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Aristocracy On TV At BFI Southbank In July

During July BFI Southbank goes posh and presents a season of TV productions which focus on the British aristocracy.
With Jubilee celebrations in full swing and one year on from the Royal Wedding, the public’s fascination with the aristocracy is enjoying a renewed surge. For instance, in just two years Downton Abbey (ITV, 2010) has built up a phenomenal global following and will soon feature screen legend Shirley MacLaine, who is currently the star of her own retrospective at BFI Southbank.
This season will profile members of three families who continue to fascinate the British public: the Mitfords, Churchills and Astors. TV has been drawn to the aristocracy’s heady mix of money, glamour politics and power for decades, and documentaries including Whicker Considers: The Aristocracy Business (YTV, 1968), Aristocracy (Episode 4: The Survival of the Fittest, BBC, 1997) and Man Alive: Living Like a Lord (BBC, 1966) will delve into how the other half live. This season provides a fascinating look at a class reinventing itself for a new millennium and provides an absorbing time capsule of the period.
Not many aristocratic families achieved celebrity status akin to the Mitfords, Churchills and Astors. Nancy Mitford 1904 – 1973: A Portrait by Her Sisters (BBC, 1980) combines interviews with most of her sisters with footage of Nancy to address a complicated family history, giving the viewer an intimate insight into the aristocratic world of the Mitfords’ childhood.
This will be followed by Jessica Mitford – The Honourable Rebel (BBC, 1977) in which Jessica tells of her journey from aristocrat to communist, starkly juxtaposed with the story of sister Unity’s friendship with Adolf Hitler and involvement in the fascist movement. Also featured in a pair of films is Nancy Astor. Nancy – A Portrait of Lady Astor 1879-1964 (BBC, 1979) and Lady Astor (Interviewed by Kenneth Harris) (BBC, 1962) paint the first female MP as a rebellious outsider and provide a glimpse into a lost aristocratic world. No season on the aristocracy would be complete without the inclusion of the Churchill family.
In the drama Walk with Destiny aka The Gathering Storm (BBC, 1974) Richard Burton portrays Winston Churchill during his rise to great wartime leader and in At Home: Randolph Churchill (BBC, 1957) the BBC was given unprecedented access to the Churchill family home as Randolph conducts a tour of his garden and library. This documentary perfectly illustrates the BBC’s deferential approach to the aristocracy in the 1950s.
A set of three documentaries will start with Whicker Considers: The Aristocracy Business (YTV, 1968) in which Alan Whicker scrutinises the lordships of North Riding of Yorkshire with his usual incisive wit and candour. Following this will be an episode of the major BBC series Aristocracy (Episode 4: The Survival of the Fittest, BBC, 1997). In this final episode director Sam Organ examines what it means to be an aristocrat in the modern age, and the links between aristocracy and Eton, Oxbridge, Conservative politics and the art world. The episode also features the then Duke of Devonshire (and husband of Deborah Mitford) talking about reinventing Chatsworth as a commercial tourist venture. Incidentally the present Duke and Duchess of Devonshire can be seen in the current BBC series Chatsworth (2012), once again highlighting the public’s continued interest in the aristocracy. Finally in Man Alive: Living Like a Lord (BBC, 1966) reporter Christopher Brasher looks at the differing lifestyle of 20th Century Lords. From the 11th Duke of Argyle with his 80,000 acres to the post office worker who discovered he was the heir to a Scottish estate.
Finally in two dramatisations, the season will look at the aftermath of the Second World War, when social upheaval left the aristocracy looking dangerously anachronistic. In And Did Those Feet (BBC, 1965) dramatist David Mercer created nightmarish images that literally embody the decay he saw in the aristocracy. Trevor Griffiths’ Country (BBC, 1981) eschews nostalgia for more direct themes of class warfare, using the 1945 Labour landslide as a brilliant metaphor for social change.
While a number of people still believe the culture and manners of the aristocracy define what it means to be British, the reality on the ground has been a complex story. For some it has been a tale of gradual decline, for others spectacular reinvention and adaptation to the modern world.
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