Slowly Addictive

Ben Morris on The House of Eliott

First published May 2000

In the early summer of 1991 I was coming to the end of my degree course at the then Nottingham Polytechnic and found myself killing a few hours in its library whilst nervously awaiting my results. As I leafed through the day’s broadsheets, trying desperately to distract myself from my anxiety, I came across an article which caught my eye and excited me.

The schedule for the BBC’s autumn season had been announced and it was good news – BBC2 were splashing out £2 million on an adaptation of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and BBC1 were launching The House of Eliott, a lavish 12-part Saturday night series set in the 1920s, revolving around the lives of two sisters and their battle to set up their own fashion house.

This pleased me for a number of reasons. As hard as it is to believe now, at the time costume drama was distinctly out of fashion (excuse the pun). Since 1985′s Bleak House (BBC2) it had been considered too expensive and without mass appeal. These two new shows were the first major costume dramas in five years. I had reached a point of feeling disillusioned with the BBC when, a few years before, they could do no wrong in my eyes. So-called “quality dramas” (feature-length contemporary one-offs) had become the order of the day, your Screen Ones and Twos, which came and went with loads of money thrown at them and who can remember them now? We were meant to be grateful. I wasn’t.

What made the BBC have a change of heart when they commissioned The House of Eliott is unclear. Perhaps it was the nostalgia that inevitably comes when a new decade is beginning. Or perhaps it was the undoubtedly impressive CV of its creators, Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins. Who could turn down a concept proposed by the two women who’d given the ’70s one of its most popular series, Upstairs Downstairs? Or maybe the Beeb were desperately searching for a ratings winning family drama to rival ITV’s anodyne The Darling Buds of May, which was then in its infancy (and which was perfickly sickening in its tweeness). I don’t know why they took this leap but I’m grateful that they did as The House of Eliott remains one of my top five favourite programmes of all time.

A brief synopsis is required, here; The year is 1920 and Britain is recovering from the Great War. But a more recent tragedy is the catalyst for the story of the Eliott sisters, Evangeline (18) and Beatrice (30) (Louise Lombard and Stella Gonet). Their father, a penny-pinching disciplinarian, has just died and left them nothing, having squandered his fortune on his mistress and illegitimate son (of whom the sisters have no knowledge). Their mother died in childbirth and they are alone in the world save for their unsympathetic Aunt Lydia and her odious son Arthur. Bea and Evie are forced to make their own fortune armed only with their initiative and dressmaking skills. They start at the bottom as seamstresses in sweatshop conditions and climb through the ranks to create their empire, the eponymous House of Eliott. This is basically the plot of the first of the three series.

The main plot of the second (and, in my opinion, the best) tells of the development of Evangeline from child to woman. She throws off the shackles of her Victorian upbringing and, in the process, jeopardises the sisters’ reputation and careers through her affair with the married MP, Lord Alexander Montford. The third, shorter, series follows the reconciliation of Beatrice and her estranged husband Jack and ends on an ambiguous note with the sisters in bitter conflict over the future direction of the business.

That’s the programme in a nutshell – now why is it so good? Well, for me it harks back to the days of BBC drama at its uncompromising best when happy endings weren’t obligatory and loose-endings could be left untied; when the cast of Survivors could drop dead one by one.

The House of Eliott doesn’t immediately come across as so brutal of course. And, indeed, one of the justified criticisms of the show is that it can sometimes get bogged down in its lingering shots of pretty dresses and well-dressed scenery. The first episode of season two is a prime example of this. Half of the episode wallows in its astounding achievement of getting La Gare de L’Est and La Place de la Concorde completely devoid of ’90s trappings and believably set in 1924. If you’re going to work hard to clear the centre of Paris at 3.30am on a Sunday you’re damned well going to use that footage! But, for all its reputation as being just posh frocks and posh accents, THOE can be real edge-of the-seat stuff. If I had to pick one sequence that reveals this quality and which sums up the magic of the series for me it would have to be the tragic death of the dour Victorian Florence Ranby (Maggie Ollerenshaw), head of the workroom. At the climax of season two’s ninth episode her fragile relationship with seamstresses Madge and Tilly (Judy Flynn and Cathy Murphy) finally reaches boiling point. They have disobeyed her instructions one time too many and, in a magnificent confrontation, she hands in her resignation, steps out of the office and gets run down by a passing cab. Her final moments are magnificently handled and provide, in my mind, one of the greatest death scenes in the history of television. This five-minute sequence is THOE at its best, with all the different elements that contributed to its success coming together perfectly.

Firstly, the acting of the five key figures is exemplary. The dialogue is fast and furious and shot through with intense anger and frustration. Each of the characters are, by this point in the series, well known to the audience and one cares about them deeply. This even applies to Florence Ranby (the same episode shows her flipside as a loving and devoted wife). Secondly, Jim Parker’s impressive incidental music is used to great effect; silent at first but building to a massive crescendo for the fatal impact. And, the direction by June Howson is superb. There’s a clever “bluff” shot of Florence staggering into the road, an exact copy of a scene from three weeks previously when she had had a near miss with a car. One thinks she’s going to escape again. The camera angles are extremely imaginative; particularly the final crane shot pulling away from the corpse, the camera as Florence’s ascending spirit, observing the gathering crowd around her body. The real impact of this dramatic departure comes from the fact that it is totally unannounced. THOE excels at turning the story on its head; just as you begin to pre-empt the next plot development the unexpected happens.

Such was the unrelenting doom and gloom of the second series that several viewers complained to Radio Times and Points of View, saying that some light relief was needed from all the death, betrayal and separation. Light relief did come in the final series, but before a remarkably downbeat ending with Evie’s final defiant words to her sister, “I’ll fight you every step of the way!”.

Shot entirely on video, The House of Eliott ran from 1991 to 1994 and was an immediate success. Initially scheduled on Saturdays against an ITV run of James Bond films it averaged 10 million viewers and even the repeat run of the entire second series achieved respectable figures. For seasons two and three THOE was shifted to Sunday nights (perhaps in an attempt to regain viewers lost by the appalling Trainer and Strathblair which had previously occupied that slot) and, despite dipping out of the BARB top 10 a few times due to fierce competition from The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, it held its own. It was probably right to call it a day after season three though, despite its critical and ratings success. The three main stars – Louise Lombard, Stella Gonet and Aden Gillet – were being lured elsewhere anyway (although to date none of them have had an equalling success) but producer Jeremy Gwilt also felt the story had been stretched as far as possible. However, Teletext reported in 1998 that there was a strong desire within the BBC to resurrect it and Gwilt went so far as discussing it with his superiors but, unfortunately, the stars were not available to revive their characters.

I believe there is still mileage in THOE and a future producer could perhaps do worse than take influence from the second of the two spin-off novels based on the series (which altered the storylines quite considerably). This rejoined the Eliott sisters at the breakout of World War II. It would be interesting to see how the fashion house survived the “make-do and mend” years where creativity in fashion was severely restricted. It seems, however, that we will be left with only the 34 episodes that already exist and perhaps another costume drama would be too much of a good thing. After the successes of THOE and Clarissa we, of course, had any number of them. Scarlet and Black followed shortly after Clarissa, then there was Middlemarch, Martin Chuzzlewit etc. From a point 10 years ago where there were none perhaps now we have reached saturation point (although I would like to think not).

I knew, from reading that press release in Nottingham Polytechinic library in 1991, that I was going to love The House of Eliott. And indeed I did. If you get the chance, pick up the first series which has been available on VHS since 1996 (to date the subsequent series remain unreleased although they can be caught regularly on UK Gold), and see for yourself why Lewis and Stempel’s The Ultimate TV Guide describes it as “slowly addictive”.