It’s rare that I’ve conducted an interview with a tongue in my ear, while my interviewees nose a ball towards the owner of said appendage. However, I find myself in Devon at the seat of the Fulfords, and labrador love abounds. The Fulfords found fame in The F***ing Fulfords, a 2004 Channel 4 documentary charting the adventures of father Francis, 28th incumbent of 800-year-old Great Fulford and its 3,000-acre estate, his four marauding children and long-suffering wife.
Francis raced around cooking up money- making schemes (as-yet unlocated buried treasure and dinner parties staffed by obliging ghosts); the children broke heirlooms playing indoor cricket; while mother Kishanda grew so frustrated with them all that she lobbed the telly into the lake. Its resplendent combination of foul mouths and excreting pets caused fanciful observers to bill it: “The Osbournes in tweed”.
Ten years on, and the Fulfords are back, in a six-part BBC3 “comedy factual entertainment series” entitled Life Is Toff. Francis, 62, greyer, but with a distinguished jet monobrow, now presides over a family of young adults: Arthur, his heir, and twin Matilda are 21, Humphrey 20, and Edmund 18. Bertie, the glossier lab is 18 months, Sir Timothy, “over 100,” with the bowel control to prove it. Lady of the house, Kishanda, 54, chose not to appear, determining that no payment could provide enough inducement.
Money, again, proved the motivation, her offspring confide, sitting around the kitchen table, sharing tea, chocolates and roll-ups. Spokeswoman Matilda explains: “We were very hesitant. We’re not the kind of people who crave to be famous, especially not for something like reality TV. But, then, obviously, when you’re offered money and you’re just out of university, or school…” Was there income for the house too? Francis guffaws: “Money always goes into the house. It’s what my mother called ‘the bottomless pit’. It absorbs money like a sponge.”
The title isn’t one they’d have chosen. As Edmund puts it: “People will see it and think: ‘Let’s all sit down and watch a bunch of t**ts.’ ” Still, as Arthur remarks: “The people who were on Benefits Street ended up being rather loved.” “Yes!” cries Francis. “Big Sue!” Fleetingly, I am struck by his resemblance to a Harry Enfield character. After the first documentary, to his delight, a vagrant assailed him with a barrage of approving expletives.
There is something of Michael Apted’s Up series in seeing them all again a decade on. Arthur is suave, droll, describing himself as being devoted to “personal development” since being expelled from Sherborne. Painter Matilda has just finished reading art history at Leeds and is off to Barcelona to explore its art market. She’s used to making herself heard amid the masculine roar, and beautifully mannered when not having to hit father or siblings.
Military-minded Humphrey is up in London. “What is it you read in Georgette Heyer?” asks Francis. “Getting some ‘town polish’.” Edmund is content to be known as the family dimwit. (There’s a moment in the series when he begins to elaborate on what he boasts instead of intelligence, and immediately dries up.) However, as his parent reflects, everybody loves him, and he is adept at puncturing the loftier assertions of the others, his father’s not least. Kishanda shakes hands before running away.
Some viewers were disconcerted by the lawlessness of the children’s upbringing. Paternal intervention can be summarised by Francis’s classic interjection: “Oh, Humphrey, do stop being a bore. You’re being a f***ing nuisance. F*** off.” The only rule, says Edmund, was not being allowed to lose the TV remote. Francis’s childhood was not dissimilar. He recalls that, when his governess appealed for disciplinary aid, “There’d be a pause, then the front door would slam as Dad did a runner.
“When the children first arrived, I thought: ‘I’m going to do this properly. We’ll have rules and regulations.’ But I found it all too tiring. Children are a bit like dogs and you bring them up in the same sort of way. What one wants is to have fun.” Do the children feel, well, normal? “That’s a really bizarre question,” objects Tilly. “When I was at Leeds, four of us lived on the same budget, with the same money problems, and now I’m looking for a job like everyone else.”
There is collective satire as she becomes confused between semis, detacheds and terraces, before concluding that she lived in a terrace.
Do they feel privileged? “Yes, of course,” says Arthur, “but not in the sense that I went to Eton, did PPE [philosophy, politics and economics] at Oxford, and ended up in Parliament. I’m just very lucky to have been brought up here.” What was the thing they relished most? “Growing up in a giant playground,” Matilda beams. “The lake,” chime the boys. Is Arthur fretting about the responsibilities that hit his father at 16? “Not quite yet! I have to admit, I really don’t know what Daddy does.” Matilda feels only relief that she can be free, travel, have Christmas in the Seychelles, should she want to. “What’s the Seychelles?” asks Edmund.
Would Downton Abbey be inhabited by a Fulford-type clan today? “Well,” booms Francis, “I think the Earl is a complete plonker. He is so – that awful phrase – up his own bottom. I always wish I were watching it with my father. He’d have been spluttering, saying: ‘That would never have happened.’” “You do that anyway,” says Edmund. “Yes, but he’s a complete prat of the first order and if he goes on being a prat, the whole place is going to go down the proverbial.”
He alludes to the V&A’s Destruction of the Country House exhibition of 1974. “They said that we were doomed, like ospreys. Well, 40 years on, we’re not extinct and ospreys have returned.” Is he proud? The short answer is “Yes”, although his monologue on 150 years of agricultural history is fascinating. What is he proudest of? Planting trees, the restored ballroom, “And having children – it would be bloody boring without them.”
He writes a blog on matters ranging from the RSPB to ISIS. Has he missed out on a life in politics? “I was put forward to be an MEP once, but now I’m a fully paid-up member of Ukip.” Today’s “modern Puritanism” appals him. Perhaps Mr Fulford should usurp Mr Farage? “Well, I might be tempted.”
What comes across most powerfully is the Fulfords’ fondness for one another. There is love here and not just for black labradors – no less affection for the house. Francis takes me on a tour. The revamped ballroom is magnificent. Elsewhere there’s curling wallpaper, a door off its hinges, and stuffed animal heads bearing last year’s Christmas decorations.
Would he ever sell? “The fun thing about owning a place like this is that you always have a purpose. How bored would one be sitting in that ghastly flat in Monte Carlo, or some palatial house in London? I’d be bored. The joy about something like this is you’re never bored.”
Neither could he ever be accused of being boring.
Life is Toff starts on BBC3 tonight (28 October) at 10.00pm