Gosford Park - the meaning and purpose of life in a country house
When ordinary folk troll round the visitor circuit at stately homes such as Blenheim or Longleat, they usually purchase a guidebook or pick up a leaflet that tells them what they are there to see. These guides are generally swallowed whole (as it were), even though the information they contain is useless in the context of everyday life.
At Syon Park, for example, the stapled guide begins 'Welcome to Syon House, home to my family for over 400 years, ' signed the Duke of Northumberland. At Beningbrough, there is a quote from a letter that Vanbrugh wrote in 1721: 'There are several gentlemen in these parts of the world that are possess'd with the spirit of building.' At Rousham Park in Oxfordshire, there is a stern announcement to the effect that the house and garden is 'a place of pilgrimage for students of the later work of William Kent (1685-1748)'. At Buckingham Palace, the guide begins: 'Since the Norman Conquest, four great London palaces have served as the seat of majesty, ' and goes on to prove that the present one is indeed the fourth.
Admittedly there is more to even the most cursory of these guides than a first sentence, but the first sentences give the authentic flavour of the whole nonetheless.
They capture the gagged and bound art historicalness of it all, the fawning attention to dates and ranks, honours and alleged architectural causes and effects. This is the dessicated, button-down English Heritage/National Trust exit-through-giftshop approach to history.
It is nothing like the real thing, which was all about money and owning land as far as the eye could see, when ownership really did mean power.
Oh, if only there were a stately home that had not been swaddled in ancestors and picked to death by academics!
Well now there is, and for the past few weeks it has been called Gosford Park . At first sight, the first sentence of its guidebook - 'It is unusual to encounter a major country house surrounded by an extensive park within 14 miles of central London'- makes it sound like all the others.But it isn't.
The sentence comes from an article about a house called Wrotham Park, which was where most of Gosford Park was shot. Admittedly even Wrotham Park has an untypical country house history - it was built for an admiral who was executed on the deck of his own flagship in Portsmouth Harbour for the crime of losing Minorca - but that need not detain us here.
What is important is that the admiral's estate (in the guise of Gosford Park ), has featured in a hugely successful country house film that has nothing to do with the National Trust/English Heritage guidebook view of the world at all. So much so that the very thought of Wrotham being opened up to the public now, with Gosford Park videos for sale in its gift shop, has one collapsing with laughter.
The point about the film is that it offers a perspective on the meaning and purpose of life in a great country house that is exhaustively researched and totally convincing, yet utterly incompatible with the bowdlerising conventions of art history, let alone the sanitised version of history that still goes into theme parks by the bucket load.
In Gosford Park, the seething, scheming, shooting party guests could not care a blue plaque for the Palladian artistry of Isaac Ware. No more could any one of the 30 reviewers listed on the film's website muster up a single mention of its architecture.
Many more Gosford Parks and the whole monstrous edifice of heritage will be laughed off the stage of modern planning and social order.