Much as I imagine vicars stand immobile in the shadow of the cloister all week until it is time to glide noiselessly up to the pulpit to deliver the Sunday sermon, I have always envisioned Mary Berry being laid gently away in a velvet case – or possibly popped on a plinth under a small glass dome – between programmes. And now, after a nice long rest since the end of her Bake Off time, she has been taken out, primped, buffed with a little lavender-scented polish and set before us again. This time it is in a four-part series called Mary Berry’s Country House Secrets (BBC One). It is technically a documentary, I suppose, but what it much more closely resembles is a sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub par Victoria Wood sketch.
Last night she spent a week being shown round Highclere Castle – or, to give it its formal title, the Real Downton Abbey – by the eighth Earl and Countess of Carnarvon and seven spaniels. “A breed,” Mary intoned gravely in voiceover, “which originally came from Spain. Hence the name ‘spaniels’.” Up and down the land, there are nativity plays being prepared that will contain more natural dialogue.
“I Really Hope That You Will Cook For Us, Mary,” says Lady Carnavon in the kitchen (with the lead piping – now that’s a documentary worth staying up for), Because The Thought Had Just Occurred To Her.
“I’m itching to get going!” replied Mary, tilting her head and eyeing her host brightly. “Will you give me a hand?”
“I Would Love To, Mary! Thank You!” replied Lady C, like a berk.
You’d have to be a devoted grandma in the audience not to laugh.
And I suspect that the nativity itself was attended with less reverence than that with which Mary accorded her visit to the castle and the stories of dinner guests past, who included, in 1895, the Prince of Wales before he got upgraded to Edward VII. She looked with awed eyes upon the account book (“We’re so lucky to have it”) in the family’s private archives, showing the preparations for his visit. She gazed in wonder at the room he stayed in, complete with original silk wallhangings. “They must,” said Mary in a strange moment of bathos, “have been very good quality to have lasted so long.”
She practically whispered the joyous news that she was making gooseberry fool “with Lady Carnarvon’s homemade elderflower cordial!”, but, most strikingly, she also managed to sit in awe as the current earl unspooled footage of his great-grandfather George Herbert and his pal (and frequent dinner party companion, of course) Howard Carter uncovering the tomb of Tutankhamun. “Two men’s stoic persistence in the heat and the dust paid off!” the earl said proudly as he watched his ancestors watch a series of Egyptians carry the priceless treasures out for them, to be shipped wherever the stoic persisters/new owners/plunderers/thieves decided. “It’s magical, isn’t it!” breathed Mary. I know it’s too much to expect her to be fully alert to all the keenly quivering modern antennae bristling from a thousand different sensibilities out there, but did no one at the BBC want to nod towards problematising this juuuust a smidge?
I am taking an absurd programme too seriously, no doubt. But it was an ill-judged commission from the get-go, by someone who had evidently entirely misunderstood the appeal of GBBO. Which was – is still, on Channel 4 of course – that talent and hard work could be a leveller. All that mattered inside the tent was your bake. Mary was there as a fount of knowledge, not a heritage guide to ancient skills. This show was nostalgic for a time that never existed. Tours of country houses filled with people to whom talent and hard work have meant nothing since 1066 are not, actually, what the Berry brand is all about. But what the hell. Let’s all eat cake.
You’ll need something to sustain you through the opening 70 minutes of Godless (Netflix). It’s a western and it’s bleak. You would be looking a long time at widow Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery, trading Downton for dusty prairies), white hat and helpfully named Roy Goode, black hat Frank Griffen (Jeff Daniels) and any of the assorted lawmen before you were reminded of a ray of sunshine. Goode is a crack shot who used to ride with Griffen and is now being hunted by him as Griffen lays waste to every mining town he comes across. By the end, he’s heading to one that is run mostly by women, after 83 of their men were killed in a single pit explosion. No good, one feels, can come of this. It’s slow enough to teeter on the edge of ponderous at times, but those who have seen ahead promise fine work from all. I shall stay if only to find out the fate of Dockery’s New Mexico accent. Good luck, the rest of you.