The Weekend's Television: Servants: the True Story of Life Below Stairs, Fri BBC2 / Downton Abbey, Sun ITV1

 

When the producers of Channel 4's 2002 reality series The Edwardian Country House advertised for volunteers for their reconstruction of upstairs-downstairs life, they were surprised by an imbalance in the responses.

Their assumption had been that virtually everyone would want to be a toff and they'd be scraping around for servants. In fact, out of 8,000 respondents only 500 wanted to be the overdogs. The other 7,500 either knew their place, or knew that any higher station would have been historically unlikely. Because, as Dr Pamela Cox explained at the beginning of Servants: the True Story of Life Below Stairs, more people worked in service than worked in industry or on the land. If your ancestors had anything to do with a big house, it was overwhelmingly likely that they went in by the servants' entrance.

The subtitle of Servants – and the promise that Cox was going "to dispel the nostalgia and fantasies that we have about domestic service" – turned out to be a bit of a millstone around her neck. Because what she had to tell us broadly seemed to align with what we've already learned from Downton Abbey: the servants were obsessed with status, lived in a condition of curious intimacy with their notional superiors and were worked like dogs. In fact, last night's Downton included a scene that might have been developed out of one of Cox's footnotes, when Daisy is firmly reminded that she is supposed to eat in the kitchen with Mrs Patmore, rather than with the other staff in the servants' dining room. You waited for The Truth, capitalised into revelation, and all you got was the truth you already broadly knew.

Which didn't mean it wasn't interesting, or that Cox didn't gently undercut the Downton implication that there is always time to stop and exchange words about the latest psychodrama. A large house like Erddig Hall in north Wales would consume three tons of coal a week, produce 600 items of laundry and require the kitchens to feed up to 30 people four times a day. And ensuring that this juggernaut of privilege didn't grind to a halt meant a working day of up to 17 hours for most of its staff. At Erddig, Cox inspected the "loyalty portraits" displayed in a downstairs corridor – photographs of the staff adorned with condescending rhymes about those depicted, written by their employers. And again the detail here almost exactly foreshadowed a scene in this week's Downton Abbey, with a tart set of couplets about the un-regretted resignation of an Erddig ladies' maid prefiguring a drawing-room exchange about Miss O'Brien's rumoured plan to leave.

"I will watch her departure with mixed emotions," said Cora. There are no other kind in Downton, of course, happiness and misery, hopelessness and relief being vigorously churned up by Julian Fellowes every week, as if he's whipping up cake batter. So, no sooner have we got poor frumpy little Edith to the altar than Sir Anthony comes over all self-sacrificing and refuses to marry her, on the unconvincing grounds that she'll be much happier jilted. And having dug his heels in about his legacy, Matthew receives a posthumous letter from his beneficiary so magically convenient in its contents ("Please do not allow any grief, guilt or regret to hold you back in its employment") that even Fellowes seems to have felt embarrassed. "Are you sure you didn't write it?" he had Matthew ask Lady Mary, voicing the suspicion in before those of us sitting at home got to it. Mrs Hughes, you may or may not care to know, does not have cancer, though this happy news was naturally held back until Cora had been able to display the unhesitating kindness and charity with which the Crawleys always treat their ailing staff. Perhaps Dr Cox should have a crack at "Masters: the True Story of Life Above Stairs" if she wants to confront historical fantasy.

twitter.com/tds153

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?