“Berkeley Square” is often described pejoratively as a “soap-opera.” In fact, that accusation is often flung at BBC narrative daisy chains of the Victorian/Edwardian era, and it’s probably relevant if you’re a snob. But household narratives in upscale houses of that period are as much mythical territory as 19th century horse operas of the American West, and probably for some of the same reasons, especially if they make deft use of historical background. They are the stories of many of our families.
“Berkeley Square” entwines three nannies for their stem plot drivers: one who is a former lady’s maid impregnated by the lady’s son but honorably protected by him (NOT the lady) until he dies, leaving her banished with the child; one who is the decent-ist, most competent nanny since Mary Poppins; and one who is a country bumpkin under the supervision of an aging but still dominant nanny. Beautifully cast and supported by the genius BBC stock actors, ten episodes unfold a series of cleverly edited and fast moving events. The plot line is greatly aided since we know these background characters -- not much need for back story. The sets are also familiar, though some are just enough to suggest -- not as layered as the actual locations can be.
“Hannah” (Victoria Smurfit) has the toughest acting job but is greatly aided by her beauty, which pretty much (not entirely) lets us accept some very bad decisions indeed. Her story includes the death of a baby and the death of a friend who takes the blame. Probably the actual culprit, a bad nanny who kills the baby with laudanum to keep it quiet (played by Ruth Sheen who will destroy her career if she ever has a chin implant) is historically accurate and the unjustly hung friend (marvelously played by Etela Pardo), a Polish Jew immigrant, is also true to life. But it is hard to accept that this alert young woman wouldn’t know that the baby was being drugged, that she would try to hide the death, or that she could successfully replace that baby with her own. It’s less difficult to accept that she could not save her friend and that she would refuse to “sell” the baby to its grandmother even though it would inherit its father’s life.
The irreproachable nanny (Clare Wilkie), though nicknamed “Sarge” by her own family for her unyielding standards, falls in love with the bad boy (Jason O’Mara) -- oh, what an irresistible plot! Especially if the bad boy is Irish! But this one is even better: his mother, the housekeeper (Kate Williams), and his aunt, the cook (Maggie McCarthy), are hearty, ginger women with crowded teeth, high-bridged noses, hooded eyes and high cheekbones who -- ever resourceful and scheming -- keep their men both in line and protected. (God only knows where the husbands went.)
This particular story-line is much enhanced by the child actors, particularly the small son of this family (Laurence Owen) who has not acted in movies since. ALL the children are charming and fairly believable. The babies, of course, being accurate to the period, are so buried in white frou-frou and swaddling that they might as well have been poodle puppies.
The third tale shows the most progression, though the whole sequence depends on many small illuminations and shifts on the parts of the nannies. “Lydia” (Tabitha Wady) is described by one unkind imdb.com reviewer as “horse-faced,” which she certainly is not. Her huge eyes, fillip of a nose, and generous flexible mouth express a range from the ecstasy of showing off her fishing skills to terrified indignation when targeted by the grown son of the household. In the end we foresee the brightest future for her because of her core energy and honesty.
Butlers here are not the taskmasters that Hudson was in “Upstairs, Downstairs,” but do manage things -- sometimes unwisely and sometimes well. The equivalent of Mrs. Bridges is Nanny Collins (Rosemary Leach), just the right mix of steel and custard. Her storyline raises an important question: can a nanny really guarantee the character and worthiness of her charges? Or will some of them turn out rotten, no matter what?
Granted, these are women’s stories -- though there are many males in all episodes -- with the focus on three management problems: the movement from one period’s standards to the next, in this case as they loosen and challenge class definitions. The other two are plot drivers: how a young woman can manage her assets to achieve a good life and how an old woman can let go gracefully even if there is no graceful place left for her to go. These three issues are still lively and potent today, so we’re interested.
I want to take special notice of one of the historical backgrounds, the “King’s Dinner” provided as a celebration of Coronation. It is a classic reversal ritual in which the highest in the land switch places for a day with the lowest. Lords of the realm are asked to actually prepare a meal for ordinary neighborhood working people. Anthropologists have noted how these events restore trust and enthusiasm, even in what might seem to be formless tribes living close to the land.
Another plot incident from history is the room of precious blue and white China pottery. In fact, several of the backgrounds include jars big enough to hide in, such as appear in John Singer Sargent’s upper class portraits. But a rude little dish that is accidentally broken turns out to be worth far more, because of its antiquity and story. It is rough because the Divine Emperor required a new dish for his dinner every day so that it could be broken when he finished to prevent any mere mortal from eating off it.
Only ten episodes of “Berkeley Square” were made, one season, which left the viewers clamoring for more. It ends in cliff-hangers as the swine of a seducer as well as the housekeeper’s forceful curly-headed son go off to fight in Somaliland, but Lydia’s suitor, the kind butler, is there for her. And the St. Johns (Sinjin) family seems to be on the mend. We might compose our own ideas of what will happen next. I’d love to see the tough Irish housekeeper fall in love! And the wicked baby killer needs a comeuppance. Hannah will no doubt re-marry, but I suspect she’ll make another bad choice and may end up in Australia raising sheep. Well, worse things can happen.