Manners maketh woman

In real life, thank goodness, Jill Harbord, though full of poise and
presence, exudes none of the terror she gave off as head teacher in the Ladette to Lady TV series.
I shouldn’t put my sweaty mits round the cup of my wineglass, she
twinkles, no wonder it ends up covered in greasy prints, but that’s my only
telling off. The proper way is to hold the stem.
Jill’s perfect manners are actually very reassuring, as opposed to
intimidating. Greeting you from the counter of her gift shop at Egglestone Hall
in Co Durham’s beautiful Teesdale, a former finishing school and setting for
the Ladette series, you know where you are with her. She’s going to be polite, and treat you with respect. Being courteous, she is proof you can be warm, too. Not stiff, but pleasant. I like
Ladette to Lady, the ITV hit that ran to three UK series and two in Australia (as
well as one for the States), was popular because Jill and the equally
fearsome-seeming Rosemary Shrager were unbendingly strict, but there was
kindness there, too.
The contrast between their no-nonsense world and that of the
smoking, drinking, effing, blinding and hair-raisingly promiscuous young women
who tried to make it to ladies in their five weeks at finishing school was
great TV, but for Jill, it was the tragedy of their chaotic backgrounds and
their determination to allow in some structure, to establish some self esteem,
even though they might not be aware they lacked it, that made the most
meaningful viewing.
Jill’s career took off at the celebrated Winkfield Place finishing
school near Windsor, where she helped the daughters of the rich and famous
learn to fend for themselves through secretarial, floristry and Cordon Bleu
cookery skills. Deportment, etiquette and poise were essential complimentary
subjects. They were also taught laundry skills, having rarely needed to
understand the workings of an iron in the mansions and country houses they came
She was then asked by Egglestone Hall’s Lady Gray to take the
headship there, where Jill worked until it closed some 20 or so years ago,
staying on in the area to run the gift shop, deliver courses in etiquette and
social ease, and become famous in its absence.
Girls didn’t go to finishing school to meet rich husbands, she asserts. Many really did go on to become secretaries or professional florists, or to do extremely well for themselves as cooks.
When she was first approached for Ladette, Jill had great misgivings. “People say to me now that it must have been such fun, and my reaction to that is it was extremely humbling.
I found it a huge responsibility.
“I was lucky enough to grow up with a wonderful mother and father
and home; three things I took for granted. These young women’s lives had been
hard, and it was actually a far deeper series than was perhaps fully revealed on TV.
“There were lovely, lovely moments, and also some very sad moments.
One girl might blurt her out her fears immediately, another would bottle in the
most difficult story.
“One of my fondest memories is when I had to sit while the girls
were supposed to paint me. It was a mighty difficult thing for them to do.
Everybody was drawing away and they were all doing their best. Then I looked at
this Welsh girl’s painting, and I’ve got a green face.
“I said, ‘Why’ve you given me a green face?’ She said, ‘Well, I like
green and I like you.’”
The crew asked for the painting, framed it, and at the end of the
series, presented it to Jill. It is one of her most treasured possessions.
She and Rosemary were an even bigger TV hit in Australia, where,
landing in Sydney, they were collected by a taxi emblazoned with their
“The very first thing I saw was our two faces plastered all over the
boot. It nearly blew my head. There were great big advertising hoardings
everywhere with us on them. People would stop us in the street,” Jill says,
“and thank us because they now felt more comfortable about holding a door open
for their girlfriend. The thing was, they liked it.”
She was pounced upon by McDonald’s in Australia, which ran a TV
campaign on the correct way to eat a burger. Jill recommended they equip
restaurants with knives and forks, which they did. At least for a while.
“I’m very interested in doing more work with young people,” she
reveals. “It has surprised me. I’m quite a solitary person, I live on my own
and work mostly on my own, but the time spent with some of these girls felt
incredibly worthwhile. I felt that for once in my life I could do something
that really helps somebody.”
Why are manners important? “Good question. I think, again, it’s
about respect. Good manners are life-enhancing. Etiquette is about treating
people with consideration, every day, not just walking with a book on your
Christmas Jill Harbord’s way
“If you’re invited to a Christmas party, always take a gift for your
host or hostess. Most people take wine, but do so only if you know what wine
they like. I would probably take flowers and spending £12 – £15 is enough. Will
it double up as a Christmas present? Yes. In the past, people used to bring a
really nice box of Bendick’s Bittermints; something you wouldn’t necessarily
purchase yourself. It’s bad manners not to give anything.
“Nowadays, everybody seems to expect so much at Christmas, and
there’s far too much pressure on people. Parents even give big presents to
their children’s school teachers. Letters have gone out of fashion, but I would
send a proper letter, over two sides. It’s like when somebody is bereaved – now
people just send a card. It’s very sloppy. The thing with receiving a letter is
you can look at it and think about it.
“I keep a small selection of small gifts, fun things that I can take
if I’m invited to lunch over Christmas.
“The habit I hate most right now is people getting up after their
meal, or worse, a course, and going out for a smoke. That is such bad form. It
used to be accepted to smoke at the table, but if you were correct, you didn’t.
“One of my most popular etiquette lessons is A Minefield of Eating. It starts with the implements. People tend
to hold their knives and forks too far up. Your forefinger should rest between
the blade and the handle.
“When you’ve finished eating, place your knife and fork together on
the plate, and slightly off to the side at 5 o’clock. The fork should be flat,
facing up, and the knife blade should be facing inwards.
“Don’t hold your little finger out when drinking a cup of tea.
“When you eat soup, hold the spoon by the top of the handle, take
the soup up on the opposite side of the spoon, and sip off the near side. Don’t
put the whole thing in your mouth, which people often do.
“Only leave the table during a meal if you really have to. And NEVER
answer your mobile phone or text during a meal. It’s awful.
“I dread Christmas now because a lot of my cards need a letter
inside, but I think it’s important for everyone to at least know how to write a
proper letter. Christmas is a time when I link up with people. As you get older
you collect people from all sorts of different walks of life, and it’s lovely
to hear from them.
“I’m not a lover of round robins. Some of them are so pompous, full
of what the family has achieved, and I’d rather not know any of it.
“I only give cards to people I have to post to. I wouldn’t send a
card to someone I work with – I would wish them happy Christmas in person. It
becomes awkward if they give you one. I feverishly write them one back, because
you don’t want to hurt their feelings.
“When should you eat Christmas dinner? People tend to have huge
turkeys these days, and it’s a case of dinner being ready when it’s had time to
cook. As it’s called Christmas dinner, I automatically expect it to be served
in the evening.
“Ask your host for the loo or the lavatory, never the toilet.
“Growing up, we would have spiced beef for breakfast on Christmas
morning which had been rubbed with spices and turned and wrapped in saltpeter
for a full week and kept in the pantry. Our puddings, mince meat and Christmas
cake were all made in September. The Christmas pudding was always left till
Boxing Day, when people weren’t as full. The way I love it is fired, with
brandy butter.
“I think Christmas is a time to celebrate, but in our society there
are a lot of older or single people. You can’t really have a jolly time sitting
in your flat on your own. Christmas is very much a family time. As a single
person, you can feel you’re intruding on people. It’s a funny feeling. It’s not
that you don’t want to be there, but you’re not quite sure if they really want
you, or if they just feel sorry for you. I’ve a vet friend who goes and feeds
the homeless for four days over the whole Christmas period.

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