"Underneath this stone is where I would like to have my heart," said Mary-Anne Robb, pointing to a large birdbath. "I've asked the butcher... He's going to cut out my heart and I'm going to have a very, very beautiful box made for it." Mary-Anne did not look like the type that any sensible tradesman would lightly contradict, but there was a problem with her funeral arrangements. Cothay Manor in Somerset – the beautiful medieval house that she and her husband, Alastair, had laboriously rescued from decay – is costing the Robbs a small fortune. Neither of them is getting younger, and if they don't sign the house over to one of their children soon, there is an ever-increasing chance that the heir will be landed with a £1m tax bill and Mary-Anne's heartland might end up in the hands of some Russian oligarch. Enter Ruth Watson, Channel 4's Hotel Inspector, crunching up the gravel drive in her Range Rover to advise on visitor exploitation and peripheral sales in a new series called Country House Rescue.
Ruth Watson isn't a woman you'd lightly contradict either, but she'd met her match in Mary-Anne, one of those fearsome Englishwomen who don't appear to set much store by sentiment. "I don't think you should live your lives entirely for your children... They must Make... Their... Own.. Way," she announced brusquely, when discussing the slightly awkward fact that the heirs were being less than enthusiastic about their inheritance. The two eldest boys had declined to be named as sole inheritor of Cothay, the eldest daughter had her hands full with her husband's 900-acre estate, and Charlie, the youngest, was looking decidedly queasy at the prospect of taking on her parents' lovely white elephant and being plunged into a maelstrom of sibling recrimination. Mary-Anne wasn't sympathetic: "I think Charlie's making rather a to-do about it... If you're the lucky one, then you're the lucky one." Watson's tentative suggestions that a family meeting might resolve the dilemma met with speaking looks from the junior Robbs: "I think it would be like an atom bomb going off," said one.
Solving the business's problems wasn't exactly rocket science. Peel away the air of aristocratic disdain for the grubby business of earning enough to keep the roof over your head, tart up the tearoom, and funnel visitors through the plant nursery in an application of the "sheep-dip" principle employed by other country houses. The problem was getting Mary-Anne to agree to these fairly obvious ideas. When Watson mentioned the tearoom, her eyes flicked upwards in contempt. "I know food is becoming increasingly popular..." she conceded wearily, as if eating cakes was a modern fad, and she for one would prefer not to encourage this deplorable development in British manners. When Watson suggested a sculpture show to attract new visitors to the garden, she bridled warily at the prospect of invasion: "I certainly don't want modern blobs," she said. She compromised on that declaration, but I wouldn't want to give the impression that she had in any way gone soft. One guest at the sculpture event got a taste of her brusque approach to customer relations after he'd unwisely got a bit enthusiastic at the free buffet. "One cake per person," she snapped, refusing to let him pass until she'd picked the excess pastries off his plate. There's no way the house and gardens would look as beautiful as they now do without that steely determination, but I don't think he'll be back in a hurry.
Rex Bloomstein's An Independent Mind, shown in the True Stories strand, was a tribute to backbone, too, profiling eight individuals who, whatever you thought of their views, had shown a certain resilience in expressing them. It opened with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression", and it implicitly defended that right without dodging the fact that there's nothing in the text that says the opinions must be nice or tasteful. Some of those featured here had stood up against tyrannical governments, such as an African reggae singer called Tiken Jah Fakoly, who'd had the temerity to remind a coup leader about the promises he made on taking power. Others had inherited the task of speaking truth to power, such as Marielos Monzon, whose determination to write the truth about Guatemalan death squads had survived her own father's murder and the armed intimidation of her own children.
Bloomstein's film, though, also included a Basque heavy-metal group who'd got in trouble for a song about killing police informers and a Chinese blogger who just wanted to write about her energetic sex life. Most significantly, he ended his film with David Irving, imprisoned in Austria for speeches about the Holocaust and Hitler. He predicted on screen that this was a decision for which many of his friends would criticise him, but he was absolutely right to do it. Even for offensive opinions, contradiction is the cure, not gagging.Reuse content