Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Not Quite Downton: Manor House, Episode 3: Revolt!

If the house seemed like a well-oiled machine in the last episode, it quickly collapses in this one.  Four weeks have passed and the servants are dead tired.  Their fondest dream is to have some honest-to-goodness time off, which is at Sir John's discretion.

Kenny grumbles that if he doesn't get so much as a half day off, he will kidnap Jonty and hold him for ransom.  Antonia muses that if she were really a kitchen maid in the Edwardian times, she would have quit service and become a prostitute.  The reasons?  She would never have to worry about scandal for smoking and drinking, and her feet would never be tired because she would be on her back all day.

The servants are also getting sick of having to smile with good humor whenever one of the family makes a funny.  Rob tells Charlie that he wanted to "plunge a knife in their backs" when they laughed at him for being tired.  He singles out Jonty's "girly laugh" for criticism.

For their part, Sir John and Lady Olliff-Cooper acknowledge that the servants work hard, but little else.  Sir John claims that "humility" would make him say that he could be a servant, but in reality, he's "not the servant type."  Would he say that if he were born the fifth of 10 children to a factory worker?  I think that determines your "type" a lot more than your personality traits.  Kenny, who is also not the servant "type," laughs quietly behind him on the fishing boat as Sir John gets repeatedly tangled in the line.  Meanwhile, Lady Olliff-Cooper thinks that whether you love or hate your servitude depends upon your "state of mind."  She mentions the way Miss Morrison always has a smile on her face and seems to love her job.  Well yes, but (1) she's an upper servant who does very little menial work compared to the maids and (2) what she does isn't so different from her modern vocation.    

The only time the servants get a real break -- especially the maids -- is when they attend church every Sunday.  The narrator states that while all the Victorians were moral and went to church, Edwardians were nonobservant.  Yes, on January 21, 1901, everyone was moral, but on January 22, everything changed.  Just like that!  Narrator, I'd like to introduce you to Lady Carbury, who only went to church when she visited the countryside because she felt like it was the "thing" to do.  And this was in 1870.

The maids are too low to be allowed to travel in carriages, so they must walk to and from church, two miles each way.  It is actually not a bad thing because the countryside is beautiful and it is one of the few times they get to breathe fresh air.  On this Sunday, Sir John takes the time to announce in church that the family will be holding a charity fair for the local hospital.  For this event, the servants have the rare pleasure of being able to mingle with their betters by running stalls and giving performances.  It is also rumored that Sir John will let their loved ones attend!

However, the brief respite from work and the promise of loved ones isn't enough to prevent the staff from getting hit by illness.  First victim is Becky, who trudges around cleaning the stairs before finally collapsing into her bed.  She weeps that she misses the comforts of home and feels bad that she has to stop working, as it means more work for everyone else.  Even today that's a dilemma, thanks to unforgiving work schedules and employers who are stingy with paid time off.  The next victim of illness is Mrs. Davies, and then they all start to fall like dominoes.

It eventually gets so bad that Monsieur Dubiard of all people has to drag Lady Olliff-Cooper and Miss Anson downstairs to see how understaffed they are.  Lady Olliff-Cooper notes that this is the first time she has ever been in the (rather cavernous) downstairs area.  In reality, she would probably be more familiar with it, as the "lady of the house" was expected to keep things running smoothly and would meet with the upper servants regularly.  Of course it varied from household to household, but she really wasn't supposed to just sit back and do nothing.  Anyway, Sir John and Lady Olliff-Cooper tell Edgar that from now on, he must let them know when the staff is in trouble.  Sir John decrees that the house needs another maid and a scullery maid, which still leaves the house understaffed, if slightly less so.  He also gives the servants a half-day off each week.

This time, there is no delicate period clothing on the new arrivals -- two modern girls, jeans and all, are dumped into the Edwardian setting.

Erika Ravitz ("Erika"): A textile design graduate with a passion for kick boxing, she will be the third housemaid.

Carly Beard ("Ellen"): A farmer's daughter and customer service advisor, she will be the second scullery maid.  Sir John and Lady Olliff-Cooper gave her the new name "Ellen" because they preferred it to Carly.  They could do that back then.

Kenny is crushing on Ellen already, even as she's being shown by Monsieur Dubiard how to make soap out of a nasty mixture of orange peels, vinegar, flour, salt, and water.  Because Erika and Ellen are so low on the totem pole, they will not only need to share a room, but a bed.

Meanwhile, on their whole half-day off, Kenny, Rob, Becky, and Jess go bicycling in the countryside and then to dinner at "the best restaurant in town."  The narrator proclaims that they cannot afford it and their "antics" do not go unnoticed.

Now, I can't say how much of the following was staged.  I certainly don't think that anyone, from Sir John to Miss Morrison, would have been offended by the sight of 20-somethings dining in a fine restaurant today.  Miss Morrison might well have caught sight of them, thought it was funny, and planned to keep it to herself until a producer nudged her the other way.  Regardless, Miss Morrison tells Lady Olliff-Cooper about the servants' antics, and then Sir John calls all of the servants into the hall to address them.  Sounding as if he is reading from a script, Sir John tells them that he is horrified by their behavior and, as a result, only the upper servants will get to see their families, not the lower servants.  So all of the lower servants were there, not just the four we saw?  The lower servants are furious, and Antonia attempts to address Sir John and explain what happened.  Sir John refuses to listen, telling her that she will need to filter her outrage through the upper servants.

Poor Miss Morrison has been turned into a leper, and the other servants are practically ready to charge upstairs with pitchforks.  Edgar attempts to keep the peace by having Antonia into his office, who tells him that it is their right to see their families.  In fact, Edwardian servants were rarely allowed to see their families, or have amorous relations with the other servants.  Edgar advises Antonia to write an apology letter to Sir John, perhaps with an eye toward getting him to change his mind.  Then he arranges to have an 80-year old named Betty come visit, who actually worked at Manderston when she was young.

Betty is like a breath of fresh air for all involved, including the viewer.  As entertaining and understandable as the servants' complaints may be, they get tiring.  "Didn't you know what you were getting into?" I want to ask.  But then, I guess you can never really know, can you?  Anyway, Betty tells them that things were pretty bad when she was young -- the butler sexually assaulted her, and the footman once locked her in a closet so he could go to the "pictures."  But she still managed to appreciate the sheer beauty and grandeur of Manderston House, and in turn helps Becky and Jess feel very lucky to be there.

Then fair day arrives.  To bridge the gap between master and servant, Jonty helps the footmen carry the posts used for setting up the stalls.  Antonia's letter must have helped because now the lower servants get to see their families.  There is much rejoicing and embracing.  Kenny's parents comment that they expected to find him emaciated.  People from the village come and mingle on the Manderston property, and everyone is having a grand old time.

Just then, some socialists arrive on bicycle and begin talking to the servants.  Coincidence, or producer arranged?  You make the call.  The servants are more than a little receptive to the socialists' message, while Sir John naturally disagrees.  He argues that if the estate were liquidated and eight million pounds were given to eight million people, no one would have anything and 300 people would be out of a job.  Well, what if you liquidated the estate and divided it equally among the 300 instead?  They could use it to start their own businesses and hire more employees.  Everyone wins!

Something tells me that Sir John wouldn't be receptive to that argument either.  Nor is he particularly pleased when the servants start singing "The Red Flag," the socialist anthem.    

Downton Observations

Well I Am Shocked.  Shocked!  Shocked that servants didn't have ample free time to go to country fairs, or to the "pictures," or to uncover plots to blackmail their husbands.  That they had to work long, grueling hours and had few privileges.  You lied to me, Downton!  Lied!

Master or Servant?  That "I couldn't be a servant because I'm not the servant type" comment is interesting because, really, how many people are the servant "type"?  Those who are disciplined, obedient, and hard-working could just as easily be found in the upper levels of management as in more menial jobs.  If by "servant type," Sir John means less intelligent... well, those people certainly exist at the top of the food chain, too, as many working people could attest!

I say this because, interestingly, I could see most of the roles easily reversed at Downton Abbey.  In fact, it would be great if as a spoof, the producers created a short "Downstairs/Upstairs" version for YouTube, where the servants were the family and the family (and distinguished visitors from previous episodes) were the servants.  Carson and Mrs. Hughes could be the lord and lady, Thomas the spoiled heir, Anna the beautiful older daughter, Daisy the envious younger daughter.  Meanwhile Lord Grantham could be the butler, Isobel the housekeeper, Mary the lady's maid, Edith the first housemaid, and so on.  With different clothes, hair, and accents, would anyone ever remember the way they were before?

And who would the Dowager Countess of Grantham play?  Herself, of course.  Though if she were younger, she would be a housekeeper.

Next Time: Episode Four.  Sir John only likes to be an Edwardian when it suits him, and Miss Anson cracks from the pressures of her position.

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