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Monday, 15 December 2008

Country House Rescue, Channel 4

Did we like it?

The problem with insolently corrective shows such as Country House Rescue is that they slip seamlessly into a pre-prepared mould of: imminent catastrophe without salvation through help of expert; cantankerous resistance to change; proof that the expert was right all along. It’s the principles that form the foundation for about 50% of all Channel 4’s output – from Kitchen Nightmares through to Supernanny – but thankfully here is redeemed here somewhat by the sincere passion of Ruth Watson.

What was good about it?
• Ruth Watson. We’re sceptical of her verbose gloss and trickery, which we’ll deal with later, but are struck by her passion for the future of Cothay House in Somerset, which is under the twin assault of an annual £15,000 a year loss and the inevitable demise of owners Alistair Robb, 78, and his wife, and one woman human bazooka, Mary-Ann, 68.
• She pestered the couple to such a degree about how they could make so much more money from their “beautiful gardens”, and to put in place a strategy to mitigate the £1m inheritance tax bill that you feel she would be the first face they would see when they pull up at the Pearly Gates to advise them on penthouse suites in Hotel Heaven.
• Of course, in order to create decent TV it’s necessary that such an inexorable force of modern capitalism in Ruth is matched with an equally formidable bastion of traditionalism in Mary-Ann – with their gladiatorial pit a quaint English country garden.
• How much was genuine conflict and how much was contrived for the cameras is unclear – and is a permanent blight on such shows – but they did share the most entertaining moments as first Ruth would politely insist that to make a profit Mary-Ann would need a calendar of events and a tea room positioned to surreptitiously induce guests to buy both food and plants, while Mary-Ann would snap back that she didn’t want Cothay House to be degraded into a “soulless” National Trust enterprise.
• Cothay House was a truly beautiful setting, and will no doubt benefit from an influx of curious tourists.

What was bad about it?
• The formulaic plan whereby you could pretty much ascertain the narrative even as Ruth pulled on the charming bell on the front gate of Cothay House.
• The way in which Ruth dampens her brimstone verdicts on the flaws of Cothay House. She would begin each sentence with a sycophantic, meaningless platitude such as “I love Mary-Ann’s English eccentricity and strength of characters...” before succeeding it with a caustic observation of how things would be better if they did what she told them.
• While she certainly needs to maintain a level of decorum, what grated was that Ruth would use the airy compliments as a device of attrition to bore away at the resistance of the Robbs until they did what she wanted them to do. Which, of course, may be the way eminent people in the business world make their fortunes.
• The sub-plot of what would happen to Cothay House upon the deaths of Alistair and Mary-Ann was left annoyingly unresolved. With the hassle of running and maintaining an unprofitable house and 12-acre gardens, not to mention the crippling IHT bill, unpalatable to three of their four children, the focus was on youngest daughter Charlie to inherit the house that her parents adored. She lacked their passion for the property, and viewed it as a cumbersome burden.
• Eldest daughter Arabella turned up later on, but the question of to whom the house was to be bequeathed was never tackled, and this whole portion of the show just faded from view rendering the previous disputes as utterly inconsequential and gluttonous filler portraying nothing more than Mary-Ann’s inflexibility.
• The quandary over the future of the house did accentuate one element of how this type of documentary can be warped into whatever shape the producers choose. Hearing how the children had mostly relinquished Cothay (Arabella, for instance, was busy with “her husband’s 900 acre estate” – how our heart bleeds for her), Ruth suggested “a family meeting”.
• While this may have been the most propitious way for the argument to be settled, we also suspect that to seat five warring family members around a table would have made brilliant television – coupled with the fact that those members of the family we did see were incumbent of that most typical of upper-class traits of a granite belief that they are right about everything.
• And the artificial nature of TV documentaries also protruded into the renovation of Mary-Ann’s perceptions (we would include Alistair in this but after about 20 minutes his role was reduced to that of a doddering tramp skulking about the magnificent gardens ignored by everyone including his own wife). Ruth suggested that Mary-Ann should hold an event celebrating local sculpture, for which local artists would place their works about the gardens for the delectation of hundreds of invited guests. The carefully-placed tripwire was that the whole event would have to be organised in four weeks – which simultaneously ensures plenty of frantic will they/won’t they make it preparation, and takes place over a neatly condensed timeframe that can easily be filmed.

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