IoS television review: The Aristocrats: Blenheim Palace, Channel 4, Thursday
From Lord's to the Ring, Sky 1, Thursday

The burden of Blenheim Palace was revealed in the first of a new series about Britain's top toffs

The recipe for a good story, as Julian Fellowes can tell you, is blindingly simple. Take one big house, throw in a dysfunctional family, add some financial worries, then garnish with a big question mark over the inheritance. The tale of Blenheim Palace has all that and more: a druggy son, a dukedom, and even a walk-on part for David Cameron. It knocks Downton into a cocked hat.

And so began The Aristocrats: Blenheim Palace, the first in a series of studies of Britain's premier toffs by the Bafta-winning documentary-maker, Patrick Forbes. Blenheim's current custodian, the 11th Duke of Marlborough, John Spencer-Churchill, has run the Oxfordshire estate for 40 years, and a good job he has done too. Despite having 187 rooms and 11,500 acres to maintain, Blenheim is profitable and in tip-top condition. Trouble is, Sunny, as he is known (short for one of his titles, Earl of Sunderland), is 86, and his son, the Marquess of Blandford, is the wastrel former coke addict who has been in prison three times. In 1994, Sunny made legal history by successfully disinheriting him, making relations somewhat tense.

Not surprisingly, the Spencer-Churchills aren't keen on publicity, so it was a coup for Forbes that they let him film for a year. His second triumph was finding a small scoop: Blandford has been clean for five years, and the Duke has reversed his decision to disinherit him. He will get the whole lot on his father's death though, like his father, he will have to report to a board of trustees.

The contrast between father and son could not have been better conceived by Chekhov. Sunny is of the same mould as the Queen: dutiful and proper, with a trim moustache, one who, in the manner of many who run big houses, spends his time noticing the little things that need to be done. His obsession is the verges, which must be neatly clipped. Jamie, on the other hand, is raddled and vague, a blundering hooray with half-baked ideas of grandeur. "What I'd really like to do is put in a giant fountain," he blathers. "Like the one Lord Wemyss has at Stanway: something that shoots 400 feet into the air, a ninth wonder of the world!"

Forbes spent seven months filming the Duke before he was granted access to his son. You can see why: despite making an effort not to make a fool of himself, Blandford can't help the odd gaffe; he reveals that he lobbied David Cameron for a grant towards a dam that needed rebuilding. At times, it was excruciating to watch – not just him, but because you could hear Forbes's weaselly questions, as he tried to coax Blandford into making a fresh blunder.

Still, for all the tinkling harpsichord music and slavering shots of Blenheim, Forbes's film shows that inheriting a Vanbrugh palace isn't as much fun as it sounds: that's one big albatross to have around your neck. As the family joke goes: the 1st Duke won the battle of Blenheim, the rest of the family is fighting it. Blandford would still clearly rather party than worry about lavatory blocks, and in that you can feel some sympathy for him. Some houses are just too big to live in, and according to Hugo Vickers, who knows about these things, seven out of 11 dukes have been depressed living there. You feel less sympathy (and some vertigo) when Blandford announces that he'd quite like to go into politics. It strikes me that running a big estate is rather similar to being an MP: glamorous from the outside, but the reality is a lot of admin and fixing blocked drains.

Fulfilling a mad ambition is what Freddie Flintoff has been doing since March. The ex-England cricketer decided, at 34, to become a professional boxer, and has spent eight months training for his fight on Friday. Like so many sports movies, From Lord's to the Ring followed a familiar arc from blind optimism through doubts to finally facing the big day. We even got the obligatory montage, fast-forwarding through months of gruelling training.

The question isn't so much if he's up to it physically, but if he can do it mentally. As his trainer, Barry McGuigan, wonders: "Is he too nice?" He certainly seems it, especially when talking about being bullied as a boy and the pain of seeing headlines like "Not bad for a fat lad" early on. Even if he is demolished on Friday, his reputation has been restored – as sport's most lovable rogue. He's funny, open, self-effacing and thoroughly likeable. And he's candid about his drinking too, which he's obviously had to give up. "If I don't have a drink for four and a half months, I'll be ready to punch someone", he quips. I know I wouldn't want to be in that ring on Friday.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?