Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Heritage TV, the Big House

Watching Downton Abbey, the latest TV Heritage dose from the UK, I thought of my grandfather, head groom, my grandmother, the lady's maid, (a union not so much of Upstairs Downstairs as Inside Outside,) and my mother who recounted how she'd eaten stolen nectarines in the hayloft as a child, and ridden down to the village in the estate's dog cart. And then it all ended, just like it always does on the TV series, with the First World War.

When my mother left school she learnt shorthand and typing and worked for the LNER: the London North Eastern Railway and then, she landed right back in that declining Heritage world. My father, just married, was being taken on as a head gardener. He had, as they said, bettered himself. One of six, a mother widowed, living "at the rough end of the village," he had left school at twelve, to work in the fields. But he had a chance to go to the big house: being 'in service' was the education you could get as a poor child in the country.

They went straight from the wedding to the gardener's cottage at Rushbrook Hall, to be greeted by the housekeeper, Polly who opened their front door with a big iron key, which she then put back in her apron pocket.
Rushbrook Hall was Elizabethan. I saw something from it, I think a section of panelled staircase, in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. For my mother, the biggest problem there was the worry that my elder brother when he was small would wander off and fall in the moat.

The PBS Downton Abbey, like the movie, Gosford Park, shows the rules that bound the upper class as tightly as the servants: the upset that a gentleman would serve himself wine, put on his own coat. It made me think of our hotel stays in Malaysia and India: someone to pour the tea, add the milk, someone else to pull out the chair, to hover. If you do these things, the modern young man is asked in Downton Abbey, then what will he do? How will he earn a living?

Every detail is delectable: the gleaming antique furniture, the feathered hats, the bosomy blouses but one thing now is always out of place. As someone who was sent to classes to learn how to speak like a "Lidy," a little suburban Eliza Doolittle, I can't help but register the accents.

The young'uns in Downton Abbey, speak with the casual voices of modern upper class England. Posh voices now are funny. The dowager Aunts, the Maggie Smiths, can drawl and purse lips and raise their eyebrows and their sentences but if the young mangled their vowels, full of frightfullys and Mummys and Daddys - more Bertie Wooster than Prince William - we'd see them as posh, out of touch, spoiled rotten upper class twits. But back then they would have spoken like that and the servants would have bowed in acknowledgement and taken their coats and hats and polished their boots and, like my grandmother, who started off as a tweeny maid, lowest of the low, too low even to have a uniform, would have washed their floors and cleaned their grates.

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