Photo: BBC

The Manor To Which We've Become Accustomed

To The Manor Born, the ultimate Must-Sleep TV series, deserves placement on a legitimate streaming site.

The Show: To The Manor Born (1979-81)

The Concept: Set in the lush English countryside with the boxy hedgerows that don't seem to horticulturally exist outside of the British Isles, To The Manor Born is the television equivalent of hot tea and buttered toast. Recently widowed and shocked to find herself in crippling debt, the charmingly xenophobic Audrey fforbes-Hamilton (Penelope Keith) is distraught when she has to sell her manor house and move down the drive to The Old Lodge, a tiny "rabbit hutch" of a dwelling on Grantleigh Manor's property. Adding insult to injury, the new millionaire owner of Granleigh Manor, Richard Devere (Peter Bowles), isn't even Somebody. Rather than getting his wealth via the only acceptable means of land or family, Devere's self-made riches come from his grocery store empire. Of course, for all of you who have read your Jane Austen, this means he's in (shudder) trade. Even worse, he ISN'T EVEN ENGLISH. The three-season series follows the combative and eventually romantic relationship between close-minded, conservative Audrey and dashing, flashy Richard as both are grudgingly pushed to overcome their pride and prejudice.

Opening Credits Cast: Aside from Bowles and Keith (the latter of whom was already well-known on Brit TV for starring in the popular Good Neighbors series): Angela Thorne appears as Audrey's dumpy and endearingly spineless old school chum, Marjorie, who yearns quietly after Richard but who sadly doesn't possess enough of Audrey's steamrolling oomph to stand a real chance with him; Daphne Heard as Mrs. "Poo" Polouvicka, Richard's force-to-be-reckoned-with Czechoslovakian mother whose accent is as strong as her determination to get her son and Audrey together; John Rudling as Brabinger, Audrey's long-suffering, underpaid, and adorably loyal butler; and Gerald Sim, who played many vicars, ministers, and other men-of-the-cloth in his time, appears as the slightly sniveling village rector.

Notable Guest Stars: A still-spry Ballard Berkeley, who was the the always-drunk and frequently-racist Major Gowen on Fawlty Towers, plays Audrey's wealthy uncle. Also look for an embryonic Celia Imrie to make two appearances and who, in her extremely minor role as Polly, manages to imbue her pert working-class character with sly seductiveness.

Why It's In TV Jail: Unknown. While it's available to rent on DVD, To The Manor Born has never been available on a video streaming site. (Exception noted: YouTube, of which more later.) It doesn't seem to have much to do with popularity or renown, since a large variety of Brit comedy series are available on Netflix Instant, including both the well-known ones (Blackadder and Fawlty Towers), and the less well-known, like the Judi Dench/Geoffrey Palmer series As Time Goes By.

Why It Deserves Parole: I know that I'm taking in a lot of territory here, but To The Manor Born is quite possibly my favorite television show. As in "ever." The nights I was allowed to stay up late to watch it on PBS with my parents taught me everything I ever needed to know about English life. I soon learned about Hunt Balls, twitchers, the defining gentility of a finely made cucumber sandwich, and the Brit obsession with cricket, badgers, birthright, and sherry.

While it is quieter comedy than the manic Fawlty Towers, To The Manor Born is still awash in dry British wit. The first time you see Audrey at her husband's funeral, she's smiling under her widow's veil, after which she briskly thanks the rector for a "lovely funeral," adding, "We must have one again some time." At once gentle and hilarious, memorable lines like "I'm not usually given to crying. It's only since we joined the Common Market that I've picked up this dreadful habit" and "To think that Grantleigh is in the hands of a man who has no interest in farming, doesn't go to church, and now, it turns out, hasn't heard of Winnie the Pooh" give you a snapshot look at English country life in the late '70s with its social mores, quirks, customs, and, well...Britishiness.

To the Manor Born has done its time on occasional PBS furloughs but it's not enough, it deserves greater freedom and a better chance to serve the uninitiated public. They'll be better for their exposure to it.

Recommendation: Though every episode is watchable on YouTube via the probably not actually legal ToTheManorBornTV channel (that it doesn't come up when you search TTMB on online streaming resources like TV.com is telling as to its legitimacy), it feels a bit off to watch it over there. (Plus, YouTube won't stop showing me the Miracle Blanket commercial every time I want to watch something.) To The Manor Born is the ultimate Must-Sleep TV, and as such needs to be set free to stream on Netflix.

For Emmy Nomination Week we ask:

Which British or part-British 2013 nominee is most indispensable?

  • Downton Abbey
  • Game Of Thrones
  • Dancing With The Stars (based on a British format!)
  • Orphan Black (robbed!)