PBS tour through sumptuous British houses

A few years ago, I rented a car in London in June and planned to meander leisurely through the British countryside. As happens so often in Britain, the rains came. It poured so heavily that it was soon impossible to see much more than 10 yards ahead, so I gave up the idea of seeing the countryside. Instead, with the aid of an ``Open to View'' ticket, which allowed free entry to about 500 houses, and a guide titled ``Historic Houses, Castles and Gardens,'' I decided to stay indoors as much as possible. As a result, I must admit that I dripped rainwater and trekked mud through many of the stately mansions of Britain. It was a glorious holiday despite the weather.

Now, without benefit of rain and mud, public television is giving homebound Americans an opportunity to visit some of the same majestic homes. Treasure Houses of Britain (Monday, Dec. 16, and for two successive Mondays, 9-10 p.m., 10-11 p.m., and 9-10 p.m., respectively; check local listings) complements ``The Treasure Houses of Britain: Five Hundred Years of Private Patronage and Art Collecting,'' an exhibition under the patronage of the Prince and Princess of Wales at the National Galle ry of Art in Washington, which runs through March.

With the Viscount of Norwich (whose ancestral home, Haddon Hall, dates from the 12th century) acting as tour guide, ``Treasure Houses'' points out that the impressively defensive British castles of the 1st century and earlier gave way to the English manor house, designed to prove that it was becoming unnecessary to defend yourself at all. The manor house itself provided its owner with authority and prestige. Thus the interiors as well as the exteriors were planned to impress. This became even more true

in the 19th century as merchants acquired fortunes and built country houses as a sign of wealth.

Lord Norwich, also known as John Julius Norwich, is a writer, historian, and broadcaster with a fine knowledge of architectural history and, seemingly, a wide circle of acquaintances among people who dwell in Britain's most beautiful houses. So not only does he manage to gain entry to such homes as Hardwick Hall, Burghley House, Wilton House, and Chatsworth, but he engages in amusingly freewheeling chats with the residents as they point out their special favorites among their treasures. In most instanc es, the present heirs serve mainly as caretakers for the National Trust, which now maintains the houses.

This too often results in a tendency to dwell on personal favorites not quite as interesting to tourists like us. But after all, we have been invited into these people's homes, so it is only polite to indulge them a bit.

``Treasure Houses,'' directed by Peter Newington in association with the National Gallery of Art, has been wrought with infinite taste and skill. It is presented on PBS through WETA, Washington, a station whose series have this year propelled it into the forefront of PBS programmers.

But not all is perfect: There are many other homes worthy of inclusion in the series but omitted, I suppose, because the film depends to a great extent on Lord Norwich's ability to gain entry. And at the end of Episode 1 there is a shot of ``vulgar'' day-trippers wading in the ponds, enjoying the grounds of Burghley House, as Lord Norwich intones, not very convincingly, that these homes are ``living, breathing institutions.''

And then there are the ``enhanced underwriter credits,'' which in this case means many photos of new-model Fords. Not objectionable here, since they appear only at the beginning and end of each program. But to where is it all leading? ``Treasure Houses'' has whetted my appetite for a visit to the exhibition in Washington and another trip to Britain to try to see the houses that still remain to be visited: There are hundreds. But meantime, this WETA presentation serves as a dazzling reminder that Wes tern civilization has sometimes produced quintessentially habitable treasure houses. They make the homes in ``House & Garden'' and ``Architectural Digest'' look like low-income housing.

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