide

The series itself didn’t actually feature on-screen titles, and although the BBC is now
adding on-screen titles to repeats of some series that did not originally have them,
the 1999 terrestrial run did not feature them.
The episode titles below are given only for reference.

Series One

1. 30/09/79 The Funeral
2. 07/10/79 Moving Down The Drive
3. 14/10/79 Spring, and Sunday Duties
4. 21/10/79 The Bell Indicator
5. 28/10/79 The Hunt Ball
6. 04/11/79 You Need A Holiday... At Home
7. 11/11/79 Fauntleroy’s Old English Tonic

Christmas Special

-- 25/12/79 The Christmas Crib

Series Two

1. 05/10/80 The Farm Manager
2. 12/10/80 Diana Stays
3. 19/10/80 Antique China
4. 26/10/80 The Tramp
5. 02/11/80 The Knighthood
6. 09/11/80 The Doctor’s Surgery

Series Three

1. 18/10/81 The New Scout Hut
2. 25/10/81 The Closure of Marlbury Station
3. 01/11/81 Helicopters and Horses
4. 08/11/81 The Bee-eater Bird
5. 15/11/81 The Perfume Contract
6. 22/11/81 The Refrigeration Plant
7. 29/11/81 The Wedding

Main Cast & Production Details

Audrey Fforbes-Hamilton ........................................... Penelope Keith
Richard DeVere ............................................................. Peter Bowles
Marjory Frobisher ........................................................ Angela Thorne
Brabinger....................................................................... John Rudling
Mrs. Poluvicka ............................................................. Daphne Heard
Old Ned ........................................................................ Michael Bilton

Brigadier Lemington (ret’d).......................................... Anthony Sharp
The Rector ........................................................................ Gerald Sim
Mrs. Patterson ......................................................... Daphne Oxenford

Mrs. Beacham, manor cook ............................................. Betty Tucker
Spalding, DeVere’s manager ................................................. Ben Aris
Arnold Plunkett, Audrey’s solicitor ........................... Dennis Ramsden
J.J. Anderson, auctioneer & agent .............................. Jonathon Elson
Greville Hartley, Audrey’s great uncle ........................ Ballard Berkley
Gayforth .................................................................. Peter Penry-Jones
Lumsden .......................................................................... John Barron

Written by: Peter Spence ( 20 episodes )
Christopher Bond ( last episode only )

Script Editor / Associate: Christopher Bond

Produced and directed by Gareth Gwenlan

A BBC production 21 x 30 minute episodes

article copyright PPS / M.Hearn 2000