Magazine article The Spectator

Class Act

Magazine article The Spectator

Class Act

Article excerpt

Television

Some television programmers work, some don't. Some make you long for the next episode, others make you decide that would be a good night to go to the pub, or catalogue your matchbook collection. Some get people talking and linger in the memory; others disappear as surely and forgettably as this morning's bath water.

The Edwardian Country House (Channel 4) works, and because it's so enthralling it's worth trying to tease out why. For one thing, it's highly realistic. It's true to life precisely because it's so artificial. Gosford Park or Upstairs, Downstairs offered us the dream of what it would be like to live or work in an Edwardian country-house. They're fantasies fleshed out by actors. The Edwardian Country House is quite different; it's what it would be like if we, with our modern preconceptions, expectations and sensitivities were thrown into the actual thing. Neither the performers nor the producers pretend for a moment that we are watching the skivvies or the grandees from a century ago; we're constantly reminded that they are people like us, who live in the world of cars, cable television, Tony Blair and Page Three girls. There's no suspension of disbelief. Alan Bates is an actor, so he didn't suffer from culture shock as Gosford Park's butler, whereas the architect Hugh Edgar, thrown into the job of managing a bunch of picky, complaining, over-worked, casually humiliated people borrowed from the 21st century, hardly knows where to turn. `You cannot get the staff these days,' you imagine him saying, `we had to use a time travel agency.'

Secondly, the show is very cunningly, and at times maliciously, edited. Most of the people who applied to be on the show wanted to work downstairs, and you can see why. Parts of the first two episodes might have been put together by George Orwell with the help of whoever wrote The Man Who Waters the Workers' Beer. Take the opening voice-over in part two, which is broadcast next Tuesday. John Olliff-Cooper, the paterfamilias playing the part of 'Sir' John Olliff-Cooper, is heard to say smugly: 'I would have enjoyed the clarity of the system in 1905. It seemed to work. I can understand that the inequalities must gall, but the poor are always with us. Jesus said it, and I'm sure that's right.'

Cut to the staff being led in a `prayer for obedience' - begging God to make them accept their lowly position - before resuming lives of endless, unrelieved, monotonous, highly disciplined drudgery. The makers claim they've built their own rule book on those that really existed at the time: maids had to make their own sanitary towels, which were inspected for `indication of improper relations'. …

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