In 1968 writer Peter Spence wrote a radio series for Penelope Keith and Bernard Braden in which she played a superior upper-class widow who has to move out of her stately manor when her husband dies, leaving her with mounting debts, and he as the American businessman who purchases her former home. To make matters worse, Keith's character, Audrey fforbes-Hamilton, can only afford to live, rent-free, within the grounds of her former estate in a humble coach-house. A pilot show was recorded and in due course...completely forgotten about (never even being aired) for almost eleven years. During that time Penelope Keith was elevated to national celebrity status by the hit BBC sitcom The Good Life, in which her character, Margo, was no doubt based (if only in part) on the fforbes-Hamilton role that almost never was.
When The Good Life finally ended in 1978, the BBC, eager to cash in on Penelope Keith's popularity, wiped the dust off To The Manor Born, brought in experienced comedy producer Christopher Bond, and made one or two character changes in order to transfer the sitcom (which had by now appeared in printed form) to television.
The first change was the character of Richard Devere (superbly realised by the super-smooth Peter Bowles), who changed nationality from American to English -but with distant Czech ancestry. Accompanying fforbes-Hamilton is her loyal but decrepit butler, Brabinger (John Rudling) and her close friend Marjory Frobisher (Angela Thorne), who is far more tolerant of Devere, who Audrey sees as both common and vulgar. Eventually though, as in all good love stories, the two antagonists mellow towards each other and fall in love, until, in the final episode (three series later), they get married and go off to live happily ever-after.
To the Manor Born was another comedic resounding success for the channel that specialised in comedic resounding successes, attracting audiences of up to and sometimes over 20 million viewers. The final episode, aired on 29 November 1981, pulled in an audience of 24 million, a record for a sitcom that stood for fifteen years before being overtaken by Only Fools and Horses. In January 1997 To the Manor Born came full circle when ten episodes (six adaptations and four specially written) aired on BBC Radio 2, with both Keith and Thorn reprising their roles, and Keith Baron stepping in for Peter Bowles.
Published on February 8th, 2019. Written by Laurence Marcus (2001) for Television Heaven.