Show of the week: Secrets of the Manor House

Secrets of the Manor HouseA A rather dry documentary that manages to be both interesting and a missed opportunity.Tuesday, SBS One, 7.30pm
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Let me paint a picture for you, dear reader, of a time when a small number of the population controlled the majority of the wealth. They lived in opulent houses, hosted extravagant parties, their morals were loose (what happened behind closed doors, ahem, stayed behind doors closed by the butler) and behaved as if there were no tomorrow, no looming threat that could threaten their golden lifestyles.

It is not a scene from The Real Housewives of Melbourne, but Edwardian England (roughly between 1901 and 1914), where the aristocrats lavished their wealth on architecturally designed horse stables while paying their kitchen maid about $28 a year (no word if that included penalty rates).

Such is the scene set in Secrets of the Manor House, a rather dry documentary that manages to be both interesting and a missed opportunity.

With period dramas such as Downton Abbey and Mr Selfridge leading the charge for all things Edwardian, the producers behind Secrets of the Manor House must have thought putting this together would be as easy as Bates poisoning his ex-wife in Downton – an opportunity too good to miss.

Unfortunately, good intentions don’t always pay off (again, see Bates), as any interesting information is overwhelmed by one too many historians and shots of dried-out horse teeth.

Even Lord and Lady Palmer, the present-day occupiers of the featured manor, the sumptuous Manderston House in Berwickshire, and their butler of 25 years standing, Geoffrey Dymond, fail to raise any interest. As Lord Palmer totters around, casually pointing out the gold and silver drapes made for $1.5 million, it’s yawn-worthy.

But what it does do is debunk any notion that the occupants of these grand houses had any care for the armies of servants that kept the whole operation ticking over.

Typically, housemaids worked 17-hour days and were neither seen nor heard. Yes, ladies and gentleman, in real life the cross-pollination between servant and master probably wouldn’t have happened (example #294 of how Downton has lied to us).

While war and diminishing incomes eventually led to the downfall of many grand houses, what should not be overlooked is the role technology played in freeing the lower classes. Maids could then leave what was essentially a life of servitude and forge a future for themselves as typists, for instance. And the lure of life in a classless United States became accessible thanks to ships such as the Titanic (that, of course, is another story entirely).

So, yes, come for the history, the dinky footage of women in full-length dresses and bustles playing tennis, but stay, as always, for the revolution.

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