27 APRIL 2002, Page 47


Class act

Simon Hoggart

Some television programmes 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, ifs 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 011iff-Cooper, the paterfamilias playing the part of 'Sir' John 011iff-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.. They weren't allowed any pictures in their rooms or locks on the doors. The most junior footman had to slop out the bedpans every morning. They couldn't even talk at their own dinner table. One maid is appalled at the man management; 'If you want to get results out of people you don't like, shout at them.' Of course that's exactly how they got results out of people 100 years ago. A scullery maid says, 'I'm not a spoiled brat, but I'm used to my mum doing all my cooking and cleaning.' Not surprisingly, she legs it home an hour or so later.

Just in case we're ever in any danger of thinking this is just another costume drama, we hear them resentfully wondering if the family upstairs is going to give them a hard time by pretending to be their real masters. And of course the cameras are always there. Is there a producer saying, 'Come along, darlings, I want rude, I want petulant, give me sneering and patronising, will you do it, for me, please?' I doubt that it was ever necessary; the emotions are all too plain on the surface.

Then there are the characters. Anna 011iff-Cooper, who's a doctor in the outside world, seems less smug than the rest of her family (their poor little boy Guy is clearly a bright and witty lad, but comes over as a precocious brat, and as for his older brother Jonty — well, you're just glad you never went to Magdalen). 'Sir' John exudes complacency about his lot even though he didn't even make the money which might have justified his privileges, at least in the mind of the person who led such a life a century ago. Downstairs the butler is that archetypal British character, the servile bossyboots — think regimental sergeant-majors, Snudge in The Army Game. Denis Dubiard, the chef, would be a brilliant comic turn if he weren't all too terribly real.

At the end of episode two, the family holds a vast formal dinner party, including real guests such as Bill Deedes and David Steel. As they congratulate themselves on their success, everything is falling to pieces downstairs. It's very funny as well as very poignant. My only carp is the inclusion of a plainly fictitious and pompous guest called 'David Mellor', played I assume by Christopher Biggins with cheek pads. Apart from this one small error, the producer, Caroline Ross Pixie, deserves every congratulation.