Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Not Quite Downton: Manor House, Episode 1

Manor House, or The Edwardian Country House (as it was known in the UK), aired on American television in 2003.  It was part of a series of reality shows that also contained history lessons, including The 1900 House and The 1940s House.

Manor House was ahead of its time, in that its producers sensed our thirst for opulent period drama long before Downton Abbey became a hit.  And like Downton Abbey, Manor House took place in the close-yet-far-away time period of pre-World War I Britain. The house and lifestyle were meant to represent wealthy living during the years 1905 and 1914.  Unlike Downton, the actors playing the "upstairs" and "downstairs" didn't get to leave their roles at the end of the day.  Instead they lived them every day for three months.

This series also has a fundamentally different outlook from Downton Abbey.  With Downton, the objective is to show how harmoniously the classes lived together, how kindly and paternal the master was to his inferiors.  With Manor House, partly because reality shows need conflict, the objective is to show how incredibly difficult life was in the Edwardian period if you were a manor house servant.  This series doesn't even try to pretend that there is anything superior, or beneficial, about the "old" way of life compared to the present.  In fact, Manor House is counting on its "downstairs" participants realizing just how unfair the old way is.

The first of the six episodes does not have a lot of action, so I will use it as an introduction to the series. The manor house in question is Manderston House in Berwickshire, Scotland, home to the Fourth Baron Palmer.  It is as lush an estate as anyone could hope for, certainly standing shoulder to shoulder with Highclere Castle.  One by one, we see modern people arrive at the house, already dressed in early 1900s costume.

Hugh Edgar ("Mr. Edgar"): An architect who has built royal residences all over the world, he will be the straight-laced, no-nonsense butler.

Jean Davies ("Mrs. Davies"): She once ran a restaurant, is an enthusiastic gardener and cook, and understands the fundamentals of housekeeping.  She will be the housekeeper.

Denis Dubiard ("Monsieur Dubiard"): An acclaimed chef in real life, he will be the resident Chef de Cuisine.

Eva Morrison ("Miss Morrison"): In real life she was a hairdresser for 15 years and runs a haberdashery shop.  Here, she will be the lady's maid.

Rebecca Smith ("Becky"): While in real life she works for Tourist Information, here, she will be the first housemaid.

Jessica Rawlinson ("Jess"): In real life, she does unspecified work in the accounts department of a firm.  On Manor House, she is the second housemaid.

Charlie Clay ("Charlie"): A former model and current sales manager, he is the first footman.

Rob Daly ("Rob"): A recent university graduate with a degree in genetics, he is the second footman.

Tristan Aldrich ("Tristan"): He has trained under an Olympic carriage driver (I didn't know that was a sport) and looks after 24 horses.  Here, he is the groom.

Ken Skelton ("Ken"): He lives with his parents and looks after people who suffer from neurodegenerative illnesses.  Here, he has the inglorious role of hall boy.  And yes, he really does sleep in the hall.

Antonia Dawson ("Antonia"): In real life, she is a police control room operator.  Here, she is the kitchen maid.

Hmm, I feel as though I'm forgetting someone.  Who could that be?

Anyway, the downstairs staff arrives first, going around the back the way "the help" did in those days.  It turns out that everyone has a rule book for his or her designated position (even the upstairs) and they giggle over rigidness of their roles.  Mr. Edgar auditions Charlie and Rob for the position of first footman, which carries more prestige and responsibility.  Footmen are supposed to be the "peacocks" of the house, designed to showcase the master's wealth.  Because I'm shallow, I think Mr. Edgar should have chosen Rob, but instead, he chooses Charlie because he is taller.

Then the staff cheerfully prepares for their new masters' arrival, in denial about the extent of their hardship, though it is already becoming clear.  Servants can only take one bath per week (!).  The second footman must empty the footmen's chamber pots every morning (!!).  That leads Rob and Charlie to vow that neither will ever get up to use the pot in the middle of the night.  There is also no refrigerator, which means that large blocks of ice must be hauled in and then broken down.

Just then, someone knocks at the front door.  Oh yes, now I remember --

Lucy Garside ("Lucy"): A waitress in real life, she will be the scullery maid.

She cheerfully announces her arrival to Mr. Edgar's thousand-watt stare.  He directs her to go around the back way, with Rob guiding her.  It turns out that Lucy's role is the lowest of all the servants, although hall boy could give her a run.  She must scrub pots, pans, and the kitchen seven days a week, 16 hours a day.  Lucy didn't realize when she took this role that she'd have to actually, like, work, and she quickly starts to rebel against its requirements.  Just as she threatens to become a huge thorn in everyone's side, she decides to up and leave a mere two days after arrival.

But before that happens, we meet the Olliff-Cooper family as they're being transformed into the "upstairs."

John Olliff-Cooper ("Sir John"): A man made for being a nouveau Edwardian aristocrat, he has run a flooring business for 30 years and sails Edwardian yachts every August.  Here, he will be Sir John, a businessman-turned-baronet eager to climb the social ladder.  The series narrator points out that Edward VII, unlike his mother, bestowed people with knighthoods and baronetcies simply for becoming wealthy.  What, they don't do that anymore?

Anna Olliff-Cooper ("Lady Olliff-Cooper"): A part-time emergency room doctor (how does that work?), she has been married to John Olliff-Cooper for 11 years.  Now she will be "m'lady" to everyone she encounters.

Dr. Avril Anson ("Miss Anson"): Anna's sister and a self-employed Marketing Consultant who used to lecture at the University of Exeter, she will be the resident spinster and object of pity.  In reality, Avril has a live-in boyfriend, but because that situation was not accepted in Edwardian times, she will have to be apart from him for three months.  She will likely spend her nights writing love letters by the light of a low-wattage lamp.  Oh, and because her hair is naturally short, she will need to wear a wig.

Jonathan ("Jonty") Olliff-Cooper ("Mister Jonathan"): "Jonty" is Anna Olliff-Cooper's son by another marriage.  His real life almost perfectly resembles that of an heir: graduated from a prestigious public school and bound for Oxford.  While in real life, he would not be the natural heir of Sir John, in the series, I think we are meant to see him as Sir John's firstborn.

Guy Olliff-Cooper ("Master Guy"): Guy is the "adorable," "precocious" 10-year old son.  I think we're supposed to find him endearing, but he just makes me queasy.  But he does what the producers want, which is speak without a filter and express the attitudes of the upstairs.  In the series, the "lovable" little moppet plays himself.  He gets to make observations about how low on the totem pole everyone else is, and how he can boss everyone around.  I suppose you could call him the Violet of the show, minus the wit.

Reji Raj ("Mr. Raj-Singh"):  He doesn't join the family quite yet, but in the series, he has the "privilege" of being Master Guy's tutor and of existing in the gray area between upstairs and downstairs.  In real life, he is a primary school teacher.   

The Olliff-Coopers get into costume and arrive at the house by vintage car.  By the model, it looks as though the time period is set a half-a-dozen years before the first episode of Downton.  The downstairs is anxiously lining up to greet their new masters, and everyone "oohs" and "ahhs" at each other's costumes.  The downstairs people note that the Olliff-Coopers don't carry the slightest whiff of modernity with them, and seem all too willing to play their parts to the fullest.

Already feelings are starting to get injured.  When Lady Olliff-Cooper encounters Becky on the stairs, Becky is required to face the wall and pretend to be invisible.  After "m'lady" leaves, Becky tearfully confesses that she resents being looked upon as if she doesn't matter, after all the work she and the downstairs have done.  

Still, there is awkwardness for the upstairs as well.  Miss Anson seems highly conscious of the fact that actual people are waiting on her and are sacrificing for her needs.  And even though Lady Olliff-Cooper likes feeling "pampered," she is aware that in some ways, the upstairs is restricted by such opulence.  Upstairs members of the household must dress five or six times a day for each meal and/or activity.  The Olliff-Coopers have their own rule books and their own rigid rules to abide by.  In truth, it's possible that whatever "superiority" complex they put on is heightened by the requirements of the rule books.  Just as Rebecca wouldn't turn and pretend to be invisible to Anna Olliff-Cooper, Anna Olliff-Cooper might be kinder and more openly gracious than Lady Olliff-Cooper.

On the other hand, when Sir John says something like "The system makes sense," it's hard not to think that the real John Olliff-Cooper is speaking with all of his out-of-touch heart.          

Downton Observations

Whither the Valet?  Sir John can afford to have a hall boy, but not his own valet?  Lord Grantham could never get by without a valet tying his shoes for him.  Maybe Manor House thought that too many high-level servants would go against its attempt to highlight the differences between upstairs and downstairs living.

Lack of Dishpan Hands.  We certainly never saw Daisy on the ground scrubbing her skin off every other episode.  Daisy was never simply a scullery maid, but since Downton did not have a separate scullery maid until Series Three, I presume she did a lot of scullery work.  Come to think of it, Ivy never did any scrubbing, either.  Maybe because the floors of Downton were clean enough to eat off of, unlike the floors of Manderston.  My god, that kitchen is just a salmonella outbreak waiting to happen.  Brrrr.

Chef Instead of Cook.  That the "Mrs. Patmore" role is filled by a male chef creates an interesting dynamic that is much different from the one in Downton.  In Downton, although Mrs. Patmore is in charge, she still seems like "one of the girls."  Or at least, someone comfortably situated among the downstairs residents.  Whereas Monsieur Dubiard seems almost like an alien presence downstairs, unable or unwilling to connect with the mostly female staff beneath him.  Whether that is solely because he is male, or because of his personality, or because a chef has more status than a cook, I can't say.

Enough Servants?  As with Downton Abbey, I question whether there are enough servants to run such a massive house.  In this case, I'm sure the answer is no.  Where is the groundskeeper?  Where is the estate manager?  Where is the laundry maid?  I've gone back and forth about the number of servants a wealthy man of that time period would possess.  One source claimed that only the wealthiest of men kept as many as 20 servants, while another source mentioned a duke who kept up to 40 servants!  All I can say is that "at least 20" sounds right, whether for Downton or for Manderston.  In the latter case, I think the numbers are kept lower because (1) logistically, it would be too difficult to get 20-plus servants all in one place and make them memorable, and (2) it creates more hardship for the existing servants, which in turn leads to more conflict and emotion.

Next Time: Episode Two.  The downstairs must pull together for a lavish dinner party.


  1. Btw., was informed that on Downton, there were various nameless scullery maids in the background, that Daisy and Ivy therefore never did any actual scullery work.

  2. 1) In Downton, there are numerous servants in the background of many scenes. The fact that individuals are not shown does not necessarily imply that they do not exist.

    2) It would not have been inconceivable that a Butler would serve as Valet in a househould the size of Manderston. Remember that Downton (Highclere) is several orders of magnitude grander (and bigger) than Manderston. Here I am not refering only to the building, but also the family and the estate.

    3) The point you raise that is most significant is the lack of a "trained cook" at Downton - as Mr. Dubiard is at Manderston. A household like Downton would have almost certainly had a Mrs. Pattmore who would cook for the servants, but also a "trained cook" (chef) who would provide the "fancy" French cuisine for the family and guests.

    1. Thanks for the comments!

      1) Duly noted.

      2) Maybe not, but I can't see it under those circumstances. Manderston is a pretty grand estate, home to the 4th Baron Palmer in real life. I can't imagine that with such a vast estate, the master of the house couldn't afford his own valet. Furthermore, while Sir John was supposed to be a "new money baronet," if anything, that means he would have been far richer than the aristocrats around him, and probably far more anxious to embrace all the trappings of his wealth.

      3) It makes me wonder how high level Mrs. Pattmore's cooking is, since there's no indication that anyone has really found fault with it.

  3. I just watched this series and loved it!! I so wanted to talk about it with someone but since its 10 years old....no one knows about this. So glad I found your blog... you wrote exactly what I was thinking/wondering about. What an amazing experiment on so many levels!

    Just wish they had an update...what did they take and keep from the experience, and really wonder what these participants think about Downton Abbey. And wonder if the Downton folks took anything from Manor House?

    1. Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it! I, too, wish that they would do an update: it would be fun to listen to the participants' comments, along the lines of "We were Downton Abbey before it was cool." If Fellowes didn't take anything from it, it's too bad, since it gave a lot of insight into the class divisions.

  4. I just happened on this series which is available free on Amazon Prime. I love it! I'm very interested in the costumes. Who made them? Would love the back story on that aspect of the show. My favorite costume is Miss Anson's bicycling suit and would love to know if it is truly historical. The skirt is obviously from the time period but the jacket is one that I can't find a single source for, although bolero jackets were quite popular in the period. Would love to hear a lot of discussion about the costuming!

    1. Excellent close observation, Tigerlady11. Have you studied this time period extensively? Amazingly, I don't have the slightest interest in current fashions, but I can't get enough of fashions from the 1890s through the 1910s.

    2. Not sure I can say I've studied the period extensively but over the past year I've been sewing historical costumes. I started with a bustle dress from the 1870s, then a Civil War dress and a French sache dress. After seeing Manor House, I realized I love the Edwardian fashions. Now I'm trying to create the biking outfit by drafting my own pattern. I follow the Pinterest historical fashion pages and can't seem to come up with this particular style of jacket so it made me wonder about its authenticity to the period. I really like Manor House, not for the reality show aspect but for the history. I didn't start out a fan of this era clothing but can't get enough of it now. I enjoyed the Lady's Maid and Lady Olliff-Cooper's discussion of the underwear issues. Something you'd never know about if you didn't actually wear a corset, drawers and a chemise. I totally agree with your lack of interest in current fashion. I really enjoy your blog!

    3. Thanks! I really liked that discussion, too. It was also relevant to the time period I'm researching, the 1860s, where women wore those big crinoline skirts. It was like: "How do they... you know... in those things?"

  5. do you follow any historic sewing sites online?

    1. I don't. Are there any you would recommend?

    2. my favorite is historicalsewing.com

      I've taken a few of her classes and they're great. She's also on facebook and has her dresses there.

    3. Thanks for the link! I'll take a look.

  6. I just found this site about recycled clothing from period movies. I don't know if Manor House would be included but I just finished watching North and South (Gaskell version) and saw one of the exquisite dresses used in several films:

    1. Many thanks! Not only are these sites interesting, but they could be extremely helpful with my own research.