The Baron



Voiceover: Fiona Allen


Participants: Mike Reid, Malcolm McLaren, Suzanne Shaw


Twofour for ITV1, 25 April to 8 May 2008 (3 episodes)


Another variant on the standard celebs-in-unfamiliar-territory fare in which three reasonably famous people (though nobody - even the other celebs - seems to recognise Malcolm McLaren) descend upon the Aberdeenshire fishing village of Gardenstown to compete for the courtesy title "Baron of Troup", the winner to be decided by the locals.

The village is, so we are told, "one of Britain's most isolated communities". It should be pointed out (since the programme itself completely fails to) that this isolation is a state of mind rather than a fact of geography. In reality, Gardenstown is well-connected and has several large towns almost on the doorstep. Oh, and contrary to many listings, it's not in the Highlands either (wrong side of the Grampians altogether). To someone who knows the area, it's intriguing to ponder just how much the celebs (and the journalists flown in to cover the filming for the Sunday papers) were really told about where they were. They must have at least picked up a bit from talking to the villagers, but the production company appears to have gone to some lengths to maintain the illusion of remoteness (90 minutes to travel from Aberdeen airport by coach? That must have been one circuitous route), and will have been helped by the fact that even though the fairly large town of Banff is only about 4 miles away, the local geography hides it (and its lesser twin, Macduff) from view.

Fiona Allen's commentary also tells us that Gardenstown is in crisis after the last Baron relinquished his title. She doesn't tell us that it's a figurehead role without any actual power, or that he relinquished it because the production company made him a generous financial offer for it. Scottish baronies are the only British honours that can be legally traded, but one of the first acts of the new Scottish Parliament was to abolish what remained of the old Scottish feudal system, with the upshot that the title doesn't actually confer any land or special rights.

Still, having raised these issues, we're prepared to let them go since (1) they make little difference to the average viewer, and (2) these minor omissions of fact aside, Gardenstown is pretty much as the programme represents it. A not-especially picturesque little coastal settlement, the bottom end of which is slowly crumbling into the sea, it has a population of about 700, including quite a few incomers lured by the sea views and, we are told, more churches per person than anywhere else in Europe. And insofar as this programme has a hook, that's it: not so much a clash of town and country, North and South or even traditional and modern, but secular and religious.

Suzanne and Mike at the posh end of the village

And when you think about it, that's pretty bold (for ITV, that is). We see religious communities like this on TV quite often, but usually it's in one of those cosy and somewhat surreal Nigel Farrell (or Nigel Farrell-alike) series about Reverend Bob and his vital work in blessing tractors and judging jam-making competitions. You get none of that here - instead we have a voiceover openly mocking the villagers, Malcolm McLaren telling them to their faces that "Jesus was a sausage" (which they don't like one bit - anti-sausage feeling is clearly strong in Gardenstown) and even sweet little Suzanne Shaw admitting to the temptation to tell the churchgoing audience at a public meeting to eff off. And it's not even members of some obscure sect they're slagging off - by and large, it's people from yer actual Church of Scotland. This is revolution! And her out of Hear'Say is leading it! I don't think anybody expected that.

Anyway, as these celeb reality things go, it's quite good fun, all the more so for being ultimately rather pointless. The celebs don't really have a lot to do, and while there are a few set-piece public meetings, for the most part it's just the celebs talking to the locals, each other, and the camera. Reid wanders around and cracks jokes, Shaw discusses campaign tactics with the local butcher and McLaren sleeps and mopes. McLaren clearly has the raw deal, since the three celebs each stay with a local family, and while Suzanne and Mike settle in easily, wouldn't you just know it, the producers have arranged for Malcolm to lodge with a family of evangelical christians. The producers must have been disappointed that sparks utterly failed to fly in the household, though they got what they wanted later when McLaren was run out of town after the sausage incident.

Malcolm McLaren peddles anarchy to the kids of Gardenstown

As ever, there's a few too many recaps and previews (while it's always a joy to hear Suzanne Shaw describing the villagers as "a f-ing bunch of k-heads", five times in an hour is getting on for too much of a good thing) but it functions perfectly well as a piece of entertainment and if nothing else, it's a welcome and long-overdue antidote to the likes of An Island Parish. Still wouldn't want to live there though.

Next year: Russell Brand, Claire Grogan and Hardeep Singh Kohli compete for a genuine bishopric... you never know, it could happen.

Postscript 2011

The appearance in 2011 of another outsiders-descend-upon-a-village show, Love Thy Neighbour, gave us pause to consider whether we'd perhaps been too generous to The Baron. In retrospect, we were probably being a little overcharitable in letting it off with omissions of fact because "they make little difference to the average viewer" but hey, we were young and naive (but also wild and beautiful). But can we really justify ripping the newer show to pieces when we've been so neutral-to-mildly-approving about the older one? What's the difference? Well, three key differences come to mind:

1. The Baron is actually (obfuscated geography aside) about the place where it's filmed; Love Thy Neighbour isn't. Love Thy Neighbour is a predetermined narrative that could have been imposed on any village anywhere, and in fact not only could have been, but was.

2. The Baron identified an existing point of conflict and built a format around it to illustrate the conflict; Love Thy Neighbour didn't, rather it tried to create its own where none previously existed.

3. Love Thy Neighbour tells, The Baron shows. Love Thy Neighbour gives us the story the producers want to tell, but The Baron actually presents the evidence on screen.

So what we said about The Baron stands. Though on the whole we'd recommend Creature Comforts over this, as well.

Key moments

Malcolm McLaren's tirade against the villagers ("The cod have all left this town and I don't blame them...") made the Scottish press.


The title "Baron of Troup" refers to the nearby Troup Head, which is owned by the RSPB and is an important seabird colony, with the second largest population of gannets in the British Isles. The area is also a popular destination for fans of the film Local Hero, which was mostly filmed just down the road in Pennan.

The show was left on the shelf for some months, following the death of contestant Mike Reid shortly after filming, and shown as a tribute to him.


Mike Reid, whose family have since been involved in raising money to build a new community centre for the village.


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