(L-R): Tim Vine, Jennifer Saunders, "The Empress," Timothy Spall and Jack Farthing in Blandings, Series 2
Thanks to the British television industry, small screen audiences on this side of the pond have over the years been granted access to some of that country’s most well-known and exclusive addresses. From the stately country residence of Downton Abbey to the smaller but just as upper crust 165 Eaton Place in Upstairs, Downstairs, TV viewers have had the chance to rub proverbial elbows with those living above as well below stairs. That tradition continues with the oddball characters and goings-on in Blandings, Series 2, which makes its North American debut on August 26 courtesy of Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment.
Set in 1929 in the fictional Blandings Castle, Blandings (the first season of which was released earlier this year by Acorn/RLJ) is based on the stories by P.G. Wodehouse (Jeeves and Wooster) and adapted for TV by Guy Andrews (Lost in Austen). The lord of this particular (and dysfunctional) manor is Lord Clarence Emsworth (Timothy Spall, The King’s Speech, The Syndicate), a very likable chap with absolutely no delusions of grandeur whatsoever. He may have oodles of money, but Clarence’s needs are simple ones. Rather than dress up in fancy clothes and preside over lavish dinner parties, all the lord wants to do is stop and smell the roses—literally—and spend a bit of quality time with his beloved pig, The Empress.
“My character is beguilingly innocent, like a knowing idiot,” notes actor Timothy Spall. “Nowadays he’d be diagnosed with some kind of condition, but he uses that as a tool for avoiding things he doesn't want to do. He's Lord Emsworth, but all he really cares about are his roses and his pig. However, a menagerie of forces keeps stopping him getting to his roses and talking to his pig.
“Clarence manifests utter eccentric daftness and hilarious amnesia. He loves to forget that tonight is the Shropshire Show and he has to give a speech at it. He has 28 nieces and he doesn't know any of their names! But he is actually a very kind man. It's not just noblesse oblige. Underneath the aristocratic facade beats a heart of great kindness.”
As Spall mentions, there are a “menagerie of forces” that interfere with Lord Emsworth and his ideal way to spend his days. Chief among those forces are Clarence’s sister Lady Connie Keeble (Jennifer Saunders, Absolutely Fabulous) and his son Freddie Threepwood (Jack Farthing, Agatha Christie’s Poirot), who is equally as well-meaning and likable as his father, but sadly lacking in the common sense department. Clarence and Connie will often lock horns when it comes to the proper way of doing things, but there is a crafty method to the lord’s way of dealing with his sister.
“He's terrified of her,” says Spall. “She is massively responsible and incredibly domineering. Connie says to his face that the place is in chaos because he's in charge. Were it not for primogeniture, she would be running the place. Connie holds the ships together, making Clarence stick to his responsibilities, but as far as he's concerned, she is a complete pain in the neck.
“The thing is, though, because Connie gets things done, that allows him to slip away and be with The Empress. It's a tacit game between them, a waltz. All the same, sometimes he quite enjoys the battle. He bends it to his advantage by using his natural amnesia. But underneath it all, he has a roguish glint in his eye.”
Says Jennifer Saunders: “Connie’s husband has died, so she’s having to live with her brother and his ridiculous son Freddie. Because of primogeniture, Clarence has all the money and power, but she is so much more capable. She’s constantly explaining stuff to him, but it never goes in. If he would only listen to what she says, she would be happy, but, unfortunately he's a total shambles. That makes for great comedy.
“When Connie is alone, she can be fun,” continues the actress. ”She sits there eating Turkish Delight, wrapped in an exotic shawl, and is transported to her own special world. She imagines she is traveling around the Middle East. She has all these romantic ideas. But then, sadly, reality hits, and she remembers she had to sort out the staff or her niece’s marriage. She has to do everything herself — Clarence doesn't even know his nieces’ names!”
As much as he would love to be living elsewhere as opposed to sharing digs, however grand, with his family, Freddie has a vice or two that keep him bringing him back to Blandings. “Freddie spends his time falling in love with girls, boozing and gambling away money that he doesn't have,” says Jack Farthing. “He would much rather be in London living the life of a bright young thing, but he constantly runs out of money and has to return home.”
Keeping Blandings running in “tickety-boo” fashion as one might say in P.G. Wodehouse’s world, is Clarence’s faithful butler Sebastian Beach (played in season one by Mark Williams, Father Brown, and subsequently in season two by actor/comedian/presenter Tim Vine). When those around him sometimes loses his or her aristocratic head, this example of Herculean butlery keeps a stiff upper lip, trudges on and helps prevent the ancestral home from falling down around them. It is not an easy job, but someone has to do it.
“There are lots of clues in the books. P.G. Wodehouse says that Beach is always about to explode,” notes actor Mark Williams, taking about his character from the show’s first season. “Beach is someone who is permanently on the brink of apoplexy. He is constantly put upon and worn down by shouldering the whole responsibility for the household. I spoke with a number of butlers who told me that actually it's the butler’s house and not the family’s. But in the end, it's all about diplomacy.”
In Blandings, Series 2, Clarence and his family along with their staff are all caught up in further comedic conundrums that include hosting a new onslaught of unwanted houseguests. Among these unwelcome interlopers are the Duke of Dunstable (Harry Enfield, Skins), and Clarence’s and Connie’s older sister Charlotte (Celia Imrie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), who wants to make her stay at Blandings a more permanent one.
Will Clarence and The Empress be able to once again enjoy each other’s company? Will Connie have to make room for Charlotte? Will Freddie ever pay off his debts and find his one true love, and will Beach continue to find time to put his feet up and enjoy another snifter of Lord Emsworth’s best brandy? Check out this DVD set and find out.
Please note, all photos copyright of BBC, and all actor quotes courtesy of BBC press interviews. Blandings, Series 2 can be ordered directly from AcornOnline.