Oh, “Gosford Park,” I thought when I ordered “Manor House.” This won’t be a tough one like the "Forties House." No war, everyone in that elegant house Manderston, and everyone knowing their place. Ha! Nor was there any more information about drains or heat either, except the maniacal French chef’s obsession about his massive cookstove which had to be hot at all times, consuming whole roomsful of coal and kindling! The man whirled around his kitchen so fast he was almost a blur and no one, NO ONE, helped fast enough or the right way to suit him.
This chef, Monsieur Dubiard, who clearly lived to cook; Miss Morrison, the Lady’s maid and confidant; and Tristan, the groom who ordinarily does about the same work driving a carriage, were about the only people in this idyllic setting who didn’t end up in tears or near to it, including Sir John, the master who sat at the top of the pile! (Real names for these people -- they were not actors.) This is a surprise to the viewer but seems to have been even more of a surprise to the participants who were thinking in terms of a lark, not sixteen hour days of either slave labor or total boredom. In fact, the comments on IMDB.com seem to divide between those who thought the whole thing was scripted and phony, and those who thought the reality was palpable. I vote with the latter.
We so romanticize the Edwardian period, overlooking the hierarchies, double-standards, hardships and injustices of that short and slightly unbuttoned period between the death of Queen Victoria and the beginning of WWI. We are quite unaware that the obsession with food (quite as intense as now) was hardly health-based -- in fact, Sir John and his wife (a physician) became rather concerned over the high fat, low nutrition, and total absence of roughage, which meant constipation. They admired their chef’s ice sculpture swan but not the pig’s head that glared at them so reproachfully from the sideboard that the family returned their plates untouched -- those surviving downstairs had no such scruples and enjoyed nicking bits off it. Even the chef said to it, as he closed the oven door on the head, “See you later.”
Sir John was so reproachful about the pig head with the butler, Mister Edgar, that the seemingly impervious Edgar was nearly weeping. He had so valued his intimate relationship with Sir John -- tenderly shaving him while talking things over, man-to-man. The pig head might have been planted, but his emotion seemed quite real. Poor Edgar took the heat from both sides as the gentry became more restive -- the sister, Miss Anson, became so bored that she sank into depression and had to be shipped off for a “rest cure” -- while the downstairs staff became even more rebellious.
As always and as Edwardian children knew, downstairs was a whole lot more fun, partly because this staff, at least, was young and partly because there was just so much “doing.” The first kitchen maid (think “Ruby”) quit after two days. The second one lasted only slightly longer. The third one was a country girl, who knew the realities enough to not mind picking game birds and scrubbing pots with homemade soap. The trouble was that she was “country” enough to fall madly in love with the “hall boy” who was at the bottom of the ladder in every way except his own mind. The two footmen were quite splendid rosy-cheeked youths, whose worth was determined by their height. Charlie was vigorous and modern enough to take over the endless pot-scrubbing for a day so the servants’ cook could catch up enough to prepare a decent meal for once. But the brainstorms he was so proud of didn’t always work and poor Mister Edgar was torn between admiration and exasperation.
Not enough housemaids had been hired to maintain a mansion with such elegances as a sterling silver handrail on the main staircase, and it was clear that a bit of extra flesh plus an assertive personality could save such a servant. The thin, idealistic one was laid low and wished desperately to go home, which is when a third maid was added.
If the footmen had too much to do, the young man of the house, “Jontie” was not only prevented from doing anything but also prevented from SAYING anything, which nearly drove him round the bend. The younger brother did quite well with his tutor, Mr. Singh, who had hardly any plot line, presumably because he really WAS tutoring. He is normally a teacher. Nevertheless, he was a reminder of the British Raj, a product of this era, and kept alive the connection between the treatment of servants and the treatment of colony natives. He was the silent conscience.
Clearly, these people put up with their lives because the alternative was possibly prostitution for the women and death by exposure and malnutrition for the hallboy, who was probably much younger in actuality. The economic realities of the time pressed their personalities into deformations and compromises that most people in the US no longer need to make. MOST of the time. Except on reservations and in urban ghettos.
Towards the end of the show there is a “fair” on the grounds. (See “The Buccaneers,” another of my favorite Edwardian movies.) It is visited by Socialists, who might have been ordered off in the true times, but were probably invited by the directors who were well aware of how the rebellions and hardships of the servants made them greatly welcome such a movement. The war, as we’ve seen in “Upstairs, Downstairs,” pretty much ended the system.
It wasn’t until I watched the “footnote” video journals (the participants had the chance to slip away and speak privately to the camera) that I learned this production was slashed across like a sword during filming when 9/11 happened. It was a hard jolt. Miss Morrison and her daughter had actually visited the World Trade Center and stood at the top of one of the towers just the previous year. No one escapes the hands of fate, the wars and economic crises and climate changes of the whole globe, and even Edward the Seventh, who gave his name to the age, must have known that.
The participants thought of just stopping what suddenly seemed like trivial pursuits. But then, like true English, they picked up their roles again and finished. What lingers in my mind most vividly is the still shots of the landscape, a beloved breast of land that has survived so much.