Thursday, April 4, 2013

Not Quite Downton: Manor House, Episode 5: Not Like Us

We're nine weeks into the project, and it's time for a history fast-forward.  The year is now 1911, the year that Edward VII's son, George V, took the throne.  It's nice to see Manor House acknowledge the changeover, instead of pretending that Edward VII lived until the beginning of World War I as so many historians do.  Ah yes, the Edwardian Period, that sun-dappled time of innocence and splendor before Everything Changed Forever.  Since George V was to be crowned Emperor of India, as well as King of the United Kingdom, the Olliff-Coopers are going to hold an Empire Ball, as well as a separate "Raj Supper" with an Indian prince as one of their honored guests.

That is the cue to focus on Mr. Raj-Singh, Guy's tutor and a background figure up to this point.  The narrator notes that in 1911, most Indians in Britain would be high-ranking civil servants or the sons of the Indian upper class.  In real life, Reji Raj is a primary school teacher and presumably used to a highly active life.  On Manor House, much like anyone not at the very top of the totem pole, he seems to be chafing under the life thrust upon him.  Though a servant, he spends most of his time upstairs and eats meals with the family.  He rarely interacts with the other servants, except to make rather frivolous requests for his window to be opened.  The other servants strongly dislike him, even the normally restrained Edgar.  Mr. Raj-Singh does come across as something of a priss-pot, but I suspect one reason for these requests is a simple desire for human interaction.  Sir John told him that he shouldn't go below stairs because he is like a member of the family, yet he never gets to relax with the upstairs the way he would with a family member.

So the resentment simmers between Mr. Raj-Singh and the downstairs servants, boiling over at one point when Edgar informs him that the downstairs servants will be celebrating Rob's birthday, so Mr. Raj-Singh will need to feed Guy while Sir John and Lady Olliff-Cooper dine alone for their anniversary.  Instead, Mr. Raj-Singh departs for a night on the town, forcing Sir John and "m'lady" to postpone their dinner until after Guy has gone to bed.

Before relations can erode further, the day arrives when the Olliff-Coopers hold the Raj Supper for Prince Moshin Ali-Khan and other luminaries.  The idea was born from an attempt to make Mr. Raj-Singh feel more accepted upstairs, and he is given the task of inviting Indian dancers and musicians to Manderston for entertainment.  As they are considered servants, they enter through the back way and eat downstairs with the other servants.  In a voice-over, Mr. Raj-Singh laments that many Englishmen will never accept him as one of them, that he will always be seen as Indian.  To his credit, Sir John voice-overs that such attitudes are unfortunate because Mr. Raj-Singh represents the best of English values.  Though one wonders if he would be so accepting of Indian descendants without Mr. Raj-Singh's polished manners and delicate speaking style.

Anyway, hours before dinner, disaster strikes.  Monsieur Dubiard has a massive case of diarrhea and has been ordered to stay in bed, leaving the rest of the servants to cook an authentic Indian dinner for the honored guests.  Antonia, Ellen, Mrs. Davies, and Kenny get to work rolling the dough for naan bread and cooking curry and other dishes.  Now and then, Kenny goes up to consult with Monsieur Dubiard, who even tries the food (uck -- who could do that in his condition?) and who eventually defies doctor's orders to come downstairs and continue directing the staff.

Meanwhile, not only has Prince Ali-Khan arrived, but also two other guests of Indian descent, television newscaster Krishna Guru-Murphy and writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.  As usual, Mr. Raj-Singh is invited to partake in the upstairs dinner, while the footmen serve and Edgar stands watch.  The mixture of guests adds a bit of spark to the gathering: whereas Prince Ali-Khan is demure about the destructiveness of the British empire, Guru-Murphy and especially Alibhai-Brown do not hold back.  They criticize Ali-Kahn's ancestors for failing to take a stand against imperialism, noting that Indian royalty accepted it because it gave them knighthoods and other privileges, even though they were not considered equals.  They also express disgust for the Edwardian great house hierarchy, which Sir John defends, and Guru-Murphy asks him if the lower servants are happy.  He confirms that they are, before admitting that he and Lady Olliff-Cooper don't actually talk to them.  "So how do you know they're happy?" Guru-Murphy asks.  Sir John replies that he gets reports from the upper servants and from the smiles on the servants' faces.  At this, Guru-Murphy and Alibhai-Brown burst out laughing, knowing as well as anyone how easily happiness can be faked.

Alibhai-Brown then turns to Mr. Raj-Singh and asks him if he is happy within this system.  No doubt Sir John expects him to say that he is, given how generous the family has been to him.  Instead, Mr. Raj-Singh launches into a series of complaints about how constricted he is and how he doesn't get along with the other servants.  When Alibhai-Brown asks him if he has ever gone downstairs to talk to the other servants, he is forced to admit that he has not, that they are basically invisible to him.  "You are made for this role, then," she says, as Mr. Raj-Singh smiles uncomfortably.  The exchange leaves Edgar fuming, though he is in no position to respond.  He notes that Mr. Raj-Singh just stabbed Sir John in the back after being made an honorary member of the family, and that he made it sound as though the servants were excluding him due to his race.        

After that bit of tension, it's time to prepare for the Empire Ball, where aristocrats pat themselves on the back for conquering one-fifth of the world's population.  Elaborate costumes will be worn, honoring Britons of the past who contributed to the empire (such as Sir Francis Drake), and elaborate dishes from all parts of the empire will be served.  Miss Anson has returned from her food poisoning -- I mean, from recovering her nerves.  She commiserates with Mr. Raj-Singh over the feelings of isolation, of having no one with whom to have a normal conversation.  Was that really the case back then?  I'm sure in that setting, things were more formal, and maybe in 1911, Miss Anson would not be speaking to Mr. Raj-Singh, but accounts of Victorian life are filled with really close friendships, especially between women.  Did things change so much in the Edwardian period, or was the project trying to draw distinct lines that, in fact, would not have been so distinct?

Finally, when Charlie appears to clear away the glasses and china, Mr. Raj-Singh works up the nerve to thank him and the other downstairs servants for the work they've done.  His gratitude causes Charlie to rethink his attitude toward Mr. Raj-Singh, which had been understandably hostile.

Shortly before the Empire Ball, another guest arrives: chat show host Darcus Howe, who grew up in a part of the Caribbean that was once part of the British empire.  Sir John and family invite him into the house for an informal dinner on the sofa.  Like Guru-Murphy and Alibhai-Brown, his purpose for being at Manderston seems to be to gawk at the Edwardian aristocrats in their gilded cage.  Howe cannot suppress disbelief at some of Sir John's statements, including that he will be devastated when he has to leave to be ordinary John Olliff-Cooper again.  He manages to get Sir John to admit that he is the son of a printer and presumably of working class origins.  When Howe asks Sir John why the son of a printer would be devastated to leave Manderston, Sir John emphasizes that it is because he is not the printer, that he was taught to look upward -- seemingly oblivious to the fact that he is embracing a class system that would never tolerate him aspiring to a life above his station.  That the entire house is built on a system of keeping people in their place. 

It's Empire Ball day!  Miss Morrison has stayed up all night sewing the costumes, and though she does not have the privilege of attending, she at least gets to delight in watching other people put them on.  At the Ball, little Guy gives a prepared speech to Britannia (Miss Anson) about what makes Britain mighty, and all of the assembled guests in costume begin singing some variety of Britannia is Awesome song.  Howe stands in the crowd, looking uncomfortable.  Then it's time for the eating and dancing.  As they do so, the episode cuts between them and the servants reacting to a report of the Titanic sinking.  The narrator proclaims that "the Edwardians couldn't believe their floating palace would sink, or that their glittering world could end."  In case that was too subtle for you: "In their manor house fantasy world with its treasures and feasts and empire balls, the privileged danced blindly on."  If you wanted confirmation that despite the hours of hard labor, it is better to be a servant on this show, there you go.


Downton Observations

Diversity...?  Apart from Pamuk (and even that's debatable), have there been any non-white people on Downton Abbey?  The closest to multiculturalism that I can think of was any episode that featured the strife in Ireland and... well.  So I find the discussion of race and empire on Manor House to be rather refreshing.  Whether Downton will follow suit in Series Four remains to be seen.

Conversely, that this show has said little about Ireland is also noteworthy, though I'll excuse it due to time.  Whereas Downton has had three series to do the conflict justice and we're still waiting.


Next Week: Episode Six and the last.  The Olliff-Coopers' glittering world comes to an end.

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