Secrets of the Manor House looks beyond the fiction to the truth of how life was in these ancient British houses, and how mounting financial, political and social pressures were about to bring momentous changes to both the wealthy and their servants.
This somewhat poignant PBS special recalls the manor tradition that has inspired class-conscious British serials from Upstairs Downstairs to Downton Abbey. The narrative concentrates on the early 1900s, when dukes, earls, barons, and other aristocrats owned as much as 50 percent of the land. Just as they formed part of a hierarchy, their servants followed suit, with housekeepers and butlers at the top and kitchen and scullery maids at the bottom, but the program gives both sides their due by speaking with royals and staffers, like Lord and Lady Palmer of the 109-room Manderston House and their butler, Geoffrey Dymond (other properties include Petworth House, Dunham Massey, and Cragside). Today's manor life, however, seems sedate compared to the Edwardian era, when costume balls were all the rage, but the high times took a hit during land reform. Though an influx of American money revived some fortunes, like that of the Churchill family, which produced the future prime minister, servants also sought to better their situation, either by protesting for change or by moving abroad (sadly, many lost their lives when the Titanic went down). And then World War I arrived, and the aristocracy never recovered. The speakers, a combination of authors and academics, define terms like entailment, the prevention of land-selling by heirs, and primogeniture, the custom by which a first-born son inherits the estate--a key Downton Abbey plot point--making this release a good bet for historians and costume-drama fans alike. --Kathleen C. Fennessy