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Behind closed doors

The Aristocrats - review.

The Aristocrats
Channel 4

If you’ve been paying attention, you will know that I usually like very much indeed the work of the documentary-maker Patrick Forbes, the man who brought us the BBC’s sublime series about English Heritage and Channel 4’s The Force, for which he was embedded with the Hampshire Constabulary over a period of many, many months. Forbes is a master of the form, able to deal with pathos and high drama, but with an eye for the absurd, too. So when I heard his next project would be called The Aristocrats and would take in some of Britain’s grandest stately homes, I rubbed my hands in glee. What fun. The high comedy of yellow corduroys matched, perhaps, with the tweedy flat cap of a little light class war. Houses like wedding cakes, only built of brown toast. Labyrinthine family trees, dark secrets weighing down their every creaking branch. This, I’m afraid, is my idea of heaven.

Sometimes, though, what should be the easiest target turns out to be anything but. The first film in the series had the title the Battle of Blenheim (22 November, 9pm), and it was about the struggle of the Marquess of Blandford, aka Jamie, former drug addict and ex-convict, to convince his father, the Duke of Marlborough, aka Sunny, four times-married former guards officer, that he is fit and willing to inherit one of Britain’s biggest palaces and its estate. In 1994, Sunny (the nickname comes from his courtesy title, the Earl of Sunderland, and is ironic, because he is, or used to be, famously grumpy), tried to disinherit his son. Jamie fought this and eventually a compromise was reached: he would be Duke, and live at Blenheim, but the estate would be controlled by a board of trustees that would include his younger brother, Edward. In the years since, father and son – Jamie has been clean for five years – have grown a touch closer, and over the period in which Forbes’s film was made the younger man had decided to try to wrest back a little more power.

As battles go, this felt a little worked up, because whatever happens in the future, the trustees will be there, ready to step in. This wasn’t why the film failed, though. It felt too much like an episode of the BBC’s recent series about Chatsworth: all gift shops, horse trials and jaunty music. Meanwhile, Forbes – I presume it was him – could be heard in the background, laughing at the non-jokes of duke and marquess alike. The drama, such as it was, came from a new lavatory block the duke was constructing in a stable. Would it be finished on time? Or would the forelock-tugging masses merely have to make do with the old loos? Exciting! The lavs, incidentally, were eventually opened by the local MP, David Cameron, whose minders would not allow him to be filmed with the duke, for all that he is a regular visitor.

The duke played the documentary team for a fool, wanting the publicity the film would bring but resolutely refusing to do anything like a proper interview. The only psychological insight we got into his character was the observation that he is obsessed with neat verges. I wanted to know more about his latest wife, Lily, who is a rich Iranian-born Indian some three decades his junior, not to mention the other three, among whom was Athina Onassis – for it’s in this familial silt that the key to Jamie and his addictions must lie (I believe an older brother died as a small boy, though this wasn’t mentioned in the film.)

I sensed, too, that Forbes was nervous of Blandford. Not that you could blame him. The marquess’s bonhomie was thin as Parma ham, rage breaking through at the slightest provocation. I thought he was ghastly: lazy, dim, entitled, graceless, self-pitying and petulant – though this doesn’t mean that he might not also be extremely unhappy. Had he told Forbes that he would not discuss his past? Perhaps. Even so, you longed for a serious question or two to be lobbed in his direction. I couldn’t care less about the fountain he wants to build, or his polo team. I’m interested in his burden, whose outward symbol is John Vanburgh’s extraordinary allegory of triumph. Blenheim Palace has 187 rooms, many of which are open to the public. But whenever I have visited, it has been the question of what lies behind all the locked doors that fascinated the most.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?