Manor House Sir John Olliff-Cooper
"I really don't have problem with having servants...if I'm not being served, they don't have a job."
Sir John Olliff-Cooper
Sir John Olliff-Cooper
Sir John Olliff-Cooper

Watch the video diaries

Sir John's Day

As a landowner, Sir John is in heaven - he gets to fish in his own lake
As a landowner, Sir John is in heaven - he gets to fish in his own lake

Edwardian Life

An Owner's Guide to Life in Manderston House

A Typical Day in the House

How to Treat your Servants

The People: John Olliff-Cooper

John: Thoughts After Leaving the House, 2002

What expectations did you have about entering Manor House?
Before Manderston came into view, I'd had the impression that we might be spending three months in something rather lowering and gloomy. The House and its interior came as a glorious architectural surprise.

I'd rather thought that Edwardian food might be plain and fatty, so Monsieur Doubiard's cooking wonders were also a delicious relief to my gall bladder.

I was slightly concerned about the idea of living for three months under the all-seeing eye of a camera. We had been told that the lights and cameras would very soon 'disappear'. This seemed to us to be extremely unlikely, but within a day or two we just didn't notice them. We were able to feel and act normally.

Do you think that taking part has changed you?
Yes, it certainly has. When I told my friends that I'd been selected to become an Edwardian, they took great delight in telling me that I'd always been one. They assure me now that they meant it as a compliment. They may have been right, because I dropped happily and naturally into Manor House life. Despite my alleged predisposition to formality, I found that Edwardian life in a great house was so ritualised, I became a slave to the timetable of the House. As Master of the House I could have changed anything at a whim: dinner could have been ordered for twelve at night. But, the well-being of the house, and self-discipline required that I work within acceptable norms. The system worked well. With that example in mind, I believe I have become more ordered in my daily life. Not before time, some might say.

Has anyone said that you have changed since you have returned to the 21st Century?
I've been accused of being rather detached. This may be true. Twenty-first century life has its advantages: pain-free dentistry, antibiotics, and universal education; but I do miss the beauties of the House, and the feeling of community. I suppose I'm struggling a little to return to a Britain that feels as though it is past its heyday.

What do you feel you've learnt?
More than anything, I have learned that the maintenance of good communication links between people is essential. Where things became difficult in the House, it was usually due to a simple breakdown in communication, and therefore, failing to understand others' needs and concerns. I believe that the majority of the cast members embarked upon the project with goodwill, and the intention to do the right thing as Edwardians, but I should perhaps have been astute enough to see that the Edwardian way (little direct communication with lower staff) might lead to misunderstandings when applied to modern people. It has been a lesson well learned.

Have you remained friends or stayed in contact with anyone from the household? Why?
Yes, we have a on-going connection to Edgar, whom we hope will see himself always as a member of our family. We have also spoken at length with the amazing, redoubtable, and splendid Morrison, and expect her to remain a firm friend. These were the staff with whom we had daily contact at the House. They cared for us, not just because they had to, but because they really wanted to. We obviously owe them a great debt of gratitude. We know too that in any age, these people would be rated as exceptional. We were incredibly fortunate to have had them with us.

What did you enjoy most?
I loved almost all of it. It was a particular pleasure for me to see my wife so utterly engrossed in the person she was within the House, and the real joy she obtained from her experience.

The relationships we developed within the community were the most important thing, but the House itself was also a great joy. Singing around the piano offered a hint of what life was like before wireless and television took over the world's evenings. We were not living in a museum, but in our home. Despite some inevitable watering down of the illusion when jet aeroplanes went overhead, we felt that we were living in Edwardian Britain. We were virtual time travellers. Only real Edwardians know more than us about living in that extraordinary belle epoch.

What did you like least?
The emotional turmoil of leaving the House. Just before we left we felt that the Manderston community was letting go of the dream: almost what might be described as demob happy. It felt as though adjustments were being made in people's minds in readiness for the shift back to the twenty-first century. The effect for me was to detract from the 'reality' we had made for ourselves. I hated that.

There were other difficult moments, when the staff we cared about were clearly in difficulties. Within the remit of Edwardian Sir John, there was only so much that I could do, and that was hard to bear.

What did you find the hardest aspect of the role you assumed?
The limited time that I could spend with Guy. Grand Edwardians usually saw their children for only a few minutes each day. We didn't allow that, because we were not prepared to loose touch with our son for the sake of the project. Nevertheless, because the formal Edwardian system was such a great thief of time, were aware that we were snatching at moments with him. Bed-time cuddles were not improved by a stiff-fronted shirt, and a tail-suit. This was certainly not the best environment for children. Guy obviously enjoyed some of the experiences; others he survived. At the time it was a matter of concern, but he's back to his old irrepressible, wonderful, self.

What did you miss most from the 21st century? Did you ever give in to temptation?
My electric toothbrush, and not much else. No, I didn't cheat. I was strict with myself, even to the extent of washing my hair with soap rather than shampoo when necessarily staying in hotels, away from the House.

I really couldn't see much point in undertaking such a unique experience, only to dilute it with passing 21st century indulgencies.

Do you think that the 21st century can learn anything from the Edwardian era?
Yes. It can learn loyalty, duty, service, honour, and fineness of character. It can learn about quality and design, and about building for posterity, rather than for the moment. The privileged could learn that with that privilege should come duty. The under-privileged could learn that resentment offers no improvement to their lot. That list may sound a bit pompous, and I offer no apology for it.

What did you like and dislike most about the Edwardian era?
Like: The loyalty we were shown.

Dislike: The load our life-style imposed on others.

If you could have your time at the Manderston again is there any one thing that you would have done differently?
Thinking in twenty-first century terms, I would have set up a better line of communication to the staff. Having said that, if I'd done so, it would not have been very Edwardian.

Selfishly, I would have given Monsieur Doubiar less licence to produce what he thought best. His ability as a chef was boundless, but there were occasions when we might have suggested alternatives. I cannot believe that grand Edwardians allowed their chef complete carte blanche.

Did you find that the Edwardian setting changed the way that men and women related to each other? How do you feel about it?
Yes. Whilst we were perfectly well aware, even whilst in the House, of what our relationship comprised, we acted perfectly naturally as Edwardians. The formality, the setting, and understood norms of hierarchy of the 1900s all seemed to insist that women should be more concerned to look wonderful and play to their husband's position in society, before they took time out for thinking. That's the current received wisdom on the period. In reality, I was at all times perfectly well aware that my wife thinks for England twenty-four hours a day. All the same, we/she allowed the Edwardian way, both of us knowing that it would last for only three months.

In a chauvinistic sort of way I rather enjoyed it, but we're now back to a 50/50 relationship, and I like that very well too. Two brains are often an advantage in life.

Any other stories you want to tell?
I feel the need to say, perhaps defensively, that we did our best. At the time of writing these words, I have no idea of how Manor House series will turn out, or how each of us will be seen. The prospect of going back a hundred years was an absolute wonder to us from the moment we knew we might be selected to be the Edwardian family, and we undertook our roles with every intention of being complete Edwardians.

There were some extraordinary moments within the House. It's the little things one remembers: snapshots and cameos, rather than grand events. There were many things that the cameras didn't see. Perhaps they wouldn't have happened at all if the cameraman had been around. There was one beautiful 'Manderston moment' (as we say in the family) when my wife and I were waltzing around the marble hall, like Missus Anna and the King of Siam, in the King and I. I was humming the tune to keep us in time, as we sped around and around under the hall's domed ceiling. We thought we were alone, and were totally self-absorbed until we saw a spellbound face peeping through the glass doors. I won't say who.

Guy's great moment came when he stood before a grand audience to make an announcement, and silenced them all with a statesmanlike 'ahem' type cough. No prime minister has held his audience more completely. Not bad for a nine-year-old, and just the sort of thing to bring a tear to a father's eye.

There is the story of my master/servant relationship with Edgar. I hope the films show something of the Edwardian reality of this. What was said was important, but even more important was that which was unsaid, and just understood. Clearly not all master/servant relationships were based so securely in Edwardian times, but some must have been. I know now why loyal and faithful old servants were housed and maintained until death. There is something very beautiful about unspoken understandings based on mutual loyalty, and care. It's not very English to speak of such things, but there it is.

Would I do it again? Not before tomorrow.

UPDATE: 2003
John is still running his business. He and Anna are still in touch with Edgar and Mrs. Morrison - "they are both part of the family - we would walk barefoot to China with them. They're utterly loyal - and absolutely priceless." Would he go back tomorrow? "Absolutely - starting tomorrow, although on the condition that I could chose my own staff..."


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