So people ask me, “Why should I come to Oxford?”
Well, there are lots of reasons to visit. You have, of course, the university and all the pretty colleges. You have history layered on history. You have a concentrated area full of famous authors, musicians, and nature.
And about 30 minutes away, you have Blenheim Palace.
Blenheim Palace is one of the most beautiful places in England to visit. It’s got sprawling lawns, a hedge maze, a central building full of history, and if you wish to suck 35 minutes (or 40 depending on the guide) of your life away that you can never, never get back – go see “The Untold Story.”
The Untold Story is a lesson in everything you can do wrong with animatronics and video. It’s so bad it is almost worth seeing to appreciate. In fact, it was pointed out to me that you can watch the budget decrease as you move from cell to cell. Wait, I mean, room to room.
You start out in a drape covered room with two animatronic characters. One, the guy who is in charge of building the place, is up on scaffold trying to hold up a bit of molding. The other, who is on the ground and looking at plans, is the first Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah. She has what appears to be a mirror in front of her, so you can “see” her face projected back at you. They are fighting over expenses to build Blenheim Palace. While the animatronic man wobbles up and down on scaffold, the Duchess breathes.
That’s right, the Duchess animatronic figure breathes. It’s disturbing. Even more so disturbing because her head in the mirror thing moves around an awful lot more than the head of the animatronic figure, which just stands there… breathing.
Out of nowhere we are introduced to Grace Ridley. She’s in another projection thing and she’s going to take us on the tour. She is the one who can open and close the doors to get us from one room to the other. She leads us to the next room which has a bed and a naked animatronic woman in it. She looks scared and her eyes swivel back and forth… back and forth… and sometimes she yells out and “Ooo!” – which is her fear rising in her. She is the King’s mistress, and John, the First Duke, has been fooling around with her. This is the racy portion of the tour. You find out that, in short, John was a ladies man up until meeting his wife. Then he was loyal and super and great. Because people never change.
After this you get to go to a break room where you ponder whether or not it is, in fact, possible to escape. There are movies that you can watch which are longer than the actual break is, meaning that they initially anticipated this piece of continuously operational art to be longer than it turned out to be. You escape into a room set up for a funeral. Really, just swap out the animatronic figure of the sitting First Duchess with a casket and you are good to go. She laments for 2 1/2 minutes. We timed this. This particular portion of the show has technical problems. First, the timing between the animatronic head moving and the mirror media head moving is off by 30 seconds. Second, there is a break happening in the voice recording which sometimes results in a bit of demonic feedback. Third, and I suppose to be symbolic, a loud ticking clock is placed in the room to represent the passing of time… or your life being sucked out. Your choice.
You move on and away from the First Duchess, which causes a lot of problems for Grace. This is because primarily after the First Duchess nothing really great happens. They do note that all the Dukes after were, for the most part, a bunch of losers, and you have to get into the final room to talk about their next great moment. This is, of course, Winston Churchill, who actually was well out of succession for the dukedom but the best the Spencer-Churchill family had turned out for some time. Nonetheless it is the shining moment for America. After all, without America then Blenheim wouldn’t exist – because the 9th Duke married an American heiress for her money by which to restore the palace. That is where Grace meets up with us, when she comes upon Consuelo Vanderbilt, who is completely nonplussed that a ghost has wandered into her presence and informs Grace that jazz is the “music of A-mer-ica!”
After that monumental piece of acting we are led out to the whole reason you should go on this tour, that is to see the 11th Duke decked out in every stripe pattern known to mankind. This amazing fete results in the television screen he is projected from constantly moving to track these lines. He reads is teleprompter with dry English and then, without saying farewell, walks off-screen. Then the ghosts of the First Duchess and Grace find each other and walk arm in arm out to the triumphal column to the First Duke – which is a hell of a walk if you decide to go do it.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to Blenheim Palace. I’m an avid season ticket holder and visit quite a few times each year. I’m just saying some things need to be left untold. Or, should the Mayan Calendar Doomsday prediction be correct and all our electronic devices rise up against us, that the animatronic creatures pry themselves off their stands and immediately go to kill the person who came up with the Untold Story. It would make the whole Mayan Doomsday prediction totally worth it.