Television Review

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The Independent Culture
SEVERAL WEEKS ago, I pledged to keep you up to date with Lady T's workload. Lady T is the Marchioness of Tavistock, the undisputed star of Country House (BBC2). Earlier in this gripping portrait of life at Woburn Abbey, she claimed that she has "been working here for 23 years". At that point, the only evidence that she ever lifted a finger was the sight of her doing her needlework. A fortnight ago, Lady T recalled overhearing two ladies nattering while they looked round the Abbey. Of course, they said loudly, she doesn't do a stroke of work. Lady T was not pleased. Indeed, as she recalled the slight, she even worked herself up into a bit of a strop. And that was her work for the day.

As the series moves towards its finish, the precise nature of Lady T's work is only now becoming clear. While the Labour government jostles to remove the voting rights of hereditary peers in the House of Lords, Country House has stealthily inserted a stick of gelignite under the institution of aristocracy. Lady T is the pack-mule who doesn't realise that the explosive has been strapped to her back. That is her work.

Last week's episode reported on the culling of some of Woburn's magnificent herd of deer. The deerkeeper explained his decision to shoot one sexually-inactive old male. "The animal has had a good life in the park," he said. "It's come to the end of its time and there's no better way for it to go really. It doesn't know anything. It doesn't even hear the bang." Out of the mouths of deerkeepers... As this long and intimate portrait of their daily ease is broadcast, you wonder whether the Tavistocks can hear the bang. Before the fatal blast, the camera even stared down the barrel of the gun, affording an aristocrat's-eye view of social change. (The antlers, by the way, are sent to Korea to be ground down into aphrodisiacs.)

The series has worked hard to ferret out tensions between the plebeian and the ermined. Last week, the Tavistocks wanted to create an open-cast mine, which would deposit an almighty eyesore outside the windows of people to whom they had sold houses. Meanwhile, back at the Abbey, the Marchioness was in dispute with a mandarin from English Heritage who wouldn't let her move an ornate garden bench to where she could see it from her bedroom window. This is a highly collectable example of what you might call attempted double nimbyism, in which the perpetrator tries to feather his or her own nest while crapping next to someone else's.

In the end the mine project was abandoned, but this week the Tavistocks were building a golf course. Their third. The Marquess was delighted to learn that the course will be called The Marquess. The project is being marshalled by his son and heir, Lord Howland, who pooh-poohed local objections to the destruction of woodland with the explanation that "the natural landscape has changed since the Ice Age". I have a vision of prehistoric man clearing forest to create the first dog-leg par five. At the tee-off, he presumably used a wooden club.

The other star of Country House is the parish clerk, Wendie Mills. There is nothing this woman will not stop at to get noticed on television. She poses nude for the local life class. So most of her appearances on Country House have been conducted in the buff, apart from the time she went to the Abbey to make a video of the deer herd. She borrowed a pair of antlers from the deerkeeper's collection and clamped them to her head "so I can see what it's like to be a deer". She tried to stalk her way into the herd. "With a bit of luck," she mused, "they might think I'm one of them."

At the end of last week she had an aneurysm, and you half-suspected that she had arranged it so as not to be written out of the series. Last night she was back, totally starkers. It's a mark of how cleverly producer Nigel Farrell has charmed his way into the fabric of Woburn life that the estate manager told him about Wendie's brain haemorrhage, and Farrell then informed the Tavistocks. The result is a series so full of delightful detail that it could almost be one of Lady T's needlepoints: the stitchwork is that subtle.

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