Before settling down to watch Great Houses with Julian Fellowes, I read the reviews. There’s a mixture of responses to last night’s programme it would seem (especially on Twitter), and after watching it for myself, I can see why.
Fellowes is probably the best frontman for an ITV programme about the people who lived and worked in (large) country houses. Great Houses is a two-part series which shares its stories of Burghley House and Goodwood House between episode one and two respectively. It is a pity that more were not included, but being allowed glimpses of Burghley and Goodwood should please some people. Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford DL to give him his full name and title is an actor, writer, novelist, film director and screenwriter, as well as a Conservative Life Peer. His most popular works to date are Gosford Park, The Young Victoria, of course, ITV’s Downton Abbey.
1. Burghley House, Lincolnshire.
Great houses, according to Fellowes are not ‘for posh people to live in – their history belongs to all of us’. This is partly true, as the landed estate and its corresponding pile accommodated a vast number of jobs before the Industrial Revolution. And yet, the programme seemed to highlight the lofty presence of the owners and their sometimes unforgiving influence over the rest of society. The owners of Burghley being explored by Fellowes were William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520-98) and his role in the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, Henry Cecil, 1st Marquess of Exeter (1754-1804) and his relationship with his second wife Sarah Hoggins. Behind the green baize door, Fellowes looked at, amongst others, the ‘savage’ treatment of the Burghley undercook Thomas Brincknell* and his wife, and dairymaid Harriet Clark who concealed her newborn baby in an outbuilding.
Most people according to the world of Fellowes were at the mercy of the Lord or the Marquess. He was quick to add early on however that these were the people governing the country whilst their servants were the ones ‘making the whole thing work’. His mission was therefore not to establish stories we could all relate to, but to pursue a means to an end in enhancing his own fictional characters; in his own words, ’I'm trying to find the real Lord Grantham, the real Lady Mary… the real Bates, the real Anna’.
Apart from the lack of investigation into Burghley’s architectural fabric or its collections, this, I think is where many viewers were split in their opinions because Fellowes appears to have two personas. There is the bumbling British peer who is mildly opinionated, highly educated, and polite. Then there is the contemplative, imaginative and sincere version. Put them together, and it is a recipe for a speculative narrative. Time and again, Fellowes was seen conversing with academics, archivists or librarians in a jolly manner. It was bad enough that no-one seemed bothered about handling the odd document without white gloves, but his jovial indifference was beginning to grate. The unconvinced looks thrown up by those he met with seemed to prove this effect. Fellowes had clearly set out to find snippets of country house history which would support his own ideals, where this wasn’t the case, then why not bend the facts or provide a bit of guess work and go with that?
Admittedly, I am being harsh, because Fellowes is not a historian. Nowhere was this clearer than the moment Fellowes found himself feeling deeply uncomfortable in the local library whilst trying to carry out simple searches. But the programme was no worse for this because Fellowes remained both enthusiastic and charismatic. I like to see history made more accessible, and ITV seems to be leading the way with its popular period dramas. Where the country house fits in with this is something I discussed in an earlier post. Great Houses simply adds a little background to the storytelling, and at least we were able to make the short virtual trips to the house, the archives and the libraries with Fellowes as our guide.
Overall, it’s difficult to place Great Houses with Julian Fellowes. A great deal of what was explored can be found easily on the internet and Burghley’s episodes surrounding Thomas Brincknell in the 16th century or the 1st Marquess in the 18th century have been written about by scholars. It may be a case of simply pointing the way in the quickest way possible and to as many people as possible. There may have been moments where I cringed or was left wanting more, but I will certainly watch the second part about Goodwood. Hopefully, by then, I will have formed a more comprehensive view of the ‘great’ country house and its social history according to Julian Fellowes.
* The murder/manslaughter of Thomas Brincknell actually took place in the yard of Cecil’s London house, and not at Burghley House which was still unfinished at the date of the incident in 1567.
Stephen Alford, Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I, (2011)
Andrew Harris, The Vernons of Hanbury Hall, (2012).
Elisabeth Inglis-Jones, The Lord of Burghley, (1964).
Alan H. Nelson, Monstrous Adversary: The Life of Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, (2003).
Daphne Pearson, Edward De Vere (1550-1604): The Crisis And Consequences Of Wardship, (2005).
Hank Whittemore, Shakepeare’s Sonnets Never Before Imprinted, (2005).
See also, ‘The Cottage Countess’ by Tennyson (first published 1842), which tells the story of Sarah Hoggins.
An honest, down-to-earth review by Veronica Lee at The Arts Desk http://www.theartsdesk.com/tv/great-houses-julian-fellowes-itv1
Radio Times Review (with interesting comments) http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2013-01-22/julian-fellowes-tracks-down-a-country-house-scandal-worthy-of-downton-abbey
A disappointingly childish review from The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2013/jan/22/tv-review-great-houses-julian-fellowes
A short review of the first programme from Burghley in The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/9819146/Great-Houses-with-Julian-Fellowes-ITV-review.html
General review from The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/artsandculture/9818183/Great-Houses-with-Julian-Fellowes-small-stories-for-stately-homes.html#