John Hawkesworth is probably not a name that jumps out to most television viewers, at least to those who can list off the many accomplishments of people like Aaron Spelling and/or Stephen Cannell. And yet Hawkesworth is largely responsible for one of the most beloved series to ever air worldwide on the telly, the peerless Upstairs, Downstairs. The Duchess of Duke Street was Hawkesworth's follow up project and in some ways is superior to even his better known series. Like Upstairs, Downstairs, The Duchess of Duke Street parlays a remarkable story into a telling analysis of British class customs. Unlike Upstairs, Downstairs, The Duchess of Duke Street concentrates largely on one character, the title woman, one Louisa Trotter (nee Leyton), a Cockney lass born to the servant class who nonetheless manages to pull herself up by her bootstraps and become not only the greatest cook in England, but the proprietor of a well-heeled, if eccentric, hotel.
The character of Leyton is based upon one Rosa Lewis, a real-life commoner who ended up running the ritzy Cavendish Hotel in London. Hawkesworth takes the basic outlines of Lewis' life and fictionalizes them, giving his imaginary character Louisa a full-blooded backstory and a well-defined character that blossoms fully in Gemma Jones' remarkable performance. To say that Louisa is spunky is a bit of an understatement. The series is rife with episodes of Louisa "speaking out of her place," as when in an early interchange she argues with the French chef she has been hired to assist or when she takes on the household Chief of Staff when she is unfairly accused of inviting a man into her private room. She's not above arguing with members of the nobility as well, as is made abundantly clear throughout the series.
The Duchess of Duke Street traverses a roughly 25 year span, from 1900 to about 1925, following Louisa from her first job as sous-chef in the home of Lord Norton, through trysts with the Prince of Wales and Norton's dashing if rakish nephew, Charlie (an appealing Christopher Cazanove), not exactly sleeping her way up the social register but at least knowing when opportunity was knocking and not being afraid to, shall we say, take the bull by the horns. The fact that Louisa remains such a basically likable character when she is pushy, abrupt, and uppity while at the same time being not very well spoken is testament to Hawkesworth's writing and Jones' acting, both of which are spot-on throughout the 31 episodes.
The Edwardian era in England, that brief decade or so span starting the 20th century after Victoria's long reign, is the background for much of the opening episodes of The Duchess of Duke Street, and the production does an impeccable job of recreating an era of social conformity strangely out of synch with the rapidly changing world around it. It's almost comical at times to see lavish dinner parties attended to by servants clad in Restoration era pantaloons and powdered wigs. From Louisa's viewpoint, however, this is just another opportunity--with class distinctions starting to at least fray around the edges, she's able to subtly worm her way into ever greater positions of authority until she at least has dominion over her own life.
Louisa's trek is not all a bed of roses, however. Her assignations with the future King and Charlie both end in sadness, albeit with a recognition that class distinctions still held sway even as their influence was diminishing. When Louisa is more or less forced to marry in order to deflect attention from her burgeoning affair with Edward, her native instincts kick in and while she recognizes it's not a match made in heaven, or even purgatory, it's necessary for the good of all. Louisa's one nighter with Charlie brings its own set of trials, which I won't spoil here, but which opens a whole new storyline that finds fruition in the second set of episodes, leading to some rather interesting and at times terse relationships toward the end of the series.
The series is a horn of plenty of superb characterizations, not the least of which is Jones'. But all around her some great actors do pitch perfect work in a variety of roles great and small. Chief among the delights is Victoria Plucknett as Mary, who starts the series as a helpless maid in Norton's household but ends up being employed by Louisa herself at the Bentinck Hotel. The hotel itself is home to an array of decidedly eccentric personnel, chief among them Starr, portrayed beautifully by John Cater. Starr is always accompanied by his pet dog, Fred, in one of several slightly off-center additions that evidently were culled from the real Rosa Lewis' life story.
While the physical production isn't opulent by any means (it's usually relegated to one or two fairly well-heeled sets per episode), the era is faithfully recreated in both the set decorations and costuming. While there are a few establishing outdoor shots here and there, this is largely an interior-set show, and while the minimal budget is apparent from time to time, overall the production design does an outstanding job of essaying two-plus decades of changing styles.
While some of the comings and goings may be deemed a trifle melodramatic, for the most part the series is decidedly low key, with the subtle interplay of superbly drawn characters providing the gist of most of the drama. The few episodes where an "outsider" interlopes and causes some episodic friction are actually some of the weakest of the entire enterprise. The strength of this series is the core of central characters and the show's strongest moments are built around those everyday dramas that unfold when people have known each other for years and gone through various changes and struggles together. When the series concentrates on these instances, as it does almost all of the time, it provides a matchless entertainment that is spun out of the truths of the human spirit's indomitable struggle to survive and, in the case of Louisa, prosper beyond the level her "birthright" (such as it was) would have normally allowed.
This is certainly not a slam-bang, action filled series. It's a somewhat slow, quiet and occasionally meandering journey through one woman's life and times, in an era of rampant social change and a decaying class structure. While there are occasional very slight qualms about individual episodes (including the finale, which just seems to "end" with a freeze frame and no real resolution to speak of), they're very slight indeed when taken in the context of the series as a whole. Those with the patience to allow The Duchess of Duke Street to work its subtle charms will be amply repaid in one of the more engaging pseudo-biographies that has ever lit up the small screen.
For the age of the series, things are in pretty good shape overall. The full frame color image has some occasional damage and abrasion, with typical signs of a videotape master. Generally the image is quite sharp, surprisingly so for a British series, with acceptable color. The final episode of the second series ("Ain't We Got Fun") is hampered by some atrocious damage, with a troubling green and red vertical pattern traversing the entire length of the left side of the image for a lot of the episode, but that's as bad as things get here.
The DD 2.0 soundtrack is absolutely fine, with no noticeable dropouts and superb fidelity. Jones' Cockney accent can be a bit hard to decipher at times, so subtitles would have been helpful, but, alas, none are included here.
I wish a "real" documentary on Rosa Lewis had been included. Instead we get an OK, if unremarkable, text biography of her, as well as another essay on the Edwardian period itself. There are the usual cast filmographies included, too.
The Duchess of Duke Street is an enjoyable and at times thought-provoking series helmed by the simply amazing Gemma Jones as the stalwart Louisa Trotter. The series may be short on the action, and even typical drama, side, but the characters and characterizations are so strong any lover of Masterpiece Theater fare (where this originally aired stateside) will have a field day watching Louisa triumph over rather incredible odds. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet