Alan Bennett’s new play People has annoyed the National Trust, with Trust chairman Simon Jenkins writing a defensive rebuttal in the Guardian. Perhaps because I am not the direct subject of the attack, I read it as a slightly more tongue-in-cheek assault than Jenkins implies. Bennett has created a provocative play on a significant issue, and I think People raises important questions about the conservation of our stately homes and how this can, or should, be funded.
There is a fine line between maintaining integrity and taste and introducing new ideas to draw in visitors and make money. The play could be a critique of the public as much as of the National Trust – it is their taste that the National Trust is allegedly catering to.
Stewart Lee has commented on the unwillingness of the Trust to let visitors think for themselves or to decide how to experience a property. It is this fostering of a “narrative” for the house, to the exclusion of all else, that Bennett attacks in People. I think sometimes the National Trust underestimates the ability of their visitors to soak up the atmosphere of a house or garden without needing to have it rammed down their throats.
Frances de la Tour and Linda Bassett are perfectly decked out in the stereotypically eccentric garb of the impoverished upper classes, surrounded by priceless antiques but unable to afford central heating. They can only watch as their home crumbles around them. There is a strong ensemble cast, although de la Tour’s performance in particular carries the show. The set is also beautiful, although I actually preferred it in its dilapidated state – before the Trust has renovated the house to its former glory.
This is an entertaining play, and if it has also generated a renewed interest in the preservation of our stately homes and the role of conservation then it has done both the National Trust and the nation a service.
Calke Abbey is a rather unusual National Trust property. As you start the tour of the house all seems normal; your standard stately home décor (albeit with a rather large amount of clutter including an unusual amount of taxidermy). Many of the rooms are beautifully decorated and contain the usual family portraits. But as you enter the second stage of your tour the grand interiors are replaced by flaking wallpaper and discarded bric-a-brac.
Calke Abbey is the National’s Trust ‘un-stately home’, and has been preserved in the state that it was received in by the Trust in order to educate the public of the dramatic decline that plagued many country house estates in the twentieth century. The Trust aims to raise awareness of the many estates that did not survive.
While I enjoy looking round the more normal National Trust properties, Calke Abbey is fascinating and amazingly atmospheric. Many of the deserted rooms retain remnants of their former grandeur; the Nursery has a rather eerie feel, with its collection of broken and abandoned toys scattered across the floor. The seemingly endless warren of empty corridors would not seem out of place in a horror movie.
In the midst of this decay, visitors encounter the State Bed, in pristine condition having remained unpacked since its arrival as a gift in the eighteenth century. Its beautiful canopies draw attention to the hidden gems that are lost in these decaying houses, and the importance of their conservation.
It takes a huge amount of effort and ingenuity to safeguard Calke Abbey while maintaining it in its current state of disrepair. But it is certainly worth it; Calke Abbey is not only a fascinating and atmospheric building but also a monument to the decline of the British country estate and the lost lifestyle of the families that once lived in them.