Normal for Norfolk review – a gentle chuckle at the toffs

Desmond’s travails in keeping Wiveton Hall open for business prove the aristocracy’s role today is to entertain us. Plus: the problem with Scott & Bailey

Early summer holiday memory: the Norfolk coast, an eerie manor house on the edge of the marshes, straight from the pages of an MR James ghost story. My parents had rented a wing; why couldn’t we package to a nice sunny Spanish costa like everyone else? I remember muddy creeks, dark panelling, bats falling out of the folds of the curtains when they were closed, long nights of unexplainable noises and terror. I still shiver when I think about Wiveton Hall.

And here it is, on the telly, in Normal for Norfolk (BBC2). It’s one of those laugh-at-the-crumbling-toffs shows, more acceptable than the laugh-at-the-riff-raff ones, of course. And this isn’t cruel, more like chuckle gently at the toffs. That’s pretty much the purpose of the English aristocracy today, to amuse and entertain the rest of us (apart from the ones who still run the bloody country obviously, who are less funny).

He – the toff – is Desmond. A gentleman farmer, they call him, meaning one who doesn’t do so well financially in the modern world. His mother, in her 100th year, is still around. And there are various offspring running about with the fowl and the hounds, doing the sort of things posh offspring do, constructing cannons from which to fire fruit, that sort of thing. They are not quite up to the television value of the Fulfords (remember The F***ing Fulfords, on Channel 4?), though Desmond’s eyebrows are very special. I can’t improve on the description of the restaurant critic of the Oldie magazine, who’s here to review the Wiveton Hall cafe. “As this renowned bird lover sprung hobbit-like from the undergrowth of his garden,” he wrote, “I was delighted to discover he had trained two young blackbirds to perch on his forehead.”

The cafe isn’t making enough (any) money. Dear old Desmond, who has more than a hint of Ronnie Corbett RIP about him, is doing his best to turn things around, adapt to the 21st century. “You’ve got to be terribly professional, which is a shame in some respects,” he laments. “There’s no room to muddle along.”

Somehow he finds it, though – room, to muddle along. And things may be looking up. The review in the Oldie is glowing, so hopefully the tills will soon be ringing to the tune of the grey pound. Also the eastern European asparagus pickers, who were apparently drunk all day long, have gone; and the new ones, from Lithuania, are lovely as well as being much more productive. And the drug dealer has gone from one of the farm cottages, and now it’s been done up for holiday lets. Desmond lights a fire to see how well the chimney draws. Not at all well is the answer. “Oh bloody hell,” he says, disappearing in a cloud of smoke. “I mean, very nice if you want to make kippers on holiday. Or ham.”

The first holidayers can’t make – or smoke – ham, kippers, drugs, anything. They can’t get in, Desmond’s lost the key. He’s extra muddled this morning, as last night he was up drinking a barrel of 200-year-old Madeira to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. “Very good, but I don’t think I should be drinking it too often.”

I don’t think there’s much danger of things getting too professional, or 21st century, at Wiveton Hall. Still room – and rooms – to muddle along here on the Norfolk coast. Thankfully. And God it’s lovely, isn’t it? At the age of eight or so I didn’t appreciate how beautiful it was. It doesn’t even look too spooky, in the sunshine. Yeah, but you wait till nightfall …

I’m sure they will do well from this. I see from the website that as well as the farm cottages you can still rent out a wing. Maybe I’ll do that, and subject my offspring to the horrors of my own childhood.

Cagney & Lacey with mobile phones …  Scott & Bailey.
Cagney & Lacey with mobile phones … Scott & Bailey. Photograph: ITV

Scott & Bailey (ITV) is back for more. Bailey (Suranne Jones) has been off on secondment in London, Scott (Lesley Sharp) feels abandoned, their relationship needs work. But there’s also policing to be done, bodies – plus chalked stars – turning up all over Manchester, and, on the darknet, some kind of sick internet game. On top of that Scott’s daughter’s in trouble for sexting.

Comforting – inasmuch as serial killing can be comforting – rather than challenging TV, the problem with series five is that it comes during a glut of bolder, better home-grown police dramas: Happy Valley, Line of Duty, even Marcella. Beside which it looks mediocre and old-school. Cagney & Lacey with mobile phones and the internet.


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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