Channel 4’s The Aristocrats: An eccentric look at the fragile relationship between the father and son team who run and live in Blenheim Palace

by Matt D

The Aristocrats: Sunny, the Earl of Sunderland, Duke of Marlborough

It appears tonight as if Blenheim Palace is getting plenty of publicity as it features quite prominently in this week’s episode of Young Apprentice while in addition it has a documentary devoted to it in The Aristocrats. The programme, subtitled the Battle of Blenheim, sees the 11th Duke of Malborough John Spencer-Churchill decide whether or not to let his son take over as custodian of the estate. That’s because his son Jamie Blandford was a notorious bad boy and by the mid-1990s had had a 20 year drug habit as well as several convictions to his name. In 1994 John took Jamie to court in an attempt to disinherit him however in the end it was decided that Jamie would still become the new Duke but would only control the family’s fortune if a board of trustees, which included his younger brother Edward, deem him fit to take over from his father.

As Patrick Forbes’s film shows a year in the life of Blenheim Palace we see that Jamie’s bad boy behaviour has mellowed since getting remarried and having two more children. It is also believed that over the last twenty years the relationship between father and son has mellowed somewhat with Jamie now eager to prove to his father that he can be a good custodian as 86 year old John isn’t getting younger. Having said that John is still looking sprightly, as he goes on his daily inspection of the property making sure the grass verges are properly trimmed and that everything is in its rightful place.

Part of John’s vigour might be down to the fact that he has married a beautiful Iranian woman, who is in fact his fourth wife, who also seems to have high hopes for Jamie’s running of the estate. The running of Blenheim doesn’t come without its problems though as the family realise they must repair another dam on the estate after the environmental agency warned of flooding while in addition they are planning their most audacious renovation ever with the instillation of a new toilet block and gift shop. We kept being told that the new East Courtyard block must be finished in time for the summer season as that’s when they host a lot of weddings. At the same time the workmen have to toil in some tough conditions as the cold winter is followed by one of the wettest springs ever.

The wet spring also has a negative impact on the tourist trade that comes to Blenheim as families are staying away from the outdoor activities that have been planned due to the poor weather. As we learn it was John who first opened Blenheim up as a tourist attraction and since then has turned the financial fortunes of the estate around however after taking very little over Easter the family’s finances were in trouble once again. Thankfully the sun came out just in time for the jubilee which saw John host both the celebrations in the surrounding town of Woodstock before lighting the beacon on the grounds at Blenheim. Jamie though was still worried about the finances but was getting turned down for grants from the lottery’s heritage foundation and was also getting no help from the Prime Minister. This was unusual as David Cameron is the local MP for the area the estate is on and later came to open the completed East Courtyard block but didn’t want to be shown on camera a rarity for our Prime Minister.

It later transpired that Cameron felt that being photographed with the aristocracy wouldn’t be good for his relations with us common folk even though Jamie tells us that Dave is a frequent visitor to the estate. As autumn descends the weather improves and Blenheim is once again full of people turning up for the famous horse trials which are the traditional climax of the palace year. As we watch the family happy with the way that things have turned out we also see Jamie get the good news that the board has voted him fit to take over from his father who seems to be happy enough to let him take the reins so he can have a bit of a rest.

The relationship between John and Jamie is a really interesting one what with the fact that the former tried to disinherit the latter as well as the fact that old wounds have now healed so in that respect Patrick Forbes had a great tale to tell. Personally though I feel he missed a trick as I found the Aristocrats to be a fairly ramshackle documentary which amounted to nothing more than a hurried highlights package from a year in the life of Blenheim Palace. For one thing there were hardly any scenes with father and son on screen together which I felt would’ve been a benefit to the story as both could tell about their falling out and their eventual reconciliation. I would’ve also liked to have known more about Jamie’s personal life, I later did some research myself, as we saw him briefly in town with his wife and two younger children before we later saw his elder son from an earlier marriage. As the documentary hurried along at a furious pace I was given the impression that this was initially going to be a two-part piece but Channel 4 asked Forbes to edit his film down to fit into a one hour slot as for me this is the only explanation for the programme’s rushed narrative.

That’s not to say that The Aristocrats didn’t have its charm which was mainly provided by the two eccentric central characters of this film. John, or Sunny as he’s known throughout the documentary, is a great chap who doesn’t let his age get in the way of checking his estate with military precision or participating in almost every event that he is invited to from the aforementioned Jubilee celebrations to hosting a gaggle of schoolchildren at the palace. John is very reminiscent of Captain Peacock from Are You Being Served? both looks wise and in the way that he conducts himself at work. Jamie meanwhile comes across as a Boris Johnson-esque buffoon as both come out with some cracking one-liners and at one point Jamie even describes himself as a frustrated politician. You could also see that Jamie was determined to win back the trust of his father and seemed to be focused on doing the best job he could at Blenheim though his wacky idea about a massive fountain in the middle of the estate might not go down too well with those trustees.

Overall I found The Aristocrats to be an uneven and rushed film which came across as nothing more than a highlights package about a year in the life of a stately home. Thankfully it focused on some colourful characters who represented the eccentricity of the upper classes and whose presence saved the film from being completely dull. My hope now is that more people will go to visit Blenheim and as it’s been featured on the majority of tonight’s TV shows it’s definitely had enough publicity to achieve this.

What did you think to The Aristocrats? Did you feel the story could’ve been developed over more than one episode? Leave Your Comments Below.

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