Posts Tagged ‘stately homes’

Last week I went with friends to see the National Theatre’s production of Alan Bennett’s new play, ‘People.’ We didn’t have to trawl all the way to London and worry about missing the last train home because we were comfortably ensconced in our local village hall, the play being beamed live and direct to us by satellite. This is where technology has my whole-hearted approval because although the excitement of attending a London theatre cannot be replicated, we had an excellent evening at a fraction of the cost. We were able to enjoy a drink before the performance and had the bonus of watching a short film of Alan Bennett talking about his play while the real audience found their seats. It was all very civilised.

‘People’ is about that exceedingly British  institution, The National Trust, and as  the play progressed I couldn’t help wondering if the Trust was deeply offended by the points Bennett was making. He suggests that the Trust portrays a “pretend England,” that it is “so decent, so worthy, so dull,” and likens it to the Anglican Church with its “sacrament of coffee and walnut cake.”

So what does he mean by a “pretend England?” I think he’s saying that our stately homes should be allowed to grow old gracefully, without the tarting up and titivation that the Trust affords them. He is decrying the movement towards the “themed” visits of which the Trust has lately become fond; tales of ghostly apparitions who woo visiting masses before they wend their way to the organically sourced produce in the cafe for a jolly nice tea. He’s also making the point that nowadays society only finds worth in something that has financial value; therefore crumbling old piles must be restored to within inches of their originality, often eradicating all traces of the families who used to call these dear old places home.

I know what he means.  I have been disappointed with several of the Trust properties I’ve visited. There is a dishonesty about them; they are too pristine; too polished. Volunteer helpers dressed in period costume hang around redecorated drawing rooms waiting to impart sparse knowledge of the period or family who once lived there – move away from frequently asked questions at your peril. It’s like trying to get an answer from your bank’s far flung call centre. I have, however, discovered not all the furniture and artefacts on display originate from the particular house: the Trust imports furniture and artefacts “of the period,” while several properties feature contract-weight fitted carpets, which, quite frankly, is just wrong.

It’s not all bad, though. Chartwell, in Kent, the home of Winston Churchill, is a delight: the house gives one the feeling that Winston has just nipped out to nearby Westerham; his garden studio is left waiting for his return, tubes of half-squeezed oil paint strewn about, paintings half-finished, brushes ready. Likewise Greenway, Agatha Christie’s beautiful house overlooking the river Dart in Devon. Her wardrobe, a few dresses and a fur coat gently swaying on the rails, evokes a genuine spectral quality that no amount of themed storytelling can emulate.

Back at the village hall during the interval, where the middle classes sipped glasses of warm Chablis or jostled each other for the last tub of stem ginger ice-cream, it occurred to me that here was the backbone of the National Trust’s membership bank; the same people who, just a few minutes earlier, had been laughing uproariously as the play unfolded. Alan Bennett is the master of observation; his characters, always flawed, are spot-on and usually deeply funny or traumatically tragic. He would have had a field day here, in amongst the mostly retired audience from the stock-broker belt, with his tongue wedged firmly in his cheek. But that’s the ultimate point, isn’t it?

Alan Bennett. Photo, BBC

Alan Bennett.
Photo, BBC

However curmudgeonly our dear playwright appears, he is a National Treasure and epitomises the faded Englishness he craves for the Trust, thereby giving us licence to do what we Brits do best. Laugh at ourselves.

Long may we last.

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