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TV Review: 'Upstairs, Downstairs' comes to life

Sunday, April 27, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HOLLYWOOD -- Slightly less engaging than last year's "Frontier House," PBS's latest "hands-on history" series, "Manor House," still gives viewers everything they expect from what's essentially a highbrow "reality" program.

"Manor House"

When: 8 to 10 p.m. tomorrow through Wednesday on WQED.

Narrated by: Derek Jacobi

Filmed from August to November of 2001 in a Scottish mansion, the six-hour series attempts to depict the upstairs, downstairs life of the Edwardian era that began the 20th century in England.

To that end, class differences between the haves and have-nots are routinely on display as servants do the bidding of the Olliff-Cooper family, who seem quite at home playing aristocrats.

"I really don't have a problem having servants and being served," says patriarch Sir John. In episode three, he confesses, "I really don't think I'm the servant type."

Some may call it typecasting, but Sir John argues he's merely playing his intended role.

Tomorrow's premiere, including the requisite set-ups and introduction of characters, is a bit of a slog. But the longer you stick with "Manor House," the more rewarding it becomes as the characters grow more familiar.

Upstairs there's Sir John and his wife, Lady Anna, their 9-year-old son, Master Guy, and 18-year-old son Mister Jonathan (a k a "Jonty"). Anna's sister, the unmarried Miss Anson, also spends time with the family.

Hugh Edgar takes the role of the home's butler, the highest-ranking upper servant who sees enough of both sides to provide the most objective view of both the family and the lower servants, who are mostly in their early 20s. (One notable exception is Monsieur Dubiard, the mad French chef who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Rowan Atkinson character Mr. Bean.)

Lower servants aren't allowed to speak directly to the family that inhabits this estate called Manderston, and Mr. Edgar is not about to pass along their complaints about being overworked. A true Edwardian servant would never think of troubling the family with such a trifle. Before long, the servants are revolting, and not just because they're allowed just one bath per week.

Several scullery maids quit early in the project, and Erika, a housemaid hired in hour three, is introduced but never seen again as she's edited out of the program almost entirely.

Among the servants, 18-year-old hallboy Kenny Skelton stands out for his puckish spirit, his romance with another member of the staff and his gently rebellious streak.

At a PBS press conference in January, Skelton said he was not prepared for the working conditions of the era. "It was horrible. It was bad enough being a servant, but being a servant for the servants? It can't really get any worse."

During the press conference, kitchen maid Antonia routinely rolled her eyes at statements made by Sir John. Kenny called the family "lazy, sit on their backside, hoity-toity, boring people," although he acknowledged, "I only saw them in the house. Outside, I don't know them."

That's unlikely to change. After the press conference, Sir John said going into the project he had hoped to remain friendly with the entire cast after their experience ended. The Olliff-Coopers have maintained friendships with upper servants Mr. Edgar and lady's maid Eva Morrison, but none of the lower servants.

"It's a matter of people; it's nothing to do with them being lower servants," Sir John said. In part, he blames the production crew's agenda -- documenting class conflicts -- on the strife. He also said "Manor House" fibs in some of its contentions, including that he demanded certain foods that were not strictly of the Edwardian era (he says he didn't) and that Miss Morrison was a snitch on the lower servants (he said it was actually the production crew that tattled).

Even though PBS's Web site suggests a degree of snobbery at play (visit www.pbs.org/manorhouse to determine where you rate on the snob quiz), Sir John will allow for none of it.

"How do you define a snob?" he asks when confronted with the "s" word. "I need to know what the word 'snob' means. It's always offered up as a pejorative. I think what they mean is these are people who have and we haven't. There's simmering jealousies and it's envy."

No denying that.

"Manor House" effectively and entertainingly conveys the various roles played by members of the upper and lower class in the Edwardian era. In the end, the butler provides the most clear-eyed view of the conflicts that emerge.

"With no communication, you can't speak the truth," Mr. Edgar says, discussing Edwardian life. "And without truth, a society is sick. And it was swept away."

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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