Television Review

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The Independent Culture
IN LAST NIGHT'S episode of Country House (BBC2), Richard the cook was sacked. He had been at Woburn Abbey for only six weeks, his family was nicely settled into the cottage which comes with the job, and his child was due to start at the local nursery. But it was regrettably apparent to Lady Tavistock that he would never become what she likes to call a Woburn person. "He really is a very, very good cook," she explained, only slightly distracted by her needlepoint. "But we sadly came to the conclusion that mutually - both for him, and probably for us - it would be better if he took a job that wasn't quite as big." That "probably" was exquisite, a cushion deftly inserted into the sentence to soften the blow. Coming from the Marchioness, it would have been a beautifully embroidered cushion, if her skill at stitching herself up is anything to go by.

Lady T, as everyone calls her, is television's newest star. She talks with the minimum of lip movement, so that her vowels are pinched to within a millimetre of their lives. Her eyes are set high in her face, as if they've arranged to slink off for a roll in the hair. But her most blue- blooded trait is the delusion that privilege is synonymous with toil. "I've now been working here for 23 years," she said. I took the word "working" to mean "functioning", as in "the photocopier is working", but she presumably doesn't see it that way. I will be watching the entire series to keep you posted about her workload. This week, apart from firing the chef, she offered champagne to a coach-load of visitors on a private, and no doubt very expensive, tour of the abbey. Then she took tea with the Hunters, the local tenant farmers who are having problems with raves. "They're old friends," she volunteered. They're such old friends that she calls him Mr Hunter and he calls her Lady T.

Documentaries about grand houses are almost as traditional as the houses themselves. Their long-established role is to observe the ways in which forelock-tugging jobsworths dramatise their every workaday tasks as being either a problem or a difficulty or a crisis. Television aids and abets this fantasy of self-importance, creating cliffhangers out of the most nugatory moments of tension. This week, a skeleton was found on Woburn land by the gas board. Out came the police, the coroner, and the general manager of the estate. Even the camera-shy Marquess emerged from his hidey-hole to witness this important non-event. It was almost as gripping as an episode of Dangerfield. The general manager explained that not many people on the estate had heard about the body. "The Marchioness doesn't like things talked about," he intimated. We cut inevitably to Laura and Joan, the geriatric loo-cleaners, gossiping about none other than that selfsame skeleton. In Woburn, everyone knows where the bodies are buried.

Meanwhile, over at Hampton Court Palace (C4, every weekday), the workforce is twice as large at more than 500, and the volume of grumbling exponentially greater. In the programme's second week, they were mounting the annual music festival, giving the needle on the whingeometer an almighty nudge. "We're under the microscope," complained the gardener. "Nightmare venue," moaned the head chef. The house-keeping manager fretted about champagne flutes staining the window seats. And if there's nothing else to whine about, the weather is a reliable standby. You wonder whether Sue Cook, the presenter, is simply briefed to go up to people and say, "Excuse me, I wonder if you could gripe into this microphone for two minutes?" The convention of these little narratives is as rigid and predictable as fairytales. Once upon a time there was a daunting task, but the crisis was averted and they all lived happily ever after.

Apart from that, it's quite an interesting series. There's a Sunday omnibus if, for some extraordinary reason, you can't be near a television every afternoon at 3.30pm. The best bit about it so far has been the discovery that Norman Willis, former leader of the TUC, shares a passion with Lady Tavistock. He is a member of the embroiderers' guild, which runs sessions at Hampton Court. He did a bit of needlepoint, he admitted here, during Nelson Mandela's presidential investiture. Perhaps he and Lady T ought to compare notes on cross-stitching at staggeringly inappropriate moments.