Saturday, March 23, 2013

Not Quite Downton: Manor House, Episode 2: Dinner Party!

So two weeks into the "experiment," both upstairs and downstairs are settling into their roles.  Lady Olliff-Cooper plays tennis with Jonty, while Guy exclaims that the whole experience has given her a virtual happiness orgasm.  Not his exact words.

In Lady Olliff-Cooper's defense, anyone in that position would feel the same way, especially given the harried nature of her real life.  That includes the people downstairs who complain about her upkeep.  Who wouldn't want to give up having responsibilities for two weeks?  Best vacation ever.

Still, many people must work very hard to keep her so comfortable, and the strain is beginning to show.  At one point, a weepy Antonia proclaims that she only got three-and-a-half hours of sleep the night before, and that she misses her family and her boyfriend.  There is a lot of weeping and missing the family on this show.  But at least a new scullery maid has arrived:

Kelly Squires ("Kelly"): Whereas in real life, she does office administrative work, here she will get the joy of scrubbing pots and pans 16 hours a day.

Kelly seems to be made of stronger stuff than Lucy, and seems to get along with the rest of the staff.  However, even she gets rankled by her position before too long.  And all of the servants' fortitude is tested by the news that Sir John intends to hold a dinner party in order to suck up to his betters.  Barons and dukes and whatever else will be invited, and the servants are expected to prepare with no additional help.

Before long, Kelly and Ken (or rather Kenny, as he seems to be known) are arguing over which position involves more labor.  In order to keep the peace and prevent another scullery maid's departure, Charlie offers to let Kenny experience life as a footman for a day, while Kelly does Kenny's job and Charlie does Kelly's job.  Mr. Edgar approves, but secretly disapproves, as this is not how things would go in Edwardian times.  Back then, the butler's word was law and feelings were not tolerated.  He tells the tale of how his grandfather, a former butler, hardly ever spoke to him and terrified him out of his mind.  Only later did he find out that his grandfather really loved him.  How sad.  Still, Mr. Edgar approves of Charlie's initiative and not-so-discreetly favors him above the rest of the staff.

Meanwhile, Sir John and Lady Olliff-Cooper must determine whom to invite and proper place settings.  One wrong seating could be a social disaster!  Lady Olliff-Cooper writes invitations to all of the guests.  Sir John meets with a wine steward who shows him two bottles of a dessert wine that originated in the 1870s and was enjoyed by the Tsar of Russia.  There are only 12 bottles left in the whole world.  Sir John jokes: "And we have to waste it on the guests?"

At this point, I feel as though the series missed the mark by not drafting someone to play Sir John's daughter.  She wouldn't even have to be his daughter -- she could be a niece who comes to stay with them as Sir John's "ward" because her own parents died of typhoid or whatnot.  While it is nice to get the perspective of the spinster aunt, missing are the pressures faced by a young debutante in that society, and by her father to make a good match.  Imagine the tensions that would percolate if Becky and Jess not only had to clean "m'lady"'s room every day, but also the facilities of "Miss Olliff-Cooper," a girl their age who had nothing else to do besides look pretty.

Despite Kelly and Kenny's respite, the servants are nearly cracking under the pressure.  Monsieur Dubiard is especially frantic, as he must prepare several elaborate courses while using (in his modern eyes) substandard equipment.  He bickers with Antonia.  At one point, Lady Olliff-Cooper invites him upstairs to discuss the dinner menu, and we can see the filth of his labor embedded in his fingernails.

Seeing how low his staff feels, Mr. Edgar gets Sir John's permission to hold a fun gathering one evening, two nights before the dinner party.  It involves period-appropriate dancing jigs around the fire, and everyone seems to be having a blast.  Except for poor Monsieur Dubiard, who must sit in the kitchen plucking pheasants all by himself for the upcoming meal.

Alas, no one monitored the alcohol intake, for the next morning, Charlie and Kenny are as sick as dogs from alcohol poisoning.  Mr. Edgar lets Charlie sleep in a bit longer than usual.  But when he and Kenny don't appear at all, Mr. Edgar decides to investigate and finds both of them passed out on a slope next to the lake.  Heart-broken by their betrayal (especially Charlie's), he orders them to go back to their duties, and spends the rest of the day curtly reminding them that he is in charge and will not tolerate any dissent.

Around this time, Kelly decides that she can't hack it as a scullery maid anymore.  She seems more philosophical about her departure than Lucy, stating that she was being a negative influence and was dragging the team down.  No one seems to have any hard feelings.      

Finally the big evening arrives!  The wealthy and famous slowly trickle in, with their period-appropriate mullets and trifocal glasses.  The narrator tells us that the reason these aristocrats give Sir John the time of day is because they are impoverished and in need of extremely wealthy friends.  But as Sir John and Lady Olliff-Cooper stand by to welcome each new arrival, the narrator informs us of their first major faux pas.  For you see, on formal occasions like this, Sir John should be wearing a white waist coat and tie.  Instead, he is wearing a black waist coat!  At which point Violet, the Dowager Countess appears to tell him that she needs a drink.

Downstairs is chaos, as Monsieur Dubiard works like a madman to prepare each elaborate dinner course.  The food looks truly inspired and inventive, but squick! how can anyone eat without worrying about being poisoned?  So much delicate meat and no refrigerator.  It makes me realize that there are some real hazards to this period recreation "experiment."  Back in Edwardian times, their gastrointestinal systems were used to the conditions, but the same conditions could be absolute murder on ours.  I wonder if the producers ever thought about that.

Still, beautiful food is delivered to the appreciative guests, who struggle to talk about the popular subjects of 1905.  What they don't talk about is the subject that was likely at the forefront of their minds: September 11 and the World Trade Center Towers.  It turns out that 9-11 took place during the filming of this episode, and while everyone was informed, they were not allowed to read about it in the newspaper, or otherwise break out of their Edwardian roles.

In 1905, the crisis is that the extremely rare dessert wine isn't in the nearby cooler where Mr. Edgar put it!  He informs the footmen and Kenny, with the slight implication that he thinks they might have snatched it.  But they don't know anything about the wine, so they help him look for it.  Fortunately they find it in the cooling room, and Sir John is able to present it to his guests.  The evening is saved!

At long last, the party is over and the relieved staff gathers to clear away countless glasses and plates.  And sample the leftover wine, of course.  Sir John is proud, Mr. Edgar is proud, and everyone feels really good about the way things have gone.  If only it would last.

Downton Observations

Daughters Versus No Daughters.  One thing Downton certainly has covered is the daughter angle.  Need to see what resentful pawns of the marriage business look like?  Look no further!  Need to watch a young girl's soul shrivel as she learns that without marriage, her only value is that of her parents' nursemaid?  Over here!  So yes, if we viewed the two series side by side, we would see one cover what the other leaves out.  It's still too bad, though, that Manor House doesn't have a Miss Olliff-Cooper, because I think she would be the only one in the household to stand up to Sir John.  Lady Olliff-Cooper is too damn happy; Jonty doesn't seem like the type; Guy is too young; and Miss Anson is not in a "secure" enough position.  A teenage daughter, on the other hand, would probably feel entitled enough to speak her mind to her father -- at the dinner table in front of everyone, no less.  I would love to see the look on Sir John's face.  But then he would probably claim that she was having a nervous breakdown and ship her off to a health spa.

An Actual Dinner Party?  Have the Crawleys ever held a major dinner party?  Maybe in the Pamuk episode, but otherwise?  Usually they seem to have only a few guests for dinner, like the local clergyman.

Puts It in Perspective.  O'Brien and Thomas's scheming really resonates when you see the type of conditions they would have lived and worked in.  Yet the funny thing is that they actually have it better than most of the other servants.  Meanwhile Anna, the servant tasked with getting on her hands and knees and scrubbing away the dirt, is as cheerful and fresh as a daisy.  Her uniform never looks soiled.  She talks openly with her master rather than face the wall when he appears.  She has plenty of time to take trips to London to see her incarcerated husband.  And in all of the episodes, I've seen her hold a duster maybe once.  No wonder Fellowes thinks that the country house life was so idyllic for servants -- he has obviously never spoken to a real one.     

Next Time: Episode Three.  The servants get sick and then rebel!

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