The Edwardian Country House

Tuesday, May 28, 2002 by and

In October last year Stuart Cosgrove lectured to a thin turn out of media students at Liverpool’s John Moores University. In his talk he signalled the death of “reality TV” and predicted the next big thing would be historical programming.

Channel 4′s occasional historical House series has – since its launch in 1999 – successfully combined the reality and historical genres, albeit (and rather presciently) with the balance weighted towards the historical. Over the three series thus far (The 1900 House, The 1940s House in 2001 and now The Edwardian Country House) the “game” aspect of the projects has played down, the programme-makers instead weighing in with educational content. And in the main this has been extremely successful. Whereas the Big Brother house is navel gazing and insular, these historical houses have instead acted as a bridge into a wider vista – the past.

The Edwardian Country House has seen a deviation in format, but a welcome one. Whilst the previous two series centred around a family unit returning to live in a previous era, Country House has roped in not only an extended family but a small community of unrelated volunteers to act as servants. Immediately this endowed the project with a wider range of viewpoints and experiences; but better than that it also set up a dynamic previously absent – a division between upstairs and downstairs. This running “subplot” gave Country House a compelling narrative to run alongside the history.

This series has been particularly fortuitous in recruiting its subjects. The Oliff Cooper family grew into their role quickly, playing plausibly self-centred Edwardians. Yes, there were moments of liberal heart-rending which, in the overall scheme of things, appeared almost self delusional. “Sir” John’s occasional concern for life below stairs sat uncomfortably alongside his more regular role as master of the house, pompously opining about how the servants should behave. When challenged by Darcus Howe in the previous week’s episode about the welfare of his staff, he blithely and defensively insisted they were happy. That he had no way of knowing, however, was not addressed. Although Sir John played the Edwardian gentleman to the nth degree – steadfastly ensuring he remained distant from all but the upper-ranks of the staff – his denial of their hardship was still rather disingenuous.

In contrast, Sir John’s sister-in-law Miss Anson displayed real difficulty in adopting her role. As the person most affected upstairs by the strictures of Edwardian life (wherein a middle-aged spinster would be very much a non-person) her distress was plain to see and it was interesting – and very Edwardian – that halfway through the series she had to be removed from the house only to return in this, the final episode.

It was downstairs, however, that contributed the most eloquent testimony of life in Edwardian Britain. Aside from the participants being on the coalface, here could be found by far the most interesting character in all of the series so far: the butler Mr Edgar. That almost every commercial-break was preceded by a bon mot from this intriguing character (or just a display of tears) must surely indicate that the programme-makers had him out as the most interesting participant in the scheme. In tonight’s episode he mused at one stage (apparently spontaneously) “a society without truth is sick”. Mr Edgar’s struggle with issues of discipline, paternal love and order brought us a head of the family far more complicated, thoughtful and watchable than the bluff Sir John. Truly he was the hub of The Edwardian Country House.

The other key to The Edwardian Country House‘s comparative success was that from the off here was a more purposeful experiment. The inhabitants upstairs in the house had far more contact with society at large than the subjects of previous series. Whereas before both projects ended up adopting a sort of siege mentality, here the Oliff Coopers had to maintain a lifestyle that was based almost purely around socialising. For the Edwardian upper-class ambitions were played out through dinner-parties and fĂȘtes, meaning the Oliff Coopers had to play host to politicians, social commentators, foreign royalty and the local serfs. Allowing the outside world into the house let in further viewpoints and put the Oliff Coopers into the position of justifying and explaining their life at Manderston (the country house in question). The maintenance of the societal machine also had the affect of keeping the (understaffed) servants continually busy. Thus we were watching them in what was to all intents and purposes a “real” working situation rather than a simulation.

As a last episode, this final edition felt like a suitable and satisfying bookend to the series as a whole. There were the expected moments of resolution, two in particular which seemed to sum up a lot about the six-weeks as a whole. Sir John’s final bible reading to the amassed house was on his part a dĂ©nouement, a teary display that was supposed to show he did care after all. That it was met by a slightly embarrassed air from the dry-eyed staff underscored the fact that their differences would always remain. Prior to this there had been another moment that highlighted how real the divide had been between upstairs and downstairs when Denis Dubiard the chef refused to shake Sir John’s hand at a final party. He had grown disillusioned with Sir John’s commitment to the project after his master had insisted on healthier, non-Edwardian food. It was notable, too, that this final celebration marked the first time the two men had met.

The Oliff Coopers were the first to leave the house (to Sir John’s grumblings that the servants had been getting “de-mob happy”) and it seemed right that Manderston was finally left under the care of those who’d lived downstairs. An effective little sequence saw the members of staff change from their Edwardian costumes back into 21st century clothes, accompanied by a spoken vignette of what their possible futures would have been if they were living in 1914. Here the history was laid in in the most personal of terms, and all the more successful for it.

The final moments saw Mr Edgar close the gates of the house and disappear off into the modern world again. As a curtain-closer it was satisfying and – more importantly – right.


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