sat 21/09/2019

Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs, BBC Two

Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs, BBC Two

Dr Pamela Cox fronts an illuminating documentary about those who served

Pamela Cox: an archetypal English rose

At boarding school in the mid-1970s Matron – a grey-haired, sharp-beaked stick of a woman who put the fear of God into us – would often remark: “Remember, boys, always be polite to the lower orders.” She was referring to the army of cleaning and kitchen staff who kept the lino lethally polished and our stomachs full of stodge. It was as if the swinging Sixties had never happened. Even when the power was cut off during the winter of discontent there was always plenty of hired help to light the candles.

Such archaic sentiment, even though the peasants have revolted, can still be found in leafy corners of our green and pleasant land. Social distinction – knowing one’s place – is as old society itself: I’m better than you. The first part of Servants opened at Erddig Hall in Wales. Dr Pamela Cox, an archetypal English rose, informed us that a century ago 1.5m people were in service – more than worked in industry or on the land. It soon became clear than service was just a polite word for servitude.

While some nobs took a more benevolent approach, the burgeoning middle classes could not afford to be so accommodating

A hall boy – the lowest of the low – was expected to trim 300 lamps and polish 60 pairs of boots before the other domestics even got up – something that would get on anyone’s wick. Below stairs was ruled by the butler, the housekeeper and the cook who all had their own minions to boss about. It wasn’t enough to be seen and not heard by those upstairs: at Petworth House in Sussex a tunnel was dug so that slaves did not spoil the view. Inside the house hidden passages and secret doors allowed the maids to draw baths and make beds without disturbing their mistresses. “Look,” said Dr Cox, climbing a tight and dingy staircase, “scuff-marks of slop buckets!”

We have, of course, been here before. The word “Downton” was conspicuous in its absence. However, the reality revealed through contemporary portraits, diaries and letters – the good Doctor’s tablet rendering a rostrum camera obsolete – exposed the rose-tinted view of domestic life in the romantic soap. Servants were expected to be clean in body and mind – hanky-panky, never mind rumpy-pumpy, was met with instant dismissal.

While some nobs took a more benevolent approach, the burgeoning middle classes – who had to have at least one drudge to prove they had “made it” – could not afford to be so accommodating. Jane Carlyle, wife of author Thomas, got through 34 maids in 32 years which surely says more about her than them. Paranoia about the kitchen devils partying whilst their masters were out resulted in a satirical work titled The Greatest Plague of Life becoming an instant bestseller. Nothing changes that much. Filipinos and Poles may be the new proles but how long is it since you heard someone say: “You can’t get the staff”?

If there was an air of familiarity about much of what Dr Cox had to say, the programme came alive when she injected a personal note into the commentary. Both her great-grandmothers had been in service: being in a bare basement room similar to those they would have had to work and sleep in clearly moved her.

My own grandmother was a kitchen maid in Eaton Square, Belgravia, when she was 16 years old. Sixty years later, after a romantic dinner, I found myself in a clinch in one of its stuccoed mansions. The thought of Gran’s once lowly position there added a frisson to the occasion. Talk about upward mobility.

A century ago 1.5m people were in service – more than worked in industry or on the land

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