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


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The Independent Culture

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.