“They Pander to their Readers’ Prejudices”: An assessment of the discourse behind the portrayal of life in service in print and screen

In the famous Yes, Prime Minister episode “A Conflict of Interest”, Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne) advises the Prime Minister Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington) not to worry too much about the Press demanding action on rumours of a scandal in the City until it is shown to be more than that, adding that “the only way to understand the Press is to remember that they pander to their readers’ prejudices.”

Sir Humphrey’s remark was on my mind as I re-read Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs which first came out in 1968 and was republished in 2011 to cash in on the interest generated by Downton Abbey.  Margaret Powell’s memoirs dealt with growing up in Hove then entering service as a kitchen maid at the age of 14 after leaving school; then working for a succession of households until her marriage. The book itself is briskly written and gives modern day readers a glimpse into a life of a urban working class girl in the days when many of the things we have today such as electricity, a welfare safety net, choice and better opportunities are frequently taken for granted. Reading Powell’s memoirs, she does come across as feisty and her descriptions are fairly graphic in the sense that one can easily feel being with her as she takes us through her childhood and the various households she’s worked for. Yet, I can’t help but think that she also comes across as bitter with a massive chip on her shoulder and a sense of entitlement. Her memoirs focused on her solely and not enough on her employers and colleagues, so one does not really get a complete picture of the households where she worked.

Below Stairs

When Below Stairs was published, it was the latest of a long line of memoirs from people who were in service before the Second World War; and being cited as an inspiration for the 1970s drama Upstairs, Downstairs and subsequently Downton Abbey has ensured that it has remained in print since its publication. One reason why I believe it has remained in print is because much of today’s historical discourse, particularly on the popular history front, still takes its lead from 1960s historiography, where the focus shifts away from “history from above” to “history from below” as well as debunking previous interpretations of historical events . Just like with Alan Clark’s The Donkeys which has meant that the phrase “lions led by donkeys” (supposedly said by a German general) has entered the popular imagination and is still spouted by members of the public despite Clark himself later admitting that he made it all up, Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs for better or for worse has coloured the public’s view of what life in service was like and for many has become the de facto source for a phenomenon that has now largely passed into history.

The Daily Mail featured a summary after its re-release under a sensationalist headline – Why downstairs HATED upstairs: The acerbic memoirs of a Twenties maid reveal what domestic staff REALLY thought of their masters and comments left by readers ranged from sharing their own families’ experience about being in service to disagreeing with the headline; while others resorted to  the usual ahistorical rhetoric that inevitably surfaces whenever there are articles about British history published in the media – especially the history of upstairs and downstairs and what masters and servants really thought of each other. The Daily Mail, perhaps as a way to sell more papers and generate discussion summarised the memoirs in such a way that it has led many people to make sweeping assumptions and generalisations based on the anecdotal evidence of one person.

Subsequent memoirs written by other people in service such as Rosina Harrison (The Lady’s Maid), Charles Smith (Fifty Years with Mountbatten), Hilda Newman (Diamonds at Dinner) and Flo Wadlow (Over a Hot Stove) have done little to stem the tide of sweeping assumptions and generalisations about life in service generated by Margaret Powell’s reminiscences. Perhaps it’s because they more or less were happy with the households they worked for and presented a different picture to that of Powell’s. True, they did express frustrations with the downside of life in service such as the long hours, the lack of time off and having to put up with the whims and caprices of others (be it their employer, immediate superior or colleagues) but they were also perks and they were thankful for having kind and considerate employers who made sure they were well looked after even when they had retired or outliving the master or mistress they served.

A more recent attempt to present another side of life in service was Mollie Moran whose own reminiscences, Aprons and Silver Spoons was published in 2013; and in my opinion this is a much superior account to Margaret Powell’s. She describes in greater detail not just life in service but also her colleagues and employers through frank yet compassionate character sketches which gives one a much more rounded picture of a fast fading world through the eyes of a fourteen year old girl. In my opinion as a history anorak, what makes Moran’s work better is her weaving of momentous events and people into her life story such as the First World War (where she had to live with the consequences of her father being gassed while serving at the Front), encounters with the British Union of Fascists (through a teenage crush that went wrong) and the opportunities to see the present Queen as a little girl playing in the gardens of Number 145 Piccadilly and the nearby parks. For Mollie Moran these events are not history; they are current events and through her one can see how events and people can make an impact no matter how small in an individual’s life. Unlike Powell, Moran viewed her time in service as her opportunity to leave the confines of and broaden her horizons beyond the Norfolk village where she grew up.

moran memoirs

The Daily Mail subsequently published a preview of Moran’s book and perhaps unsurprisingly the absence of a sensational headline meant that there were none of the comments similar to the ones generated by the serialisation of Powell’s memoirs. This in my view lends credence to and to paraphrase Sir Humphrey that the fact that Below Stairs did generate more comment especially with the rehashing of the same old ahistorical pronouncements about life in service proves that Margaret Powell’s account does pander to the prejudices of modern day readers compared to Mollie Moran’s. From a historiographical point of view, I believe that this demonstrates how much discourse on topics such as life in service is still dominated by the outlook of the 1960s.

The same comments emerge whenever there is a discussion of Downton Abbey and they are along the same lines as the Daily Mail’s excerpt of Powell’s memoirs. When the programme premiered in 2010, there were already viewers carping about the unreality of the way relationships between upstairs and downstairs are depicted with the easy familiarity that would have been unthinkable at the turn of the last century. Examples included Lord Grantham paying for Mrs Patmore’s eye operation, the buddy-buddy like relationship between Lady Mary and Anna the head housemaid and Lady Grantham simpering that she and her maid Miss O’Brien are friends. Many critics and viewers have viewed that this familiarity between the Crawleys and their servants has remained one of the programme’s biggest Achilles heel.

downton_abbeyS1_servants

Other criticisms went further by accusing the programme of whitewashing the exploitation that servants were subjected to and perpetuating the myth of a philanthropic aristocracy. Many of these critics cited Margaret Powell’s memoirs to counter what they saw as Downton’s misrepresentation of life in service.

While I agree that the way life in service and relationships between upstairs and downstairs has been portrayed in Downton Abbey leaves much to be desired, Margaret Powell’s own experiences cannot be seen as fully representative of life in service. She mostly worked for middle class households and it’s easy to forget how diverse the service sector was. Not all of those who were in service worked for the aristocracy, there were those like Powell who worked for middle class households while others found themselves employed by lower middle class and upper working class families. Powell herself very much disliked the menial roles she was called on to fulfil, despised her employers and clearly thought she was made for bigger and better things, so she treated harshly anyone she regarded as holding her back from fulfilling her natural destiny, whether that was employers, colleagues or the social milieu in which she lived. This bias has to be remembered when reading her view of working in service.

The treatment of Margaret Powell’s reminiscences as gospel truth and the insistence that everyone in service was the victim of abject exploitation is so prevalent that it’s easy to forget that there were in excess of 2 million servants before the First World War and their experiences can’t be summed up by the reminiscences of one bitter woman whose life was not what she thought it should be. To say that all employers were exploitative and cruel is as much an exaggeration as saying all employers were like the Crawleys and it is dishonest to lump together all those in service and equally all employers as one monolithic block. Those who agree with Margaret Powell’s account and believe that all employers were the oppressors are falling into the trap of assuming that all servants were saintly and oppressed; there must have been gullible employers at the mercy of servants like Thomas or O’Brien. In addition there would have been servants who would have more to fear from a fellow servant than their employers or even the butler and housekeeper.

As I mentioned earlier, the depiction of relationships upstairs and downstairs in Downton Abbey leaves much to be desired and contrary to the impression given by the programme, servants apart from the uppers – lady’s maid, valet, butler and housekeeper – were not in daily contact with their betters. In fact their working lives were set up so they were not. The world of a big house reflected the reality that society was hierarchical and that was as true of the servants’ hall as elsewhere. Bus drivers didn’t expect to meet the king and housemaids didn’t expect to meet the earl; and today that is still the case for those working in large companies. How many can say that they have met the General Manager or CEO of the company or institution they work for? How many people have even met their local elected official much less their local MP or the Prime Minister?

People in my opinion would do well to remember that working in service was and is just the same as working anywhere else; individuals will have their own experiences and will not necessarily be representative of the sector in general. Margaret Powell’s time in service is one person’s view. Mollie Moran’s recent memoirs presented to us a different view and it doesn’t help our understanding of the past if people continue to accept Powell’s account as the sole authority, it ends up only confirming their biases about how awful service was. More than anything this insistence on clinging on to this sweeping generalisation that life in service was oppressive just as Downton Abbey’s cosy view of upstairs-downstairs relationship does a great disservice to all of us and overlooks the fact that everything about human experience cannot be seen totally in black or white but in various shades of grey.

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TV Review: Edward the Seventh (ITV, 1975)

When it comes to period drama on television, viewers have become so accustomed to lavishness on an epic scale that producers make every effort to fulfill those expectations and promise sumptuous locations, costumes and production values. Stately homes, palaces and castles are used and various print and online articles (some thinly disguised press releases), behind the scenes footage and books are used to entice people to watch the programme. The recent success of Wolf Hall, the continuing run of Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife and Mr Selfridge as well as a new drama set during the days of the Raj (Indian Summers) have illustrated why despite bouts of fatigue audiences’ love affair with costume drama has never completely gone away.

Pitted against the multi-million pound budget of a Wolf Hall or Downton Abbey which have places such as Montacute House and Highclere Castle at their disposal, Edward the Seventh (which was made by ITV under its affiliate Associated Television (ATV) and telecast between April and July 1975) on the surface pales in comparison to today’s period dramas. The programme was mostly made inside a studio with very few location shots for outdoor scenes; and unlike today’s period dramas where improvements in filmmaking has ensured that there is no distinction between a studio set and the interior of an actual country house, that wasn’t the case with Edward the Seventh. Watching the programme it is patently obvious that majority of the action takes place inside a studio set with painted scenes providing the backdrop.

Edward VII DVD

Based on Philip Magnus’ biography of the same title, Edward the Seventh was a thirteen part drama depicting Edward VII’s life as Prince of Wales then later King, and boasted an all-star cast which included Timothy West in the title role (Simon Gripps-Kent and Charles Sturridge played the child and young Bertie respectively), Helen Ryan as the Princess of Wales later Queen Alexandra (Deborah Grant played the younger Alexandra), Annette Crosbie as Queen Victoria, Robert Hardy as Prince Albert and Sir John Gielgud as Benjamin Disraeli among others. The large cast also included actors who were later to find fame in film and other television programmes; Felicity Kendal (The Good Life, Rosemary and Thyme) as Princess Vicky, Charles Dance (The Jewel in the Crown, Game of Thrones) as Prince Eddy, Derek Fowlds (Yes Minister, Yes Prime Minister, Heartbeat) as Lord Randolph Churchill, Nigel Havers (Chariots of Fire, Coronation Street) as the Hon. Frederick Crichton and Francesca Annis (Lillie, Cranford) as Lillie Langtry.

With each episode an hour long, we are shown a tableau of British history from the time of Bertie’s birth in 1841 to his death in 1910. By the nature of her long reign, Queen Victoria is featured in the first ten episodes and Bertie’s reign as King is covered in the last three episodes. Owning to the limitations imposed by filming on a studio set, the programme had to rely on behind the scenes interaction between the characters to explain key historical events. However the few crowd scenes such as the public welcome Princess Alexandra received as she set foot on British soil, the royal party making its way to St Paul’s for the Thanksgiving service in 1872 (after Bertie’s bout of typhoid) and surprisingly even the arrival of the King into Paris to begin his state visit were done well. Costumes, props, depictions of royal entertaining and the King’s coronation are of high quality especially by the standards of the 1970s and one can see the amount of research, attention to detail and choreography involved in order to make the depiction of characters and the world of royalty and the aristocracy as accurate as possible. EdwardVII (1)EdwardVII (2) EdwardVII (3)EdwardVII (4)

For a cast with some of the biggest names in the British acting industry, one expects that the acting is top notch and for most part the great majority do deliver. The acting style in my opinion was very suitable to the demands of the drama, the cast of Edward the Seventh (unlike many actors today in period drama) were able to mentally position themselves in an age that was more formal and buttoned up, their speech patterns and movement were more appropriate to the time the programme was set and they were able to capture the morality of the period as well as contrast between the formal and informal.

The programme is significant in many ways; Crosbie and Hardy as Victoria and Albert (especially Crosbie as Victoria) were the first to portray the monarch and her consort as human with their strengths and flaws as individuals, as well as portraying their marriage being warm and loving despite being punctuated by rows and disagreements. It is possible that audiences in 1975, many of them who were born when Victoria was still on the throne and grew up with the image of her as a black clad widow perpetually not amused, would have been shocked at seeing the monarch being portrayed as a very human woman expressing the same joys, sadness, happiness and fustrations as they did. The same is also true with Bertie; Timothy West in particular portrayed him as a sympathetic and human prince determined to do his duty despite his parents having written him off as a lost cause while Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Neame) does come out as a cartoonish villain at times but recent studies and documentaries on the Kaiser does for me justify Neame’s over the top performance.

However, the programme does verge at times on the hagiographic. While the important scandals that engulfed Bertie’s life were duly portrayed, the details are certainly skated over and some were ignored. His less than admirable characteristics were not really given full rein and the way his marriage to Alexandra was portrayed was highly selective.

Nevertheless despite these shortcomings and the fact that Magnus’ biography has been superseded by new studies and biographies, most recently by Jane Ridley, Edward the Seventh stands as one example of quality British programming and despite its limitations, especially on the technical front, can still be seen as superior to many of today’s period drama. While there seems to be an inability with today’s writers to write period drama without shoehorning some love story or “ship”, Edward the Seventh reminds us that good storytelling can thrive despite the absence of such flummery.

Another difference that Edward the Seventh has with for instance Downton Abbey is with regards to characterisation and reflecting the spirit of the age. The characters in Edward the Seventh are more credible as personalities of that era than those in Downton Abbey given their attitudes reflect more the twenty first century than the early twentieth. One also gets the sense that the likes of West, Crosbie, Gielgud, Hardy, Ryan and Kendal had clearly bothered to study how their characters would behave and the attitudes of the time, whereas one wonders if Bonneville, Dockery, McGovern, Carmichael, Froggatt and Collier among others have really understood just how different the early twentieth century was to the early twenty first.

Viewers too do get a sense of the morality of the period with Edward the Seventh; adherence to the cast iron rules of discretion, duty and public service were some of the prevailing themes in the series. Downton Abbey acknowledges that there were taboos against homosexuality, illegitimate children and sex before marriage but they are very much seen through a modern, tolerant filter that would have been unthinkable in the era it was supposedly set. And finally while it didn’t have the slickness and sophistication of today’s dramas, Edward the Seventh cannot be accused of being a soap opera with a dodgy script: which has been one of the recurring charges leveled against Downton Abbey.

Despite the passage of time Edward the Seventh can stand in comparison as a series with the likes of more modern offerings such as Downton or Call the Midwife. While later costume dramas may be more sophisticated in terms of locations and technical wizardry, Edward the Seventh remains noteworthy for solid production values and its respect for the values and behaviour of an era very different from our own.

Upcoming Posts

We are thankful to and heartened by those who have read, commented and liked our posts so far. By way of updates and in no particular order, here is a list of our next few posts:

  1. Why Lord Grantham isn’t too old to serve at the front during WW1
  2. An American at Kenwood – the historical background behind a John Singer Sargent portrait now at Kenwood House
  3. How life in service is portrayed in memoirs and drama
  4. A look at how Lord Grantham’s army career would have unfolded
  5. What life was really like for a housemaid
  6. Would real life characters of the Downton era act in the same way as their fictional counterparts?
  7. Debutantes and the morals and rationale behind the Season
  8. The flaws behind the entail story line (Downton Abbey, series 1 episode 1)
  9. A review of Edward the Seventh (TV series, 1975)

Again, many thanks for your support and we look forward to hearing from you all. As always, we welcome any comment as long as it’s constructive and polite.