How the Duchess of Roxburghe’s Crumbling Estate Inspired the BBC Series Ghosts
The festive edition of BBC One’s comedy Ghosts is a highlight of the 2020 Christmas TV schedule. The episode, titled ‘The Ghost of Christmas’, promises to deliver the same wonderful blend of humour and poignancy that won Ghosts millions of fans over the course of two seasons (a third is in the pipeline) and led to the press crowning it ‘British telly’s best sitcom’.
If you’re wondering how Button Hall’s phantom residents spend Christmas, you’ll soon be able to find out! ‘The Ghost of Christmas’ will be broadcast on 23 December then released on iPlayer.
Unexpectedly Inheriting a Manor House
The owner of the crumbling yet charming manor house at the heart of Ghosts is thirtysomething Alison Cooper. She and her husband, Mike, were struggling to get a foot on the property ladder until a solicitor called with astonishing news. Alison learned that she’d inherited Button Hall from a distant relative, Lady Heather Button, who’d died at the grand old age of 99.
‘Lady! Does that mean I’m a Lady?’ Alison exclaimed in the solicitor’s office, thrilled at the prospect of joining the social elite. As one of Ghosts’ creators, Jim Howick, told Broadcast magazine, the young woman ‘discovers her aristocratic roots, which she embraces immediately and takes on with relish’.
There’s another surprise in store when Alison and Mike move into their new home: they realise it’s haunted by a group of eccentric characters who, despite being dead, are larger than life. Caveman Robin, beheaded Tudor nobleman Humphrey, Stuart peasant Mary, Georgian aristocrat Kitty, Romantic poet Thomas Thorne, Edwardian Lady Button, World War II soldier the Captain, 1980s Scout leader Pat Butcher, and 1990s MP Julian Fawcett cause chaos.
Button Hall has fallen into disrepair, and the Coopers take on the formidable task of restoring it to its former glory. They could’ve sold it and bought a property with more home comforts and fewer spooky goings-on instead, but where would the fun have been in that?
Button Hall’s Real-Life Counterpart
Ghosts exemplifies the notion that art imitates life. The story of how a young woman suddenly finds herself in charge of one of England’s historic country houses is inspired by real events.
Button Hall is in fact West Horsley Place in Surrey. This Grade I listed manor house dates back to the 15th century and boasts a long line of privileged owners, including members of the peerage and the recipient of a knighthood. Particularly notable among them is Henry Courtenay, 1st Marquis of Exeter and 2nd Earl of Devon, who was given the estate by his cousin Henry VIII in the early 1530s but sadly had little time to enjoy it. In 1538, the nobleman was beheaded (following dubious charges of treason). He finds a parallel in the character of Humphrey in Ghosts.
The Duchess of Roxburghe’s Bequest
West Horsley Place’s most recent aristocratic owner was born Lady Mary Evelyn Hungerford Crewe-Milnes in 1915 and, 20 years later, became the Duchess of Roxburghe upon her marriage to the 9th Duke, George Innes-Ker. The manor house was the Duchess’ summer residence from 1967 until her death aged 99. She bequeathed it to a distant relative, Bamber Gascoigne, the original quizmaster on the BBC’s University Challenge.
As West Horsley Place’s website makes clear, Gascoigne ‘unexpectedly inherited’ a country estate in urgent need of millions of pounds worth of restoration work. His shock must surely have matched Alison’s in Ghosts. And like Alison, he rose to the challenge of saving the property.
Gascoigne founded the Mary Roxburghe Trust, which aims to restore West Horsley Place and promote it as an arts venue. Thanks to Ghosts, the estate has become well known as an atmospheric filming location.
Whether her spirit dwells there or not, the Duchess of Roxburghe would surely be pleased to learn that the manor house’s future is assured.
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