Genre: British period drama series
Production companies: BBC and Time-Life
Running time: 16 episodes on five discs totaling 829 minutes (13:49)
Producer: John Hawkesworth
Directors: Bill Bain, Cyril Coke, Simon Langton, Raymond Menmuir, Gerry Mill
Writers: Julian Bond, David Butler, Bill Craig, John Hawkesworth, Julia Jones, Jeremy Paul, Jack Rosenthal, Rosemary Anne Sisson, Ken Taylor, Maggie Wadey
Cast: Gemma Jones, Christopher Cazenove, Richard Vernon, John Cater, John Welsh, Victoria Plucknett, Mary Healy, Sammie Winmill
Airing on "Masterpiece Theatre" from December 1979 to April 1980, the 16-part "Duchess of Duke Street, Series II" was the continuation of the 15-part drama that ran on the PBS showcase a year earlier. (The entire series originally aired in Britain in 1977.) That first series was released in a DVD box set last October by Acorn Media, and now the remaining episodes are available from Acorn in an identically designed and priced slim-pack collection. You needn't have seen the earlier series to enjoy this one.
Created by producer John Hawkesworth as a companion piece to his "Upstairs, Downstairs," "The Duchess of Duke Street" has a similar atmosphere and subject matter to its hugely popular predecessor. Series I followed the early adult life of Louisa Leyton, a Cockney girl who left her unhappy home with the wild dream of becoming the finest cook in England -- and miraculously (though mainly through work and determination) accomplished that feat and more, becoming the owner and grande dame of the small, highly selective Bentinck Hotel in London's posh Mayfair neighborhood.
The series is a fictionalized biography of Rosa Lewis, whose Cavendish Hotel was the favored spot from the turn of the 20th century through World War II for well-to-do adulterers seeking a discreet trysting place; visiting royalty and VIPs (including the Prince of Wales, the Churchills and the Kaiser); assorted upper-class twits, and eventually British and American soldiers returning from war physically or emotionally wounded.
Series II picks up the story in the years just before World War I, with Louisa Trotter (divorced after a brief early marriage to a drunk) getting a surprise visit from her overbearing mother, her poor dad and the brother she hasn't seen in years (played by Martin Shaw, recently seen taking over the role of Adam Dalgliesh in the P.D. James mysteries). The episode -- in which Louisa tries to be accommodating to her family while also settling of the nerves of her staff, who cannot abide the freeloaders -- sets the tone for the whole series: character comedy with an undercurrent of pain and dashed dreams.
Some episodes are outright comedy, such as a segment in which two students play a prank on their bachelor professor, while others take a deadly serious angle, such as a bit about spies staying at the Bentinck, or a gothic storyline about a nobleman's disturbed young wife who is drifting toward suicide.
Many characters come and go, but there are several threads running through the whole series: the upstairs/downstairs view of Edwardian England, the little dramas and comedies involving the maids, doorman and butler, and, most of all, the indomitable Louisa, who as played by Gemma Jones in the role of her career, is a force of nature: a woman from the lower class who can chat with royalty or rogues with equal aplomb and has little patience for layabouts, shirkers, backtalking staffers or mushy romantics. "In my opinion," she announces, "there's a lot o' rubbish talked about love."
But Louisa does have one great love in her life, the tragic figure of Charlie Lord Hazlemere (Christopher Cazenove), who returns in Series II and gives the show its greatest poignancy. The other regular cast members are the sort of effortless character actors that give the BBC its reputation: John Cater as the doorman Starr, John Welsh as the octogenarian butler Merriman, Victoria Plucknett as maid Mary, and the mutton-chopped Richard Vernon as Louisa's elderly confidant Major Toby Smith-Barton. (In one scene, the Major -- as Louisa always calls him -- expresses disdain for some loud new records playing on the hotel's victrola. Perhaps it's a nod to Vernon's most famous role, as the bowler-hatted train passenger in "A Hard Day's Night" who shuts off Ringo's transistor radio. "An elementary knowledge of the Railway Acts would tell you that I'm perfectly within my rights!")
Acorn's 4:3 transfer of the 30-year-old series is very good: clean, bright, colorful and with just an occasional hint of halo effects or shadowing. I noticed just one layer shift, near the end of the fourth episode, and some fluttering about two-thirds of the way into the sixth, but otherwise this is visually flawless, and looks as fresh as if it were made last week. In keeping with the BBC standard in the years before "Brideshead Revisited," money was spent prudently, meaning shooting was done in studio on videotape; celluloid was reserved for the rare outdoor scenes (which invariably took place in cold, damp, overcast English weather).
Again, the sound quality is true to its time. It's mostly clear and crisp, but the volume dips when characters are positioned far from the boom operator. Besides the jaunty opening and closing theme music, there is no soundtrack score; the only music heard is of the intrinsic sort, such as the aforementioned victrola moment or when characters sing around a piano. The volume on these musical interludes seems to have been turned up to 11.
Most problematic, especially for non-British viewers, are the genuine English accents that many of the actors employ. The wonderful John Welsh is particularly mumblesome, but I'm pretty sure everything he says is hilarious. You won't find a subtitles option on the DVD menu, but there is close captioning (with dialogue appearing in white type on black background bars), accessible through the menus on your television or monitor.
The main menu breaks down the three or four episodes per disc, while there are five live-action chapter indicators within each episode menu.
For such a large and important series, the lack of extras is disappointing. There's a text biography of Rosa Lewis and lists of the major actors' credits. That's it. An interview with Gemma Jones today, at the very least, should have been produced.
And, as with every "Masterpiece Theatre" series I've seen on DVD, there is no Alistair Cooke. Presumably that's due to a rights problem, since various production companies (the BBC, Thames Television, Granada, etc.) own the programs, while PBS or WGBH Boston owns the "Masterpiece Theatre" framing material. Cooke's introductions to all "MT" offerings from 1971 to 1993 are, to devoted fans, an integral part of our memory of these shows. To paraphrase Louisa Trotter's lament at the end of this series, without Cooke, things just aren't the same as they used to be.
While perhaps not as essential as the similar "Upstairs, Downstairs" in the canon of British-heritage series, "The Duchess of Duke Street" nevertheless exhibits many of the genre's best features. There is fine period detail in the costumes, production design and behavior of the characters, and impeccable writing and acting. Younger viewers may be put off by the lack of MTV-style flash in the direction and editing, but that is one of the series' charms. We feel nostalgic not just for the bygone Edwardian age depicted, but also for that lost era in television when a reaction shot or a slight zoom in on a character whose heart has just broken was a privileged moment with more force than any swish pan or shock cut. Acorn's handsome transfer captures it all.