Country House Drama: The Memories of James Lees-Milne

By Byrnes, Sholto | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), May 18, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Country House Drama: The Memories of James Lees-Milne


Byrnes, Sholto, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


When Hugh Massingberd first considered writing a one-man show on the life of James Lees-Milne, the architectural historian, biographer and diarist was having none of it. "How could you possibly have imagined that I would ever consent to such a ghastly charade?" he told Massingberd. "To see myself portrayed by an actor on stage would make me writhe with embarrassment and shame."

"Ghastly" sounds like a particularly Lees-Milne word. He belonged to that stratum of society where the aristocratic, the plutocratic and those elevated through artistic success all mixed: the arbiter of taste and the purveyor of the witty apercu was always welcome. Although a fine observer of upper class manners, Lees-Milne was more of an aesthete than some of his subjects. Massingberd, who has drawn on the 12 volumes of diaries as well as Lees-Milne's other three books, includes the Duke of Beaufort's opinion on his one-time tenant at Badminton in the play: "What's the point of you bloody Lees-Milne? You don't hunt, you don't shoot, you don't fish."

From the grave, however, Lees-Milne probably wouldn't find the venues where the play will be touring at all "ghastly". After two sold-out runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre (the Duchess of Devonshire bought all the tickets to the opening night), Ancestral Voices is now touring and will be performed in some of the places he felt most at home - country houses such as Petworth, the seat of Lord Egremont and Leconfield, Lord Cavendish of Furness's Holker Hall, Prideaux Place in Cornwall, and Chatsworth, the home of the Duke of Devonshire.

Massingberd is keen to stress that Lees-Milne's fascination with such grand addresses was not purely social. "He shouldn't be pigeon- holed as a country house crawler," he says. "He was much more of an architectural figure. A lot of what we now take as our national heritage is still there as a result of this one man cycling around or driving in a rather clapped-out car. Houses were being destroyed at an alarming rate right up to the Sixties as listing didn't really get going until then."

The show's writer has one particular reason to be grateful to his subject. In 1943, as the National Trust's historic buildings secretary, Lees-Milne visited the home of Field Marshall Sir Archibald Montgomery Massingberd, Gunby Hall in Lincolnshire, to assess its value to the nation.

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