Reviewer's Note: In the hopes, no doubt, of enticing those new viewers suddenly enthralled with British serials via the rather surprising success of Downton Abbey, Acorn Media has re-released the landmark serial, The House of Eliott, the complete collection of which I reviewed back in 2007. The only difference between these two sets is a reduction of the number of discs--now 9 instead of 12, with more episodes per disc--the addition of English subtitles, and a new printed interview with Jean Marsh. So, I'll port over my earlier review, with a few changes, and detail the new bonus material in the "Extras" section.
Mammoth, but engrossing. Acorn Media has re-released 1991's The House of Eliott: Complete Collection, encompassing the entire three-season BBC series that originally ran over in the U.K. from 1991 to 1994, now spread out on 9 discs for a total running time of over 29 hours--a large feast for lovers of British serial TV. Having seen promos for The House of Eliott when it later ran on BBC America, I wasn't exactly taken with the idea of getting involved week after week in a long-form story about the fashion industry in 1920s England. Even though I'm a huge fan of British TV, the subject matter, quite frankly, didn't interest me. Wrong again. The House of Eliott is a fascinating drama, rich and layered, and yet still broadly entertaining as only a gussied-up British period soap can be. A few new extras for this re-package are included for these okay fullframe transfers.
Created by actress Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, who also brought America the ground-breaking series Upstairs, Downstairs (certainly PBS's Masterpiece Theatre's most prestigious hit), The House of Eliott touches upon some of the same concerns that were explored in their previous collaboration: most notably the friction between the moneyed, aristocratic classes and the various descending social strata. However, The House of Eliott focuses in more closely on the notion of women's independence in that great decade of change, the 1920s, while making sure to supply plenty of "soapy" moments to get you coming back for more.
The House of Eliott, working within a standard "big novel" screenplay approach that juggles several characters over several years and through myriad emotional upheavals, manages to give a thorough (and rather harrowing) picture of just how limited women's roles were in England in the 1920s, while maintaining a sharply realized milieu in the near-perfect production design. Telling the story of sisters Beatrice (Stella Gonet) and Evangeline Eliott's (Louise Lombard) fall and rise, the series opens with the death of the girls' father, a highly respected doctor. While younger Evie openly grieves for her father, wiser, bitter older sister Bea can barely suppress her joy. Bea, used as a virtual slave to keep house and raise her younger sister (their mother died some time before, and their father was too miserly to hire help), was given no opportunities in life to escape the drudgeries of living with her penny-pinching father: no advanced schooling, no training, and certainly no work experience. And prior to his death, it appeared that Evie would suffer the same stifling life.
Sensing opportunity knocking, Bea and Evie outfit themselves in fine clothes, in anticipation of the settlement of their father's will, encouraged in the notion that they would make out handsomely by their cousin Arthur Eliott (Peter Birch), the executor of the will. Unfortunately, the women soon find out that their father left them precious little: only the house and a mountain of debt. Evidently, the spendthrift was able to come up with money for other uses, as the sisters soon find out. Their father, they soon discover, lavished money on another woman and his illegitimate son with her, while Evie and Bea went without. Eventually forced to sell the house (where they're cheated out of the full value by scheming Arthur and his controlling mother Lady Lydia Eliott (Barbara Jefford), the sisters soon realize that they must work for a living now. After several attempts at finding work, Bea finally becomes engaged working as a secretary for society photographer Jack Maddox (Aden Gillett), a good-natured bounder who catches the eye of Evie. Evie, landing a menial position with a fashion house (courtesy of Lady Lydia), works in her spare time along with Bea, in fashioning home-made clothes for themselves, which capture the admiration of everyone who sees them. Soon, the sisters realize that to become truly independent, they must strike out on their own, and create their own fashion house: "The House of Eliott."
It wouldn't be in the scope of this review to go over every plot point that occurs in The House of Eliott; after all, we're talking about almost thirty hours worth of storylines. It's a fairly eventful saga, as well, chock-full of liaisons, emotional rollercoaster rides, financial backstabbings, romantic intrigues, and all the other cliches of the soap opera genre that fans can't get enough of--especially when they're covered with a patina of English "class," and a tony accent. However, The House of Eliott does quite a bit more than just deliver high-quality suds; it's quite persuasive in detailing the suffocating plight that these two women suffered, while celebrating their hard-won emancipation.
At every turn in the story, the screenplay is entirely sympathetic to the efforts of the sisters to break out of the bonds of an English class-conscious society that granted little or no worth to them other than to be married and to be genteel (the lower class of women were treated with even less optimism; they were to be servants and/or invisible). This aspect of The House of Eliott is its most compelling; quite often with big, long, glossy soaps that follow convention without invention, you struggle to feel a rooting interest in the characters. They exist to fulfill stereotypes, and their adventures follow formula. Here, while undeniably "soapy" in construction, The House of Eliott is firmly rooted not only in a historical and societal context (the production design is nothing short of absolutely convincing), but an emotional one, as well (Lombard and particularly Gonet are convincing and quite touching in their roles, making us pull for them to succeed past their imposed, unfair limitations)
Of course, one of the chief benefits of the long, long soap format used for The House of Eliott is there's plenty of time to get to know the main characters. Scenes don't need to be rushed nor little details overlooked, to give a more complete picture of the time and place the serial producers and scripters are trying to re-create. There are times, however, where some continuity gaps do occur here (for instance, there's a scene where Evie walks in on Jack with another woman, but you never see the result of this revelation); however, amid the countless churning plot points, they're not major mistakes. I can't say I was wild about the insistent jazz score, either. On the thin side, it plays often--and often at the wrong moments, moments that should be quiet. But these are minor quibbles at best; for a sustained effort at soap opera and social commentary, The House of Eliott thoroughly succeeds.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.