Penelope Keith and the National Trust were made for each other. Striding around Wiltshire’s Avebury Manor, scattering superlatives like small change – “Marvellous! Extraordinary!” – she is a living icon of country-house manners (Home Counties, circa mid-20th century).
Entering a room where eight women kneel around a table, embroidering peacocks’ “eyes” onto a flaxen bedcover, Keith turns her hand deftly to the task. “When I went to school one was taught these things,” she points out. She could with ease, one imagines, pluck a pheasant or persuade bishops to waltz at a hunt ball.
Thirty years have passed since she starred as the aristocratic Audrey fforbes-Hamilton in the hit sitcom To the Manor Born. Now she’s back in Barbour and wellies as presenter of The Manor Reborn, a BBC1 documentary about the refurbishment of a 500-year-old National Trust property.
The Manor Reborn
With Flog It’s Paul Martin co-presenting, the four-part series follows the craft skills involved in re-creating four historical periods at Avebury Manor: Tudor, Georgian, Victorian and the 1930s. And unlike most stately homes, visitors will be actively encouraged to touch and even sit in the re-created rooms.
“We want to bring alive five centuries of history, but in a new way, creating a stately home without rules,” says Penelope, “Somewhere you can sit on the chairs, play a little billiards, jump on the beds if you want to.
“I’m a great fan of the National Trust,” she goes on. “I’m president of the South West Surrey branch so I know quite a lot about the organisation and visit a lot of houses. Sometimes they can be a bit stuck in aspic, museums to one family or one decorative style.
“Avebury Manor is so interesting because it changed hands so often and because the interiors span different periods so it will give people an idea of the arc of history.
The benefit of experience
“That’s so important, because the trouble now is that children at school learn history in such batches.” The mistrust she pours into this single syllable would do Lady Bracknell proud.
“I remember a girlfriend of mine saying that her daughter thought the Egyptians came next to the Victorians! Which is extraordinary, but that’s the way they’re taught. Whereas my generation learnt everything in sequence, from the Norman Conquest on.”
At 71, Penelope retains a rangy elegance – imagine Betjeman’s athletic heroines grown older, tennis dresses swapped for gardening macs – and no less vigorous opinions. She sidesteps any “In my day…” dogma but insists, crisply, on the benefit of years.
“Experience is devalued. Older people, who just happen to have been around longer, may not be cleverer than the young, but they have seen more. And it is why the social history aspect of the Avebury project is a good thing. It reminds us that people in the past had different ways of doing things and that they weren’t all bad.”
The class system
In the late 1970s and early 80s, when Mrs Thatcher was paving the way for a new plutocratic Britain, To the Manor Born’s Audrey embodied a gentry refusing to go quietly. (“Wasn’t she fun?” she says. “I admired her but I don’t think I would have been very close friends with her.”)
Penelope, whose own circumstances were more modest – her father left home when she was two and her mother worked as a hostess at a children’s holiday camp in Clacton – takes a pragmatic, historical view of the loosening of the class system.
“The First World War was the great watershed,” she says. “That is when the curtain really came down on the country-house tradition. Because the people who ran the houses – the staff – were killed. Gardens suddenly went into disrepair because all the poor garden boys were out there lying in Flanders’ fields. So sad.”
The high ratings enjoyed by Downton Abbey are evidence of an enduring fascination with this vanished lifestyle. “Downton is splendidly done, beautifully cast,” she says. “And that’s what people really rather like. They don’t only want reality shows, do they?”
While her manner suggests the silver spoon, Penelope is the very model of a self-made woman – she paid her way through drama school by working evenings in a hotel and earned her ticket to stardom in repertory theatre. You’d never guess it, though, from those crystalline consonants.
“It was great training for the voice, going into different theatres, each with a different acoustic,” she explains. “If the audience can’t hear you, you might as well go home. So you learn very quickly to speak clearly.”
And if not everyone enunciated quite so exactly, talent was a great leveller. “When I was born, society was still fairly class-ridden. I was sort of in the middle, but you never thought about that in the theatre, because you were either good or bad, working or not working. That was the wonderful thing about it.”
In 1976, she married Rodney Timson, an ex-policeman. It seems mad now, but at the time this “union of opposites” made headlines: he was the theatre security guard and she was the actress who played posh people. Today, the couple, who adopted two boys, live in a Surrey manor house and shout companionably at mispronunciations on the radio.
“If I hear ‘lamentable,’” she says with a shudder, “or worse, ‘irrevocable’, I want to get a brick and throw it at the wireless. We have to keep screaming,” she continues, “because if we don’t, this kind of thing will become current.”
Describing herself these days as “a gardener who acts”, she maintains a busy theatrical career; last year she was reunited with To the Manor Born co-star Peter Bowles in an acclaimed production of Sheridan’s The Rivals. “The shattering thing is,” she has said, “more people have probably seen me in one episode of To The Manor Born than would ever see me in theatre, even if I did it to the end of my days.”
“Of course,” she now adds, “the fact that Manor Born and The Good Life have stayed in people’s memories that long is wonderful. It’s an extraordinary thing but somehow films always date, television drama always dates, but comedy – the good comedy – seems to weather the storm.”
She is less sanguine about the current state of television comedy. “I think it is very sad that ‘sitcom’ has become a pejorative term. Because all the best comedies are about funny situations. And of course today’s ‘mee-ja’ [imagine Lady Bracknell cruelly impersonating Lily Allen] is so narrowly targeted at one particular socio-economic group or at a particular age group, which I find invidious. I really do.
“When I did Good Life and Manor Born, producers didn’t have to fill in forms saying which audience they were targeting. It was commissioned just because it was good. But life today is terribly compartmentalised.
“Children and adults eat in separate rooms or watch television in separate rooms. I’m sure that is a reason why young people occasionally bash up old people – because the ages don’t mix any more.”
Her calm certainty is very slightly terrifying. She must be devastating on committees and has the CBE to prove it. In recent years, she has served as president of the Actors’ Benevolent Fund and as pro-chancellor of the University of Surrey. She maintains a lively interest in adoption issues and warmly approves recent legislation framed to speed up the process, and limit the amount of time children spend in care while waiting to be adopted.
“I think it’s a splendid idea,” she says. “I’m president, also, of a local prison scheme. You realise what a large proportion of people in prison have been in care and you realise that what they desperately need is security. You look at those young men out rioting in the summer and you think that if someone were at home, saying ‘Don’t you dare!’ they’d have more of a chance. We want a bit more of that, don’t we?”
It’s not really a question, more a modulation. At her most passionate, Penelope Keith remains perfectly poised. Birth counts for little, blandishments of fame still less. But riding a hobby horse, side-saddle – that’s the mark of a lady.
The Manor Reborn begins tonight at 9pm on BBC1/BBC1 HD
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 15 November.