Andrew Billen - Rotting hell

Television - One old relic is saved, another deserves extinction. By Andrew Billen


This nation will vote enthusiastically for anything - with the exception of politicians. No sooner had Nadia, the majestically chested Portugeezer, won Channel 4's ugliest Big Brother yet, than the final of BBC2's upmarket version of the same was upon us. On Restoration on the Sunday night, 750,000 phone votes determined that £2.5m of Lottery dosh and another £500,000 raised by the premium phone lines would go towards doing up the Old Grammar School and Saracen's Head in King's Norton, Birmingham. "Secretly, when the vote comes, I usually assume it will be the most sentimentally beautiful," wrote the presenter Griff Rhys Jones in the Radio Times. "And then the public choose the most ornery." Well, not this time they didn't.

The grand finale of this year's Restoration season, co-presented from Hampton Court by Natasha Kaplinsky, on the grounds that a lot of people had recently also voted for her on Strictly Come Dancing, was as unsettling as ever. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in letting the public decide where its own money should go, or in getting people worked up about their local heritage. But the chanting and the fireworks, the wacky names of the experts (Ptolemy Dean - I ask you), the rushed, slogany interviews, not to mention the studied eccentricity of Rhys Jones - he's manic, like an old-school anchorman gone wrong (he spoke nothing like so affectedly when I was at school with him, and would have mocked anyone who did) - add to the impression that this is a way for BBC2 to do history and culture while pretending not to. The channel has an obsession with voting and grading: historical figures, great books, crumbling buildings. It is displacement activity, a projection of the former controller Jane Root's obsession with her channel's ratings.

Absent from Restoration was Fulford Hall in Devon, home of the Earls of Fulford since 1199. Cutting Edge (10 August) left no doubt that it, too, was on the brink of extinction: wet rot, dry rot, too many birds in the drawing room, too few slates on the roofs, bat droppings, attics not visited in decades and leaks everywhere - nothing, in other words, as the 23rd Earl conceded, that a million pounds wouldn't put right.

While the sole purpose of the human gene is to ensure its own reproduction, a senior male Fulford has two missions in life: to provide a male heir and to leave his inheritance as he found it or improved. Sadly, somewhere in the 19th century, the second half of the Fulford DNA stopped functioning correctly. And the current Francis Fulford was no throwback to more competent times. Living by a philosophy "based on a perpetual feeling of optimism that somehow everything comes right", he claimed to live in fear of meeting his forefathers in heaven and having to tell them that Mr Smith of Goldman Sachs, "or some other ghastly character", now owned the joint. Yet if he truly believed such a cataclysm could befall a family so inherently entitled as his own, his efforts would surely not be so half-hearted.

Because getting a job has obviously never occurred to him, Fulford relies on petty money-making schemes. These range from buying a £100 metal detector with which to dig up coins from under the lawn (initial yield: one penny), through charging BT rent for the underground cable that crosses the ground (£165 a year), to taking tourists around (£100 on a good day). The only real bit of money we saw being raised during filming was the thousand quid his wife, Kishanda, won on the horses - and she used that to buy herself a weekend away in London.

But the real clue that the earl was in desperate straits was that, for a suitable fee, he had let in Channel 4. "You are meant to be filming the picture, not fucking me," he fumed during an oration about an ancestral portrait, but the film-makers were all the time much more interested in him than his heritage. It was not exactly clear why. His fruity old accent (next to which Rhys Jones sounds positively pikey) was surely one attraction, as was his diabolical laugh (and I speak as one whose own is no siren's call). His racism, sexism and homophobia were major turn-ons, too, but hardly exceptional among the dimmer-witted aristocracy. But I fear that the fascination lay mostly in his nickname, "Fucker", richly earned by his constant use of the F-word. The programme was even called The F***ing Fulfords - 39 years after Kenneth Tynan first used the word on television, it has finally made it into the title of a mainstream programme.

Having got the hang of what the TV johnnies wanted, Francis happily played up to the cameras, holding forth on Germans, poofters and women to order. His exhibitionism was matched by that of his brattish children and his wife - who, in a gesture of prophetic displeasure at the job television would shortly be doing on her family, threw the family TV set into the lake. The final segment of the programme went elegiac on us. Stringed instruments struck up and Francis took us to the trees planted by his father so that one day his son might be kept in booze. Francis had great hopes for his own son, a nasty piece of work called Arthur. Arthur had a rather lower regard for his dad. As Francis's rifle missed its final clay pigeon, his heir observed: "You're so rubbish, completely shit." That's what we all thought.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times