Category Archives: Film and TV

Consuelo Vanderbilt to the Rescue

La Duchess de Marlborough, Helleu, 1901, Public Domain

La Duchess de Marlborough, Helleu, 1901, Public Domain

Julian Fellowes, creator of the television hit Downton Abbey, did not invent the story of an American heiress bringing her fortune to the rescue of an aristocratic British family of declining fortunes. Fortune-hunting Brits, titled but poor, regularly patrolled the upper reaches of American society for rich brides.  Consuelo Vanderbilt was one of those real-life brides. She became the very reluctant wife of the 9th Duke of Marlborough.

By all accounts, Consuelo was one of the loveliest and most charming women of her age. The playwright Sir James Barrie, author of Peter Pan, famously wrote, “I would wait all night in the rain, to see Consuelo Marlborough get into her carriage.” She was also sweet, compliant, and dominated by her mother Alva Vanderbilt.

Alva was formidable.  She was estranged from her husband, the fabulously rich railroad man who, among other feats, created Madison Square Garden.  He was a grandson of the dynasty’s founder, Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt, and inherited the equivalent of about $1.4 billion in today’s money. Alva divorced him for adultery and landed a settlement of the equivalent of $280 million in today’s money.  Alva named her daughter after her godmother, a half-Cuban American socialite who had made a spectacular marriage into the family of the Duke of Manchester.

Alva expected no less of her beautiful daughter Consuelo. She forced Consuelo into a brilliant but doomed marriage with the 9th Duke, who didn’t want the marriage any more than Consuelo did. Alva actually placed her daughter under house arrest in her bedroom, keeping her away from the man she loved, until the tearful teenager finally agreed to marry the Duke of Marlborough.  Consuelo wept behind her wedding veil at the 1895 ceremony in New York. She was just 18 at the time. The Duke wasted no time in collecting her dowry, the equivalent of $67 million dollars, which he sorely needed to maintain the family seat at Blenheim Palace. The money lasted until around 1950, when declining fortunes forced the house to open to the paying public.

Duke of Marlborough and His Family, John SInger Sargent, 1905, Public Domain

Duke of Marlborough and His Family, John SInger Sargent, 1905, Public Domain

Consuelo did her duty, producing the required “heir and a spare.” By some accounts, she invented the famous expression. Predictably, the marriage ended in separation in 1906, divorce in 1921, and finally annullment in 1926, after Alva admitted that she had been wrong to force the marriage. Consuelo forgave her domineering mother and they developed a close relationship.

Consuelo with WInston Churchill at Blenheim, Public Domain

Consuelo with WInston Churchill at Blenheim, Public Domain

Consuelo became a close friend of Sir Winston Churchill, who was born at Blenheim in 1874 and remained a frequent visitor there all his life. While she was the Duchess, she worked to improve the lives of the poor around the estate and in the town of Woodstock.  It appears she was universally adored.  Later in life, she continued her good works, even as she took part in glittering society.  Her second marriage was happy, and she lived out her days in contentment. She died in New York at age 87.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

What are Plus Fours Anyway?

Photo from Daily Mail article cited below

Photo from Daily Mail article cited below

The media coverage of the late 11th Duke of Marlborough’s death made much of the fact that his pallbearers were Palace gamekeepers, or maybe groundskeepers, dressed in “traditional plus fours.”  I looked at the photos and all I saw was short pants worn with knee-high socks that seemed to slightly clash with the pants.  It turns out “plus fours” have a very specific definition: pants that are carefully tailored exactly four inches below the knee.They’ve been worn by British sportsmen since about 1860. The Duke himself very likely wore them when out hunting on his lands.

During his visit to America in 1924, the raffish Edward, Prince of Wales, famously wore plus fours. (He later briefly became Kind Edward VIII, until he famously abdicated in order to marry the divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson). His short pants gave him a sort of free-wheeling look that fit right in with the Roaring Twenties.  After Edward made his way back home across the pond, his stylish short pants caught on, especially with golfers and with anyone else who wanted to flout convention.  (I can well imagine F. Scott Fitzgerald sporting a pair).

I generally expect pallbearers to be close friends or relatives of the deceased.  It seems that having one’s groundskeepers perform the task must be a privilege and mark of very high status. After all, how many of us even have extensive grounds, let alone uniformed groundskeepers to tend them?  There’s also the implication that the Duke’s relatives are above any sort of menial task.

I’m reminded of the custom that shocked Consuelo Vanderbilt when she arrived as a young American bride at Blenheim, freshly married to the 9th Duke of Marlborough. A carriage met the newlyweds’ train in Woodstock.  Approaching Blenheim, men from the estate unhitched the horses and pulled the carriage through the grand palace gates. Things like that didn’t happen where Consuelo came from.

Photo from Daily Mail article cited below

Photo from Daily Mail article cited below

Anyway, the Duke’s employees seem a very happy lot.  When I was in Woodstock last month, all the palace employees I encountered seemed extremely cheerful–and that is not always the case with people who attend the high and mighty.  I think the late Duke was a hands-on sort of man, genuinely loved by many.

As an American, I don’t suppose I’ll ever fully understand the subtleties of the British class system.  I do appreciate certain little perks.  For example, the late Duke’s name was John George Vanderbilt Henry Spencer-Churchill.  But his title gave him the right to use a most elegant signature:  he simply signed his name “Marlborough.” Now that’s class.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2806349/Flag-half-mast-Blenheim-Palace-Mourners-line-route-funeral-cortege-11th-Duke-Marlborough-died-aged-88.html

Thinking About “Columbus Day”

images

Monday, October 13 is Columbus Day across the United States.  However, not everyone feels like celebrating the “discovery” of continents where well-developed civilizations already existed.  In Minneapolis, where I spend a lot of time, the City Council voted in April 2014 to substitute “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” for Columbus Day.

Thinking about controversies surrounding Christopher Columbus, I went back and watched a great film, The Mission. The British film was made in 1986 from a script by Robert Bold, directed by Roland Joffe. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and an Academy award for cinematography.  It’s a somewhat-fictionalized version of events that actually took place in the 1750s, in the mountains of Paraguay. The story is taken from the book “The Lost Cities of Paraguay” by Father C. J. McNaspy, S.J., who was also a consultant on the film. For me, the story dramatizes some of the heartbreaking conflicts between missionaries and politicians in the colonial period. Conflicts surrounding the exploitation of native lands and peoples continue in our time.

IronsFlute

The main character, Father Gabriel, is played by Jeremy Irons.  The character is based on a real-life Paraguayan Jesuit, Father Roque Gonzalez de Santa Cruz, who became a saint. After a priest in his charge is martyred by a Guarani tribe above a perilous waterfall, Father Gabriel climbs up the steep stone face carrying nothing but a flute.  Warriors surround him as he sits on a rock and plays.  It turns out they love music; they let him stay, and he develops a mission that helps them in material as well as spiritual ways. They are not exploited. Instead, they prosper.

The outside world arrives in the form of a mercenary soldier played by Robert de Niro. He has a lucrative sideline in the slave trade.  He sets a huge net as a trap in the jungle; soon he has a netful of tribe members, and he hauls them off like so many rabbits, to be sold into slavery. Soon afterward, he murders his brother in a jealous rage. Although he is acquitted, he experiences remorse for the first time in his life.  Father Gabriel, on a visit to the city, challenges the mercenary to atone for his sins and change his life.  As penance, the mercenary hauls his net, loaded with all his armor and possessions, tied to a rope and dragging behind him.  He climbs up to the mission above the falls, fully expecting to be shunned or even killed.  He is amazed and humbled when the tribe members forgive and welcome him; over time, he becomes a Jesuit himself. Liam Neeson is excellent as a young Jesuit, in one of his earliest roles.

The rest of the movie concerns further encroachments of the outside world.  Father Gabriel’s mission–and six others like it–are under the protection of Spain, which outlaws slavery.  In 1750, the Treaty of Madrid gives part of Paraguay to Portugal, which encourages slavery. Suddenly, the missions are ordered to close. The Church cannot risk allowing the Jesuits to violate the treaty; the Spanish could shut down their order entirely if they resist. Other religious orders could be barred from the colonies.

Father Gabriel and his Jesuits have to make agonizing choices.  A joint army from Portugal and Spain is ordered to clear out the missions in Portuguese territory. Should the missionaries abandon their mission and the Guarani people they have come to love?  Should they help the Guarani resist, using modern warfare techniques?  Should they resort to peaceful resistance? Would peaceful resistance have any chance? If not, should they sacrifice themselves by trying peaceful resistance anyway?

"The Mission" poster

“The Mission” poster

The film is available at Amazon. The story of the colonization of the “New World” is complex, The great colonial powers of England, Spain, France, and Portugal set out explicitly to exploit whatever they found in the “New World,” people and resources alike. But the members of the various religious orders set out for the colonies with a sincere desire to improve the lives of the people, however misguided their methods were at times.  They were able to do a lot of good that remains to this day. A film like “The Mission” invites us to share in the moral quandaries of times past, and to think about those of the modern world.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

 

 

 

“The Age of Innocence”

The_Age_Of_Innocence

One movie I’ll watch over and over:  “The Age of Innocence,” directed by Martin Scorcese in 1993.  It’s a gorgeously realized version of the great novel by Edith Wharton.

It stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer, a passionate but repressed man of New York’s upper classes.  His life seems tranquil, with its course set in stone by his engagement to the lovely and sweet May Welland, played fetchingly by Winona Ryder. But her beautiful cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, returns to New York in flight from a terrible marriage to a Polish count who has stolen her fortune and abused her.

Newland, the family lawyer, helps the Countess get legally free of the Count, but falls hopelessly in love with her, and she with him.  It’s touch and go, but he honorably chooses to marry May as planned. The story is about the terrible costs of following social convention instead of following one’s heart.

The movie was nominated for several Academy awards, and won for Best Costume Design.  The acting and storytelling are flawless.  The fine actress Joanne Woodward supplies the ironic but compassionate narration, beautifully weaving in the words of Edith Wharton herself. After several viewings, I still tear up at certain points.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, which has often intertwined with American history.

Angel with a Shot Glass

Want an antidote to the recent overload of royal news?  I just saw a wonderful movie about a group of people about as far from the doings of the aristocracy as it’s possible to get in the British Isles.

Movie poster, from NYT review cited below

Movie poster, from NYT review cited below

The Angels’ Share, directed by Ken Loach, takes its title from the traditional name for the 2 percent of the volume of single malt whiskey that somehow gets absorbed or evaporates from every barrel distilled. The movie opens in a Glasgow courtroom, where asorted young petty criminals are being sentenced to community service for their misdeeds.  The most serious offender is a young man named Robbie.  For no good reason other than generalized rage, he has mercilessly beaten another young man to a pulp.  His victim has lost the sight in one eye.  And this is only the last in a long string of violent offenses.  By rights, he should be sent to prison.  But sitting in the courtroom is his girlfriend, about to have his baby at any moment.  The judge gives him a break:  he’s off to community service with the others.

The girlfriend is middle-class, smart and tough with Robbie.  He is strictly on probation with her, though she loves him.  Her family not only detests him, but chases him down and beats him up.  Her father tries to pay him off to disappear.  But the girlfriend sees something in Robbie, and he sees something in her and the newborn son.  He just needs a break.

How many caper movies have you seen where the hero just needs to pull off one more crime in order to escape from his past forever?  How many times have you seen it work? In this movie, miraculously and hilariously, it does work.  Robbie and his misfit friends are taken under the wing of the kindly but tough supervisor of their community service.  He happens to be a devotee of fine whiskies.  After sharing a congratulatory drink with Robbie on the birth of his new son, the supervisor invites him to a very posh whiskey-tasting event in Edinburgh.  His new friends Rhino, Albert and Mo invite themselves along, and we’re off.  It seems Robbie has an incredible nose for fine whiskey–totally unexpected in a young man who previously spent most of his life getting plastered on whatever was cheap.  He also has a fine analytical mind and a talent for leadership.

The version I saw had subtitles, and it needed them.  The Scottish low-life brogue used by the characters is fast-moving, profane, and howlingly funny.  The very dimmest bulb of the group comes up with the very best idea:  wearing kilts to pull off a daring heist.

The story is a bit of a fairy tale; the crime is pretty much victimless.  What is special is the look inside the lives of lower-class Scottish youth, contrasted with the lives of much more refined Scots, Brits, and one American with way too much money. Who knew that whiskey had such an intricate and proud history?  Who knew that single malt whiskey is a way of literally tasting history?

The movie won the Jury Prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.  The stellar cast includes Paul Brannigan, a newcomer totally convincing as Robbie, plus Jasmin Riggins, Gary Maitland, William Ruane, John Henshaw, and Siobhan Reilly.

One of many positive reviews of the movie is in The New York TImes at http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/465769/The-Angels-Share/overview.  It’s by Stephen Holden.

There’s a movie trailer at The Angels‘ Share (2012) – Official Trailer [HD] – YouTube

I visited Edinburgh a couple of years ago and passed on the distillery tour.  Health nut that I am, I wasn’t interested.  Now I’m putting it on my list for the next time I go.

 

Jane Austen in Tel Aviv

I just saw a fine Israeli movie, Fill the Void, that could have been written by Jane Austen–if she’d spent some time in an ultra-orthodox Hasidic community in Tel Aviv. The director, Rama Burshtein, is an insider in this community–and she specifically said she had Jane Austen in mind when working on this movie.

"Fill the Void" poster, from Ebert review cited below

“Fill the Void” poster, from Ebert review cited below

The men wear prayer shawls, various Old-World-looking hats, and ringleted forelocks.  The women wear modest but attractive outfits, with a lot of fussy detail. The women clearly take great care with their appearance. Turbans cover their hair once they are married.  Only the single women are bareheaded. The sexes are informally separated during gatherings at homes or in the synagogue–the women sit in the next room, but everyone can see and speak with everyone else if they try.

Movie still, Karin Bar, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

Movie still, Karin Bar, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

As in an Austen novel, the purpose of a woman’s life is to marry.  Here, the point is not so much to marry a rich man–it seems that in this group, an adequate income is assumed.  (The rabbi distributes money on request during a holiday celebration. Is this communal money, or is it the private money of the rabbi? I couldn’t tell, but the rabbi’s wife clearly knows all about whatever finances are involved). The point here is to marry within the group, and to marry someone compatible. Compatibility is very hard to gauge, though, when there is no dating as we know it.

There is a very constrained code of behavior, as in an Austen novel. I’m thinking of Elizabeth Bennet’s horror, in Pride and Prejudice, when oafish Mr. Collins walks right up to Mr. Darcy and begins babbling about a mutual acquaintance, WITHOUT A FORMAL INTRODUCTION.  In the Israeli movie, single men and women are strictly shielded.  In the opening scene, a mother and daughter stalk a prospective bridegroom in a grocery store, just to get a glimpse of him from a distance. As in an Austen novel, the women never question their place in this social system.  They just accept it as their reality.  However, just as in Austen novel, the women have their ways of influencing the men who are nominally in charge.

It goes without saying that to everyone in this community, this way of life, though constrained, is precious. In the sorrowful history of the last century, countless communities like this one disappeared forever.

The plot is simple:  an 18-year-old girl is giddy with the prospect of marriage to the young man glimpsed in the grocery store.  But her family hesitates because a tragedy intervenes, and the young man’s family withdraws the offer.  The tragedy is that the girl’s pregnant sister dies suddenly in childbirth, leaving a tiny son and a grieving widower who, everyone agrees, must marry again.  There is an offer from a woman in another Hasidic community in Belgium.  The girl’s mother can’t bear to part with her first and only grandchild.  So she puts pressure on the widower, some years older, to marry her 18-year-old daughter.  She puts even stronger pressure on her daughter, even though her husband, the rabbi, does not think the match appropriate.

Movie Still, Karin Bar, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

Movie Still, Karin Bar, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

The way the dilemma works out is fascinating and touching.  A senior rabbi, meeting with the couple, asks, “How does the girl feel about the match?”  The girl replies, “It is not about feelings.  It is the right thing to do.”  He smiles gently and says, “It is ONLY about feelings.”  I can see the appeal of this way of doing things.  The elders are wise and loving.  They have seen a lot of life, and they truly have the best interests of the young people at heart–mixed, of course, with their own very human needs.

The rituals depicted are ancient, mysterious (at least to me) and moving.  We see a mourning group sitting shiva, a Purim holiday celebration, Sabbath meals, formal community gatherings, a circumcision, a betrothal, and a wedding.

One big difference between this world and Jane Austen’s world is that here, there seems to be no dissembling or hiding of one’s true feelings.  The emotions of the community members are palpable, whether in joy or in sorrow.  In this insular community, I suppose no secrets can be kept for long.  And anyway honesty is clearly a core value. At times of high emotion, the people have a habit of rocking back and forth in their seats–so they really wear their hearts on their sleeves.

But as in an Austen novel, a person’s fate turns on a look, a gesture, a few quiet words spoken, a note quickly written and read just in time by the right person.  As in an Austen novel, a woman’s fate depends on her luck in marriage. I have not been to Tel Aviv, and if I go I will probably not see the inside of a Hasidic community.  Many cultures have contributed to the Europe we know today. I very much enjoyed this intimate and detailed look into a culture that somehow feels both alien and familiar.

The film has won numerous awards.  The ending is ambiguous; one hopes these characters have made choices that will make them happy.

The late Roger Ebert had a very sensitive review of the movie.  It is at http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/fill-the-void-2013. The Variety review, which mentions the Jane Austen connection, is at http://variety.com/2012/film/reviews/fill-the-void-1117948164/.

Channeling Freddie Mercury in Buxton

While watching the BBC series Lost Empires, I am sure I recognized one of the locations:  the Opera House in Buxton, England. Built in 1903, the 902-seat theater hosted music-hall shows and other live entertainments in the very period depicted in the series, 1913. (I described this excellent series in yesterday’s post). By 1927, movies had overtaken variety shows in popularity.  The theater turned into a cinema.  In 1979, it was refurbished for live performance, which continue year-round to this day.  I’d love to be there for the annual Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, but I don’t like to travel in the height of summer.  So I take potluck when I go. There is some kind of live entertainment, or a high-quality film, almost every night of the year.

Buxton Opera House

Buxton Opera House

Buxton Opera House Detail

Buxton Opera House Detail

The theater interior is beautiful, white with gilded cherubs, curlicues galore,  and red velvet curtains.  There is not a bad seat in the house, not even way up in “the gods”–theater parlance for the very highest and cheapest seats. In Lost Empires, the seasoned trouper played by Laurence Olivier cautions the young performer played by Colin Firth to always play to “the gods”–the customers in the cheap seats.  They can make you or break you, soon-to-be washed-up performer warns, and he should know.

Buxton Opera House Stage

Buxton Opera House Stage

I once saw a mountain-climbing documentary at the Opera House.  Another time, I saw a very good touring performance of the play “The Madness of King George.” Last time I was in Buxton (to visit nearby Chatsworth and to enjoy the beauty of Derbyshire), I bought tickets for an event I probably would have given a miss, if there had been anything else going on.  There was a Queen tribute band, starring Patrick Meyers as the late Freddie Mercury.  As it turned out, I had a great time.  The band is called Killer Queen.  They fill large stadiums, and they put on a smaller-scaled show for venues like the Buxton Opera House.  Patrick Meyers does not quite have the 4-octave range of Freddie Mercury, but he makes up for it in showmanship, passion, knowledge of his subject, and sheer kinetic energy.

Patrick/Freddie danced and sang his heart out, flinging a series of flamboyant satin jackets out into the audience at just the right moments. And so it went, through the great classic rock repertory of Queen: “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Killer Queen,” “Somebody to Love,” “Don’t Stop Me Now,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” and of course the anthem “We are the Champions.”

The audience was almost as entertaining as the show itself.  The first two rows were filled with teenagers and young adults from a nearby school for people with various disabilities.  To prepare for the outing, they must have been listening to Queen albums nonstop. Many of them knew every song by heart and sang along, with gusto.  They jumped up and danced, too–which Mr. Meyer tried in vain to get the rest of the audience to do.

One young man in particular was in ecstasy through the entire performance.  He kept moving right up to the stage apron, pounding out the rhythms with his hands.  Every now and then, a teacher would gently lead him back to his seat, but he popped up again every time.  He just couldn’t help it.  He sang every word of every song, and he shouted and spun in circles between songs.

When the show ended, and the curtain calls were done, the band’s drummer dashed to the front of the stage and handed his drumsticks–probably still smoking from the heat of the performance–to this young man.

Until I attended this show, I had never quite understood the fuss about Queen, or the influence on the development of rock. Now I get it.  Reportedly Sacha Baron Cohen is developing a film about the remarkable journey that the multi-talented Farrokh Bulsara took to become Freddie Mercury.

Freddie Mercury died of AIDS in 1987.  I like to think that his talent and creativity live on in memory, and in performances like the one I almost didn’t go to see. I imagine the young man who received the special drumsticks still treasures them as a memory of a wonderful night.

The music hall tradition lives on in Great Britain, taking new forms and honoring old ones. Tastes have changed over time, but the need for audiences and performers to connect remains the same.

Tony Soprano, Gone Home to Rest

I already was missing Tony Soprano, and now that he’s gone I have to miss the fine actor James Gandolfini too.  The first time I saw James Gandolfini playing the part that turned him from a character actor into a star, I happened to be in England.  I had resisted watching a show about New Jersey gangsters, plus I didn’t have HBO anyway at the time.  But there the show was, on the screen of the little TV in my hotel room.  I was in Winchcombe, visiting Sudely–a house where Queen Elizabeth I once lived, in the days of turmoil following the death of her father, King Henry VIII.  Elizabeth could very well have ended up executed instead of sitting on the throne of England. The Sopranos explored similar power struggles in a completely different age and place.  Characters and locations change, but life’s dangers and challenges remain the same.

I don’t remember which episode of The Sopranos I happened to catch, but I was hooked.  I never did like the violence of the show.  (I don’t like the violence of the series The Tudors either, but I’ve watched it compulsively.  Good thing we have fast-forward). To me, the genius of The Sopranos was in its humanity.  Over the six seasons, there was a Shakespearean sweep to it–every aspect of the many characters’ lives was explored as they made their way through a chaotic world, always trying to impose some kind of order.

I’ve been thinking about historic dream homes like Tyntesfield. I suppose each of us has a different dream of domestic bliss. Tony Soprano’s dream home actually exists–people go to the house in New Jersey to have their pictures taken in the driveway, where Tony appeared in his bathrobe every morning to pick up his paper.  Tony loved his pool, his pool house, and his kitchen, where he was forever grabbing snacks on his way out to do who knows what.

The house was almost another character on the show.  The writers used it to make points about the characters.  I remember one scene where a designer tried to interest Carmela Soprano in some antiques for her house.  “But my home is TRADITIONAL,” she said, with that innocent blank-eyed stare she used to such great effect.  The writers said so much with those few words.  Carmela had no notion of where “traditional” style might have come from.  What tradition? Whose tradition? The less-than-tasteful aspects of the house rarely received any comment in the scripts, but the house  always spoke volumes about the characters, their backgrounds, and their aspirations.

I remember a great episode where Tony’s daughter Meadow, in rebellion, was living with her boyfriend in a miserable city apartment with no air conditioning.  At the end of a long exhausting night of bitter arguing about where they would spend the summer, the boyfriend wearily said, “Well, we could get married.”  Meadow had learned lessons in manipulation from the best–her own family.  She immediately brightened and called her parents to announce the great news, not only getting what she wanted but setting in motion a new family drama.

I looked forward to seeing James Gandolfini in whatever part he took.  He could be funny, sad, menacing, self-mocking–he had a really endless range as an actor. Now he is gone.  I hope he’s found a peaceful home.

A Vigorous Voice from the Past

I hurried to visit Tyntesfield within a year or two of its opening to the public.  The house was only partially open, and work was going on all over the estate.  During my visit, I stood with a tour group in the Billiard Room, admiring the vaulted ceiling and the light from the high windows.  The billiard table, custom-made for the family, connected to an electronic scoreboard.  Pressing a button on the side of the table recorded the score–quite an innovation, for Victorian times.

William Gibbs was 75 when his dream home was completed, and he had four sons.  Three of them were still teenagers, so presumably the room was built and furnished for them.  It was not, however, a smoking room–Mr. Gibbs allowed only smoking in the very highest room of the house, a tower on the third floor.  (I’m sure the teenagers found ways around the various house rules–they always do).

We had all just looked at a rather ornate urinal in an adjoining room–another modern innovation. The guide was talking about how the room was built for and used by men.  Suddenly an elderly lady in the back of the group thumped her cane on the floor and interrupted the guide.  She was a family member and had spent a good deal of time in the house.  One of the 19 heirs!  (I hoped she had collected a cool million and not blown it all at the casino).  She proceeded to set us all straight.  Did women use the billiard room?  Yes, they did!  Trust me, you would not have argued with her.

The lady went on with a story about the bats that had infested the former men’s servants quarters nearby.  Later, I read that the colony of protected lesser horseshoe bats had to given another suitable home on the estate before restoration could begin in those rooms.

The tour guide wisely let the lady keep talking.  I’d have listened to her all day.  At the time, I didn’t know about the Great Kidnapping Incident, or I’d have asked her about it for sure.  In 1988, the late Lord Wraxall had been kidnapped at his home. The ruffians knocked him to the ground and demanded his house keys and the combination to his safe.  But the burglar alarm went off–I don’t know whether he was inside or outside the house at the time.  So they threw him into the boot (the trunk, to Americans) of his own car, which they drove about 2 miles away and abandoned.  He was left there for 7 hours until someone found him. According to some reports, all he had to say was, “Good grief, there’s more room in there than I ever thought.”

The National Trust is going to great lengths to collect stories about life in the house.  There is an interactive website where people can contribute their own memories.  It is at http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/history/stories/. Personal stories are placed in a timeline. Family, servants and friends have contributed their memories.

Recently, the house has been featured on the wildly popular BBC TV series Dr. Who–very appropriately, since Dr. Who is a Time Lord.  Not only can he travel through time, but he is able to regenerate his body in a different form when near death–very handy for showrunners who have to cope with new actors taking over the part.

At Tyntesfield, and at many other National Trust Properties, enchanting doorways continue to lead us into the past, carefully preserved for future generations.

Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Briticisms

One day in London, I was standing in a customer service line at Harrod’s.  The well-dressed woman in front of me was unhappy with the answers she was getting from the man behind the counter.  I heard the woman say icily, “I find your attitude most reprehensible.”  The man behind the counter, amazingly, blanched, looked around to see who was watching, and gave her what she wanted.  That’s England.  An American customer in the same situation might say, “Hey, gimme a break” or “I want to see your supervisor, ” only to be met with a blank stare.  The British still have a whole layer of civility that Americans are sadly lacking.

Brits take pride in their wit.  Once at Blenheim Palace, I paid extra for a tour of the family’s private quarters–always worthwhile, anyplace it is offered.  The tour guide provided a running commentary about the family’s foibles, as he guided us through grand but surprisingly shabby rooms (Brits still honor “old money,” and Blenheim is about as old as it gets). Someone asked the guide whether the college-age heir hung around the palace he would someday inherit.  “Well,” he replied, “he’s off somewhere having his gap year, don’t you know, but every now and again he stops by and strikes the place a glancing blow.”

Some expressions are just amusing because they’re different.  A trash can is a “rubbish tip.” To be careful when stepping onto a subway car is to “mind the gap.” The equipment needed for, say, a long hike, is “all the kit you need.” An airline attendant might look at an excessive amount of luggage and say, “I’m afraid you can’t bring all that lot.”  If I thought my suitcase was especially heavy, I could say “That thing weighs 10 stone” (140 pounds, at 14 pounds to the stone). To give something a try is to “have a go.”

The Brits have some wonderfully descriptive terms, too.  I like to call myself a “dogsbody” when I find myself doing some menial task no one else wants to do.  When totally amazed, I might say I’m “gobsmacked.”

In the films of Laurel and Hardy, the contrasts between the American Oliver Hardy and the Englishman Stan Laurel account for a lot of the humor.

It’s especially amusing that the Englishman, who aside from his dopey expression looks slim and elegant, is childlike and dim.  He’s always asking unanswerable questions.  The  tubby American is equally clueless, but he doesn’t know it.  So he is ridiculously pompous.

All this has left me feeling a bit knackered.  Maybe it’s time for a bit of a lie-down!